watkins glen ny

Watkins Glen, New York: Ultimate Local’s Guide for Visitors [2023]

Just a tiny village at the southern tip of Seneca Lake in Upstate New York‘s Finger Lakes region, Watkins Glen, New York might seem like any other small town. Don’t be fooled: this small town is home to some of the very best places to visit in New York State.

In our ultimate visitor’s guide to Watkins Glen, New York you’ll find everything you need to plan your visit, from information about hiking the town’s famous gorge to where to eat in Watkins Glen and the countless other things to do in the area. Watkins Glen is a hidden gem that will make you fall even more in love with the Finger Lakes – here’s how to enjoy your visit.

watkins glen seneca lake

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Watkins Glen

The historic town of Watkins Glen is everything you’re looking for in a visit to the Finger Lakes. Stunning landscapes, lakefront walkways, great food, and delicious local beer and wine means there is plenty to do here for every type of visit to the Finger Lakes.

Despite all its attractive features, Watkins Glen is most well known for its incredible gorge, with a river that slices through the landscape leaving numerous waterfalls along its path before feeding into Seneca Lake. Its dramatic landscapes and relatively accessible hiking make it among the most visited spots in the region. The Finger Lakes are packed with gorges, but none are like this.

Watkins Glen is also home to the Watkins Glen International racetrack, which draws NASCAR drivers and their adoring fans to cup events every year. This decades-old racetrack is a must-see for car enthusiasts and offers incredible experiences whether your visit coincides with a race or not.

In addition to all there is to see and do here, Watkins Glen is just generally a charming destination in general. Even as a longtime local who grew up exploring the Finger Lakes, I was pleasantly surprised to rediscover Watkins Glen on my most recent visit. Great food, cool breweries, stunning Seneca Lake views, and incredible outdoor activities make it a highlight among so many others across Upstate New York.

Read More: 10 Best Hotels in the Finger Lakes Region

Is Watkins Glen Worth A Visit?

Whether you’re drawn to Watkins Glen for its gorges, wineries, or its stunning waterfront, Watkins Glen is well worth a visit. The Finger Lakes region is filled with stunning sites and places to visit, but take it from a long-time local: Watkins Glen is one of the best places from which to explore the entire region.

In our opinion, Watkins Glen is one of the ultimate gems of the Finger Lakes and all of Upstate New York, plain and simple. Stay at the Watkins Glen / Corning KOA Resort or at one of the area’s charming bed & breakfasts for a long weekend – you’ll love it.

watkins glen gorge trail

Watkins Glen State Park

The 778-acre Watkins Glen State Park, home to a gorge considered among the most dramatic in a region with too many gorges to count, is the number one draw for most visitors looking to visit Watkins Glen, New York. Pictures just don’t do justice to the 400-foot gorge that slices through the landscape as it cuts its course toward Seneca Lake; you have to experience this awe-inspiring site for yourself.

In 2015, the park was awarded a top three spot on USA Today’s list of the best state parks in the entire country. It’s just one of the numerous awards that highlight the park’s stunning natural beauty. The 1.5-mile-long gorge includes 19 impressive waterfalls, with its final falls being the most impressive. Soaring cliffs surround much of the walk, reaching to over 200 feet above the water at some particularly dramatic spots in the gorge.

The park boasts beautiful hiking trails along the river and on both rims of the gorge, as well as spots for tent and RV camping, as well as numerous rustic cabins for rent.

Hiking in Watkins Glen State Park

There are three main trails in Watkins Glen State Park: the North Rim Trail, the South Rim Trail, and the famed Gorge Trail that cuts just along the water along the park’s 19 impressive waterfalls. The Gorge Trail is a must for any visitor, and at just 1.5 miles, it is relatively easy to complete – moderately challenging at best, though you’ll need to navigate stairs and the occasionally wet trail.

watkins glen state park

Watkins Glen State Park – Visitors Information

We were very impressed on our last visit to the park with all the easily accessible information and amenities for visitors – much more so than you’ll find at nearby state parks. Watkins Glen State Park is very well set up to receive visitors, especially at the entrance from the center of town where you’ll find plenty of maps and information and a visitors center open during the day.

Keep in mind that while the Gorge Trail isn’t technically too challenging or taxing, it has some areas that can be a bit perilous, near ledges and falling water, which means the trek should be completed with caution. Dogs are not allowed on the Gorge Trail.

Park Entrances

There are three main points of entry to Watkins Glen State Park. The main entrance is found just off of Franklin Street in downtown Watkins Glen, just a short walk to the base of the most dramatic falls in the park. Alternatively, the Upper Entrance at the start of the gorge and the South Entrance are great places to start your visit, especially if you’re visiting with a car and need parking.

From any of these three entrances, you’ll be able to complete the entire Gorge Trail, by far the most famous trail in the park.

Hours & Seasonal Closures

Watkins Glen State Park is open year-round from sunrise to sunset with access to the north and south rim trails, which offer some views of the park’s waterfalls but aren’t as famous as the Gorge Trail.

The Gorge Trail remains a seasonal trail due to issues with safety during the colder months when wet trails can freeze and become perilous. Make sure to check before your visit, but this trail usually opens for the season in May and closes in mid to late October.


The park is free to all visitors, though there is a $10 per vehicle entrance fee for using the parking lot. Additionally, there is a shuttle bus available with a $6-per-person one-way fee if you’d like to visit other parts of the park without vehicle access.


Watkins Glen State Park offers camping spots for tents and trailers, as well as offering a number of cabins. However, Watkins Glen State Park is locally notorious for booking up all its camping spots many months in advance. We’ve missed out on camping here several summers in a row due to the park’s immense popularity among the gorges in the Finger Lakes, so make sure to book far in advance online before your stay.

We recommend booking your stay instead at Watkins Glen / Corning KOA Resort, which is just five minutes up the road from the state park. This KOA property has incredible amenities like free wifi, an indoor swimming pool, a laundromat, multiple playgrounds, and so much more, making it a real treat for families but more than appealing whether you’re camping in a tent or an RV.

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things to do in watkins glen

Things To Do in Watkins Glen

Of course, no visit to Watkins Glen is complete without hiking the Gorge Trail within Watkins Glen State Park. It’s the number one reason to visit Watkins Glen, after all. However, you’ll find plenty more to do here as well, including these favorites:

1. Walk Along the Waterfront

If you’re visiting Watkins Glen during the warmer months, strolling through town and along the Seneca Lake waterfront is its own special treat. From the pier, you’ll get stunning views across Seneca Lake and the surrounding hillside, which is particularly impressive as the leaves start to change in the fall.

Grab an ice cream and walk down to the pier for one of the prettiest spots in town, or enjoy a drink at Horseheads Brewing in their outdoor patio space during the summer for the perfect end to an evening.

2. Visit the Watkins Glen International Raceway

Beyond its spectacular gorges, Watkins Glen has another claim to fame: the Watkins Glen International racetrack, known as “The Glen.” Years ago, the track hosted nemours IndyCar and Formula One races, including the Formula One United States Grand Prix race, but now it hosts NASCAR Cup races.

Visitors are welcome to stop by Watkins Glen International and can even drive their own vehicles around the track on days when the track isn’t closed for events. This is a blast for any car fan, so make sure to add a Drive the Glen experience to your itinerary when you’re in town.

watkins glen wine tour

3. Visit Local Wineries

The Finger Lakes region is known for its wine, drawing countless visitors every year who want to spend a day exploring the endless wineries in the area. Watkins Glen is in the heart of the very best part of the wine region – in fact, the wineries along Seneca Lake are considered by wine experts to be the best in the Finger Lakes.

There are plenty of wine tours that depart from Watkins Glen as well as the surrounding towns that include transportation to some of the best wineries in the area. Or, visit with a designated driver and visit the favorite spots on your own. Our favorite is Ravine’s Wine Cellars on the north end of Seneca Lake near Geneva.

If wine isn’t your thing, don’t worry. There are plenty of craft breweries and cideries in the area as well. Finger Lakes Cider House between Seneca and Cayuga Lakes is a particular favorite, while Ithaca Beer Co. is an absolute MUST if you’re anywhere near Ithaca.

4. Take a Cruise on Seneca Lake

It wouldn’t be a visit to the Finger Lakes region without getting out on the water. There are several cruise options in town offering sails on Seneca Lake, but Captain Bill’s is by far the most popular. Scenic cruises on this majestic 270-passenger ship run daily during the warmer months of the year, and the ship also offers dinner cruises if you’re looking for a particularly memorable outing.

Where To Stay in Watkins Glen

Aside from a few charming bed & breakfasts, the accommodation options in Watkins Glen consist of a few simple hotels and a few great camping options. Camping spots at Watkins Glen State Park, including spots for both tents and RVs, tend to be booked up many months in advance, so if you’re planning to camp during your stay opt for Watkins Glen / Corning KOA Resort, located just minutes away.

These are the best places to stay in Watkins Glen for your visit:

Watkins Glen / Corning KOA Resort

Located just minutes from Watkins Glen State Park, Watkins Glen / Corning KOA Resort is our top pick for the best campsite in the Finger Lakes. Offering spaces for tent campers and those driving RVs as well as numerous cabins, this campsite offers all the amenities you love from Kampgrounds of America (KOA) destinations around the country and then some!

We were extremely impressed with the amenities at the Watkins Glen / Corning KOA Resort. Multiple playgrounds, an impressive array of daily activities, a massive waterslide, and more all make this a dream destination for traveling families. Benefits like free wifi, a laundromat, an indoor pool, and a fitness center make it the perfect place for those looking for a longer stay, especially those traveling in an RV.

While this KOA Resort is a perfect fit for those traveling in an RV or on extended stays, we stayed in a tent during our visit and had an incredible time. It’s our top pick for a stay in Watkins Glen, no matter how you’re traveling.

Reviews and Bookings: Watkins Glen / Corning KOA Resort

Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel

For visitors looking to enjoy the beauty and charm of Watkins Glen without necessarily staying at a campsite, Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel is our top recommendation. One of the best hotels in the Finger Lakes, Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel is conveniently located in the heart of town and just a stone’s throw from Seneca Lake.

Outdoor fire pits along the water make this hotel particularly fun for a summertime stay, while the views overlooking the lake are impressive any time of the year.

Reviews and Bookings: Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel

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where to eat in watkins glen

Where To Eat in Watkins Glen

Upstate Brewing Company

Long a regional favorite, Upstate Brewing Company is a beloved brewery with a new outpost in the center of Watkins Glen that is officially the place to be.

Plenty of picnic tables outside and lawn games like corn hole make it a popular hangout in the summer. The Good Eats food truck in the parking lot serves up delicious burgers, fries, and other treats like lobster rolls in the summertime, meaning you could easily spend hours here.

Nickel’s Pit BBQ

The best place to eat in Watkins Glen is Nickel’s Pit BBQ – hands down! Located along the main thoroughfare in Watkins Glen, Nickel’s has homemade sauces with a local cult following. You can’t really go wrong with any of the menu items here, though the Carolina pulled pork sandwiches are worth coming back for.

If you’re visiting Watkins Glen during the summertime, the front patio at Nickel’s is sure to be packed. Even on weekdays, this place can get busy, though it’s well worth the wait – we promise!

Graft Wine + Cider Bar

Tucked along the main street that cuts through Watkins Glen, Graft Wine + Cider Bar is a tiny, charming restaurant with a surprisingly impressive fine dining menu that sets it apart from every other eatery in town. There are plenty of local and important wines and ciders to accompany every dish.

Graft Wine + Cider Bar is a little on the pricier side but offers an excellent dining experience, certainly the nicest in Watkins Glen.

Tobey’s Donut Shop

Forget Dunkin’ Donuts and run to Tobey’s Donut Shop for breakfast. This old-school donut shop in the heart of the village of Watkins Glen offers delicious fresh donuts and pastries as well as diner food. Their breakfast sandwiches are incredible, but you really can’t go wrong with any of the handmade pastries that have made this spot such a local favorite.

carley rojas avila

Carley Rojas Avila is a bilingual New York-based travel writer, editor, content marketer, and the founder of the digital travel publications Explorers Away and Home to Havana. Carley is an expert on all things Latin America, the Caribbean, and Cuba, having lived and worked in four different countries in the region. Her writing has appeared on the Associated Press wires and in Travel + Leisure, Yahoo, MSN, Euronews, The Weather Channel, and more. When she's not writing about her travels, find her front row at a Bad Bunny concert, befriending street cats, and taste-testing every pizza in Havana.