I never had an answer to the question “What is your favorite place you’ve ever visited?” until I visited Watkins Glen State Park. I have always loved waterfalls but the Gorge Trail through this park took it to a whole new level. At the end of my first visit to this New York state park I stood at an unbelievably gorgeous circular pool carved into the moss covered rock and watched water rushing through from waterfall to waterfall. Turns out this wasn’t even the best part of the trail.
It was late on a chilly autumn evening when I discovered this state park on a road trip across New York. Parking was free since it was so late, but I had also lost the sunlight in the bottom of the deep gorge. That was fine with me; I had no idea what to expect other than a leisure hike along the trail. I’m always glad to have my expectations shattered by new discoveries.
I packed my usual camera gear for a hike like this, strapped the bag securely to my back, and headed toward the Main Entrance trail head. I didn’t even hike for three minutes before I was already pulling the bag off my back, whipping out the tripod, and capturing my first photo of a waterfall. If I were back in a literature class in high school I would have called this foreshadowing.
The Gorge Trail is 2.4-miles roundtrip with a gently 500′ climb in elevation from the Main Entrance to the Upper Entrance. Well maybe it’s not always a gentle climb; the trail features several staircases carved and constructed along the stone walls of the gorge to seamlessly blend with the natural environment. At just about every staircase was a waterfall tumbling down rocks or over a ledge.
It was actually quite difficult to get any hiking done. I chatted with a couple from Germany just after crossing the first bridge on the trail (the bridge is within sight of the parking lot). But by the time I had climbed through a circular staircase at at the Cavern Cascade they had already made the roundtrip hike and were headed back to their car. I had barely walked a half mile.
The pathway is a combination of concrete and stone blended together. It gets a bit slippery after a good rain and sometimes from the splashing of a nearby waterfall. But it’s still a safe and easy hike, although unfortunately it is severely not handicap accessible. There are no fences or walls that block the gorgeous views and only occasionally a half-height wall to keep people safely on the trail.
So back to my first adventure in this park. I arrived just an hour before sunset and I spent the first halfway hour capturing photos of two waterfalls. I was quickly losing the light and I didn’t want to walk on these slippery paths in the dark. I climbed one staircase after another, sometimes only a few steps and sometimes an entire flight of stairs, until I came to a gorgeous scene.
I pulled out all the gear once again and captured a photo of water trickling down one cascade after another into a circular pool. The rocks were covered with vibrant orange and yellow fallen leaves. It was absolutely quiet save for the echoes of trickling water. A footbridge crossed over the water and continued along the opposite side of the gorge. This would be as far as I would make it the first night. I left feeling satisfied and incredibly happy.
Little did I know I was just around the corner from the most beautiful waterfall in the entire gorge. But it was getting darker by the minute so I had to leave. Before even turning around I had decided I would come back the next morning. That’s one of the beautiful things about road trips living in a camper van: flexibility.
The next morning I eagerly returned to the park and started up the Gorge Trail once again. A light rain drifted through the gorge. It only took about fifteen minutes to reach the same point that had taken me an hour the night before. I crossed the footbridge and continued up the trail around the next curve.
And there it was. The scene that took my breath away and cemented this park in my mind as the most beautiful place I had ever visited. The trail continued along the gorge wall on the left and just a few hundred feet ahead climbed a flight of stairs and crossed the gorge on a beautiful stone footbridge. Beneath the bridge water cascaded down smooth rocks into one, two, three separate pools of water. The final pool was the largest, a strange twisted oblong shape. Those same vibrant orange and yellow leaves covered the dark rocks, creating the kind of contrast only seen in Thomas Kincaid paintings.
It took me a few minutes before I could finally bring myself to start capturing some photos. Water was pouring off the ledge high above the trail and covering the entire area in a torrential downpour. I used my rain jacket to cover the camera and snapped away. And I wasn’t alone; there were three other people there with various ranges of amateur and professional photography gear. I met Jennifer Dominguez and immediately became a fan of her photography (and yes quite a bit jealous).
Road trips are nice because of their flexibility but I eventually had to leave this place behind. I could have spent days here. I could have spent the entire month here. But I wanted to see the rest of the fall colors along the Appalachian Mountains so I knew I had to leave. But after all this time I have not once forgotten about Watkins Glen State Park and I have vowed: of all the places on my travel bucket list I want to return to, this park will always be at the top.
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