Watkins Glen State Park in the Finger Lakes region of New York features a stunning gorge and many picturesque waterfalls. The narrow gorge reaches up to 400 feet in depth and 19 waterfalls exist on Glen Creek as it descends through the gorge. The park is popular with tourists and photographers and it has a very unique feel to it, which is great for getting interesting photographs. This article will serve as a guide to help photographers with planning visits to Watkins Glen.
Watkins Glen State Park covers more than 700 acres, with the gorge and Glen Creek being the center of activity. The upper section of the park is open woodlands.
There are three main entrances to the park: the Main Entrance, the Upper Entrance, and the South Entrance. And there are three main trails within the park: the Gorge Trail, the Indian Trail, and the South Rim Trail. You can reach any of the trails by starting at any of the entrances, but it is best to know where you want to go ahead of time. You can find a trail map here.
The Gorge Trail is the main draw of the park. The Indian Trail and the South Rim Trail run along the top of the gorge. They do provide some nice scenery as well, but nothing compared to what you will find on the Gorge Trail.
On the Gorge Trail you’ll experience the 19 waterfalls of the park, plus beautiful views of the gorge and the cascading creek. The trail is very well maintained and includes more than 800 steps in about a mile and a half. Although there are a lot of steps, it’s not a grueling hike, especially since you will be stopping frequently to take photographs.
→ Related reading: Photographer’s Guide to Letchworth State Park
Much of the trail is stone with small stone walls separating the trail from the creek. In many places you can put a tripod right on top of the stone wall. The trail itself is not all that wide, so when the crowds are large it can be helpful to be able to put a tripod on the wall instead of blocking traffic on the trail.
The Gorge Trail also includes a few tunnels that have been carved out of the rock, as well as a few bridges. At Cavern Cascade (shown below) the trail actually goes behind the waterfall.
→ Related reading: 10 Tips for Fabulous Waterfall Photography
When to Visit
When it comes to planning your visit, the most important thing to note is that while the park is open year round, the trails are closed in the winter. Typically they are open mid-May through early November, but you can call the park office or check the website to verify if they are open.
Generally the highest volume of water will be in the spring, so that is a great time to see and photograph the creek and falls. Fall is also a spectacular time because of the autumn colors. I would recommend avoiding the summer, if possible, because this is a very popular park and the trails get crowded in the summer. My preference is a week day during the spring or fall, which helps to avoid the crowds.
Tips for Photographing Watkins Glen
Start at the Main Entrance
Although you can access the trails from any entrance, I prefer to use the Main Entrance to access the gorge. Here you will start at the bottom of the gorge and the trail will lead you upstream, passing all of the waterfalls along the way. When you reach the end you can either take the Indian Trail back, or just turn around and return on the gorge trail.
The GPS coordinates for the Main Entrance are: 42.37581, -76.87136
I mentioned that my preference is to visit the park on a weekday either in the spring or fall. This will help you to avoid the largest crowds, but the park is popular enough that the trails can still be kind of crowded even on these days. If you’re like me you want to have the place to yourself, as much as possible, and avoid getting people in your shots.
When the trail is packed it is virtually impossible to photograph some of the waterfalls without getting other people in your shots. The area around Rainbow Falls tends to get very crowded, and this is also the most iconic photograph of the park.
My advice is to arrive at the park as soon as it opens (sunrise) and immediately head to Rainbow Falls, if that is the photograph that you’re after. Last month I took this approach and it was just me and another photographer there shortly after sunrise. There were a few people hiking the trail, but you could easily wait a minute for them to pass and get a clean shot. Just two hours later the trail was crowded and this particular spot had a row of many people photographing the falls, and there was no way to avoid people in the shot.
After spending about 20 minutes at Rainbow Falls I continued and photographed the rest of the Gorge Trail and hiked the Indian Trail. If you arrive early you can beat the crowds to just about any spot in the park.
Try to Visit on an Overcast Day
The best time to photograph the falls is on a cloudy, overcast day. Sunny days can make it difficult to photograph waterfalls, and the deep narrow gorge also causes harsh shadows on sunny days.
Also in the Area
There are plenty of other places to see and photograph within a short drive of Watkins Glen. On my recent trip I spent a morning at Watkins Glen, then made a quick trip to Taughannock Falls State Park (about a 30 minute drive) and then headed west to Letchworth State Park (less than a 2 hour drive). Watkins Glen is also only about 30 minutes from Robert H. Treman State Park and many other waterfalls in the Ithaca area. See our list of the Best Places in New York to Photograph for even more places to visit.
Telephoto Lens – A telephoto lens is helpful for capturing the fine details of the gorge and waterfalls without leaving the trail (in most places you can’t leave the trail).
Tripod – You’ll need a sturdy tripod to be able to get quality photos within the gorge. At most times it can be rather dark within the gorge so you won’t be able to use a fast shutter speed and hand-hold the camera.
Rain Gear – You can get wet hiking on the Gorge Trail because some of the waterfalls flow right next to the trail. That also means that your camera and gear can also get wet. I recommend bring rain gear to protect your camera in case you want to photograph from an area that has some spray of dripping water. It’s also not a bad idea to have a rain jacket to keep yourself dry.
Polarizer – A polarizer can be helpful for cutting down on glare coming off the water and wet rocks.
Lens Wipes – With spray coming off of the waterfalls you may need to clean your lens.
Hiking Boots or Shoes – Photographing Watkins Glen requires some hiking. You’ll want to have shoes with good grip, especially in areas with wet stones on the trail.
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