Saturday, August 11, 2018

A Journey Through the Watkins Glen Gorge

Watkins Glen State Park is a relatively small park in west-central New York that features an absolutely beautiful shale gorge filled with waterfalls and other wonderful geologic formations. I visited back in early June of this year to hike the gorge and see the sights. In my last post, I did a relatively deep-dive into the geological history of the region and the gorge to put the park into context. If you're a geology buff, I highly recommend checking it out: The Geology of Watkins Glen State Park. This post, however, will examine what the park is like today. So let's go on a pictorial journey down the gorge!

Watkins Glen State Park Spiral Gorge
Beginning of the Spiral Gorge section.
There are several trails at Watkins Glen State Park, including some that go along the edge of the gorge walls, some that connect the gorge with the top of the gorge, and—of course—the trail that follows the gorge itself. The Gorge Trail comes in at around 1.5 miles long. You can access the trail from either the Upper Entrance, which sits at around 1010 feet above sea level, or the Main Entrance, which sits at around 490 feet above sea level. This post will follow the flow of Glen Creek as it cuts its way down the gorge, so we will be going down in elevation. We'll start half a mile down the trail at Mile Point Bridge. Mile Point Bridge (called such as it is a mile up from the end of the gorge) crosses Glen Creek as it begins to enter a section of the Gorge known as Spiral Gorge.

Watkins Glen State Park Pluto Falls
Spiral Gorge is an extremely narrow section of the main gorge that is more reminiscent of the slot canyons out in the American Southwest than anything I've seen in the East. The main waterfall of this section is called Pluto Falls, and it's the small waterfall pictured above. With Spiral Gorge being as narrow as it is, not much light reaches it. This coupled with the steepness of the walls means only the hardiest of mosses can grow on the shale. The darkness and lack of life gave rise to the name Pluto Falls, as Pluto (better known as Hades in the original Greek myths) was the Roman God of the underworld.

Watkins Glen State Park Rainbow Falls
Spiral Gorge soon lets out into a more open section of the Gorge. This immediate section contains the "crown jewel" of Watkins Glen State Park: Rainbow Falls. You can't tell, but this picture was taken from atop a bridge that crosses a big cascade—in fact, you can just see the end of the cascade at the bottom center. The thin waterfall in the center right is the famous Rainbow Falls. As you can see, the water runs down a slick section of the cliffside before falling into the bottom of the gorge. You can also see that the trail actually run behind the waterfall as well. You might be thinking that it doesn't look like much—and you are right, at least from this angle. The view from coming up the gorge is much more spectacular than from going down.

Watkins Glen State Park Rainbow Falls and Triple Falls
If you walk a bit further down, and then turn around, you're rewarded with the most-famously seen angle of Rainbow Falls and the Triple Falls cascade right by it (as well as the bridge the previous photo was taken from). If you look at the Google results for "Watkins Glen State Park," you'll quickly notice that almost all the photo results are of Rainbow Falls from this general angle. It's a common photo, but one that I was longing to take for years, and one that I'm happy I have my own of. I know people sometimes wonder why photographers take photos of places that have been photographed thousands upon thousands of times, especially if it's of the same feature. A lot of times, it comes down to the photographer wanting to have their own version of it, even if thousands of others have essentially the same photo.

Watkins Glen State Park Under Rainbow Falls
The Gorge Trail is fantastic, and one of the unique features of the 1.5 mile trail is not only that you get to see 19+ waterfalls, but you get to walk behind 2 of them! Rainbow Falls is one of the two waterfalls the trail passes behind, and expect to get wet when you go through it. Also, don't forget to tuck away your camera gear.

Watkins Glen State Park Rainbow Falls and Glen of Pools
Just downstream from Rainbow Falls is a section of the gorge called the "Glen of Pools." This section is filled with several potholes and plungepools, one of which you can see at the bottom of the photo above. Potholes and plungepools form from different sets of geological processes, but the end results are similar in appearance: a deep, circular depression carved into the rock. There are two main ways a pothole can form. One way involves the rapid flow of water coming around a curve and forming an eddy. The water will carry sand and pebbles, and over time these rocks will get caught in the eddy and swirl around for a bit. When they swirl around, they carve a pothole. Given more time, the pothole gets larger and larger. Another way involves joints, which I talked about in my last post. If a pebble being carried by the water gets dropped into a joint, the water will swirl that pebble (and others) around in the joint, forming a circular depression over time. The circular depression in the bottom of the picture above, for example, is a pothole.

Plungepools, on the other hand, are associated with waterfalls. Essentially, when water (and any sediments the water is carrying) plunges over a waterfall, the water will hit the bedrock directly underneath the waterfall. Over time, this force essentially digs out a circular depression underneath the waterfall.

Watkins Glen State Park Geology
Further yet downstream, the gorge enters a section that is relatively flat and wide. Why the change? Even though all the rocks exposed in the Watkins Glen Gorge belong to a formation called the Genesee Group, there are hundreds of sub-layers within the formation. Some of these layers are softer or harder than others. The layer exposed in the creek bed above, for example, is harder than other parts of the formation. Because of this, Glen Creek was able to erode down to this harder layer, but was "having trouble" eroding past it; instead, the water followed the path of least resistance and traveled horizontally along the harder layer instead of down and through it. Although after a while this changes once the water does encounter a softer layer that it can more easily erode. At that point, the vertical drops continue!

Watkins Glen State Park Cavern Cascade
As you travel further downstream, you run into what is—in my opinion, at least—the most spectacular formation in the gorge. This is Cavern Cascade. It's a massive waterfall (although not the largest in the park still) that spills out into a deep pool. 

Watkins Glen State Park Walk Behind Cavern Cascade
Your blogger by Cavern Cascade.
Cavern Cascade is also the other waterfall that the trail passes behind. There's a much great volume of water passing in this waterfall, and the roaring sound of the water as it reverberates around the cavernous opening is spectacular to behold. 

Watkins Glen State Park Behind Cavern Cascade
If you stand behind the Cavern Cascade waterfall, you get a real sense of the erosional power of water, and you get to see the impacts this power has had as you stare out over this section of the gorge. All the changes in topography you see in the photo above is due to water and what it does over time.

Watkins Glen State Park Waterfalls
Just downstream from Cavern Cascade—which you can see peeking around in the top portion of the photo—is another, but unnamed, waterfall. At this point in time, the gorge is almost over...

Hiking Watkins Glen State Park
Glen Creek runs through one more narrow, slot-canyon-like section of the gorge, once again highlighting the erosional power of water. This section of the gorge also distinctly highlights the layering found in the Genesee Group.

Watkins Glen State Park Hanging Valley
With one more waterfall, Glen Creek spills out into a wide section of the gorge directly looking into Seneca Valley. Just to the left in this main valleyout of sight in this photo—is Seneca Lake, the largest and deepest of the Finger Lakes. This part of Watkins Glen State Park is the Main Entrance, and it is indeed the main way people enter the park. The town of Watkins Glen is located right outside the gorge opening. The Main Entrance also contains a gift shop and welcome center for the park.
Watkins Glen State Park Trail
Looking back toward the gorge, you would never know what lies in wait from this angle. If you ever find yourself in the Finger Lakes Region, do yourself a favor and visit Watkins Glen State Park. If you do, I have a few tips. There is no entrance fee, but there is a parking fee. However, there is free street parking if you don't mind walking a couple hundred yards extra. Also, get there early. I arrived at 6 AM sharp, and it was literally only me and one other early-rising photographer for the first two hours or so. For a park that attracts over 700,000 people a year, having to share the park with only one other person is fantastic. This park does get busy as the day goes on, but an early visit means you get the park almost to yourself! Also, if you're a photographer, you need a tripod to take decent photos of the gorge. There is plenty of room for a tripod on the wide rock walls of the trail, so you don't need to worry about taking up room on the trail.

As a friend of mine who used to work at Watkins Glen State Park would say: come visit! It's gorge-ous.


  1. Thanks for the wonderful and enlightening two part write up. I was looking through some of my photos and see the dark sections of the canyon on the top and the lighter sections below. If the dark sections were formed during periods of oxygen free atmosphere wouldn't it be the other way around?

  2. How deep are the plung holes?