Once a vacation destination of the elite including John D. Rockefeller, Watkins Glen is nestled within the vineyards and wineries on the shores of New York’s Seneca Lake. The Finger Lake region is home to ten other gorgeous lakes, over 100 wineries, distilleries, and craft breweries. You will find friendly towns and magnificent views everywhere.
Sitting between Niagara Falls and New York City is Watkins Glen, New York. It is the perfect village to visit for activities in the beautiful Finger Lakes Region.
Things To Do In Watkins Glen
There are various things to do for every type of traveler in this village of about 2,000 people. From visiting the third best state park in the nation according to USA Today to driving around a racetrack, the 50+ traveler is sure to find plenty to do.
Let’s look at some of the activities to enjoy in the Watkins Glen area.
1. Visit Watkins Glen State Park
While the region is full of scenic natural areas and spectacular sites, Watkins Glen State Park is my favorite. It is considered to be the most popular and beautiful of all the Finger Lakes State Parks.
Located in the village of Watkins Glen, there are scheduled tours during the summer months. There are also picnic facilities and campsites.
According to USA Today, Watkins Glen State Park is one of the top state parks in America. A stream gushes through the two-mile-long glen, and there are 19 waterfalls along the course as it drops 400 feet past 200-foot vertical cliffs. The trail runs over and under waterfalls, past cliffs, and between rocks and lush greenery. There is also an 85-foot high suspension bridge at one point as you hike the trail. You overlook the gorge in a variety of spots.
You can walk behind some of the falls. Rainbow Falls is the most famous and is one of the four named falls in the park. Located above the 60-foot Central Cascade, if you visit on a sunny day as the sunlight glimmers on the falls, you will see a rainbow.
During the summer, visitors can also enjoy an Olympic-size pool.
The entire area is very scenic. The day I visited, it poured rain, and Watkins Glen State Park was still beautiful. Even on a sunny day, be prepared to get wet as you walk under and behind the waterfalls.
There are stairs, but they have railings. Most of the walkways are flat and sturdy. Wear appropriate footwear. The rocks, stairs, and so on, can be very slippery from the water splashing from the falls. You might even want to wear a rain poncho.
Pro Tip: An app is available to download before visiting the park. It will provide updates regarding the park and includes maps, trails, and must-see locations. You can download the app here.
2. View Hector Falls
A magnificent 165-foot waterfall that tumbles over shale rock and limestone as it travels to Seneca Lake, Hector Falls is a sight to behold.
The top third of the falls is visible from a roadside stop on Rt 414. The lower two-thirds of the falls are private property and can only be viewed via boat. For the falls' full effect, join a tour or consider a boat rental to view the massive cascade.
3. Cruise Seneca Lake
A visit to the area would not be complete without a Seneca Lake cruise. Captain Bill's Seneca Lake Cruises are located at the most southern end of Seneca Lake. They provide sightseeing cruises as well as dining cruises for lunch, afternoon cocktails, or dinner.
The cruise allows you to view the beautiful lake and enjoy the fresh air and peacefulness.
4. Be Your Own Skipper
If you want to see the lake by boat but aren’t interested in a cruise, consider renting a pontoon boat for the day.
5. Kayak The Lake
If you are interested in a more active way to view the lake, bring your own kayak or rent one and spend the day kayaking Seneca Lake.
6. Visit A Farm Sanctuary
The Watkins Glen Farm Sanctuary is 271 acres of rolling green pastures that provide a natural environment for farm animals who were facing unfortunate situations before they were rescued.
A guided tour is available to give you background information on the various animals. Each cow, turkey, goat, and pig has a story. They also educate you about the factory farming industry and the realities animals face there.
The visitor center houses an information area, restrooms, and a gift shop. When I visited, we spent half a day. They have a bed and breakfast on site so you can spend the night if you wish. Tours are available from May through October.
Pro Tip: Wear close-toed shoes or boots that can be rinsed off easily or can be ruined. When we visited, it was rainy, and we had to go through some muddy areas to see all the animals.
7. Sip Your Way Along The Wine Trail
Known for its fine wine, it isn't surprising that one of the most popular activities for the mature visitor in the Finger Lakes Region is the Seneca Lake Wine Trail. Member wineries invite visitors to experience world-class wines while enjoying the area's beauty and history.
The Finger Lakes' microclimate supports the growth of native grapes, premium hybrids, and various delicate grapes producing riesling, chardonnay, pinot noir, and cabernet franc. The deep freshwater lakes protect the grapes from early frosts in fall and late frosts in spring.
Using grapes from their own vineyards to make their wines, most wineries offer tastings and food and wine pairings. Some even offer yoga in the vineyards, live concerts, and other entertainment.
Editor’s Note: For more inspiration, consider these 13 gorgeous wineries to visit in the Finger Lakes.
If you want to do several stops on the wine trail, you probably shouldn’t drive yourself. You can hire a Main Street Driver who is familiar with all the wineries to help plan your day and drive you to each in your own car. Another option is to join a wine tasting tour with a professional guide.
8. Check Out Watkins Glen International
If you enjoy racing, you will most certainly want to check out Watkins Glen International. The world-famous track is home to the Formula One United States Grand Prix. It is home to many other race classes and is popular with racing fans. They also host several special events and festivals.
Funny fact about Watkins Glen, before constructing the current racetrack in 1956, they used the village roads for the races. In fact, when WWII ended, the first American road race was held in Watkins Glen. Rail service was suspended for the race so the racers didn't have to worry about trains when crossing the tracks.
9. Learn About Racing History
Visitors can learn more about the history of racing at the International Motor Research Center. They have an extensive collection of memorabilia, oral histories, racing artifacts, photographs, film, and famous drivers' records. Mature travelers will enjoy looking through road racing history. Admission is free.
10. Drive The Glen
"The Glen" is a regular stop on the NASCAR circuit. They allow you to follow a pace vehicle and cruise the course for three laps as you “Drive the Glen” in your car for $30.
When I visited, I was with a group, and we were on a bus. I'm not a big race fan, but it was thrilling to ride around the race track.
11. Blow Some Glass
Head to nearby Corning, New York, for a visit to the Corning Museum of Glass. A highlight of the Finger Lakes region, you will learn all about the history of glass and view various demonstrations. You can even participate in a Make Your Own Glass Experience. Check out these tips for visiting the Corning Museum of Glass.
12. Go Horseback Riding
The Painted Bar Stables offer riding instruction and horseback rides. They even have a ride through a vineyard that includes a tasting. This activity requires reservations.
Best Restaurants In Watkins Glen
There are dozens of restaurants around the lake. Most provide gorgeous views along with great food. You can find fresh fruits and other treats at the local farmers market.
13. The Blue Pointe Grille
An on-site restaurant at Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel, The Blue Pointe Grille has waterfront views, and delicious food, friendly and prompt service, making this a great choice, especially if staying at the hotel.
14. Seneca Harbor Station
On the edge of the lake, enjoy a meal in the restaurant or on the patio while you take in the breathtaking views.
15. Farmers Market
Open May through October, grab fresh fruit and veggies along with other delights at the various markets.
Best Hotels In Watkins Glen
From hotels to campgrounds, there are a variety of places to stay in the Watkins Glen area.
16. Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel
Located just yards from Seneca Lake, the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel offers deluxe rooms and suites. Each features wood floors, in-room refrigerators, and pillow-topped mattresses, plus panoramic views.
The hotel features an indoor pool and hot tub, plus nightly turndown service.
17. The Red Kettle Inn Bed And Breakfast
A charming Victorian decor bed and breakfast near the scenic Seneca Lake Pier, The Red Kettle Inn offers free off-street parking, Wi-Fi, flat-screen TVs, and private bathrooms, plus a full country breakfast served each day.
18. Finger Lakes National Forest Camping
You can camp for free at the only federally managed forest in New York State. The Finger Lakes National Forest is located between Seneca and Cayuga Lakes, just about 20 miles north of Watkins Glen. Three campgrounds are available. If it will be your first time camping on federally managed land, consider these nine tips for finding free camping spots in the U.S. and our guide to dispersed camping: what it is and why you should try it.