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Oct 17th
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Written by Janet Goodman, BT Contributor   
September 2018

New York’s Finger Lakes region is cascade central

A ParkPatrol_1recent family vacation in Upstate New York provided a remarkable change of scenery for this Miami writer.

We rented a house on Seneca Lake, the largest of the 11 Finger Lakes and, at 618 feet deep, the deepest lake in the state. This region is known for its rich, wine-farming soil, and the Seneca Lake Wine Trail attracts summer tourists from around the world to 30 of the 70 wineries dotting the 38-mile long lake.

But more than wineries, the Finger Lakes region is famous for its spectacular waterfalls. In Schuyler County alone, located around the southern half of Seneca Lake, there are 14 sites with more than 50 waterfalls.

We can thank glaciers for that. Glaciers covered New York State off and on for millions of years. During the last ice age, they carved through river valleys, leaving deep troughs. The ice melted 10,000 years ago, creating the Finger Lakes; gentle streams gained energy and cut through rock to form gorges and waterfalls.

ParkPatrol_2I visited several waterfalls around Seneca Lake, starting with those in Watkins Glen State Park, on the 45th anniversary of the legendary Summer Jam, when 600,000 music lovers descended on the village and its Grand Prix racetrack.

Located 24 miles west of Ithaca at the southern tip of the lake, Watkins Glen State Park is 778 acres with towering cliffs and deep gorges, and its Glen Creek cascades over 19 waterfalls. The property has been a tourist spot since 1863, when it was a private resort and the creek powered local flour mills. The state purchased the gorge in 1906 and slowly made it more accessible, starting with an entrance tunnel excavated in 1908.

A 1935 flood decimated much of the lower park and neighboring town. Afterward, stone trails, buildings, and bridges were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the federal agency that employed thousands during the Great Depression. The park’s 1.5-mile Gorge Trail’s 832 stone steps were created at this time. This trail and two other main trails follow the creek and lead thousands of park patrons to areas where they experience dramatic landscape and waterfalls. The 1.1-mile Indian Trail and the 1.8-mile South Rim Trail travel on top of the 400-foot-deep gorge, but none of the trails is wheelchair accessible. The park warns visitors of flash flooding and past fatalities when people ventured off trails.

ParkPatrol_3Due to the dizzying heights, I lost my nerve, but my nieces and nephews completed the hike. Narrow bridges high above the scenic gorge connect trails, and patrons can walk under two waterfalls, namely Cavern Cascade and picturesque Rainbow Falls. Since stone trails are often slippery from water spray, safe footwear is smart. No pets are allowed on the Gorge Trail, which closes from early November to mid-May.

There are 305 campsites and ten rustic cabins available at the southern end of the park in the Six Nations Campground, part of Six Nations Indian Reserve, which is a confederacy of Iroquois nations Seneca, Onondaga, Mohawk, Cayuga, Oneida, and includes the Tuscarora.

The park’s south entrance has parking, picnic facilities, restrooms, a playground, and a swimming pool. Parking is also provided at the main entrance and at the western end of Indian Trail. All-day parking costs eight dollars. A five-dollar summer shuttle service runs every 20 minutes to all three entrances. Also offered in the summer are free guided Gorge Trail tours Wednesday through Sunday. There’s a gift shop and information center located at the main entrance.

For those squeamish about heights, there are other locations in Schuyler and surrounding counties where waterfalls are more accessible. Keuka Outlet Trail is a seven-mile, poplar-and-pine forest path that connects two Finger Lakes: Keuka Lake to the east and Seneca Lake to the west. The trail begins in the village of Penn Yan and ends in Dresden, both in Yates County.

ParkPatrol_4Flowing beside the entire trail is a ravine stream of outlet water that builds energy at two points: Cascade Mills Falls, a 20-foot waterfall, and Seneca Mills Falls, a 41-foot cascade. Ruins of old paper mills and grist mills that once populated the outlet haunt the path today, while Birkett Mills, established in 1796, is alive and well, the oldest continually operating buckwheat mill in the United States and the largest producer of kasha in the world. Over the years, as many as 40 mills called the outlet home.

The Keuka Outlet Trail is privately owned by the nonprofit Friends of the Outlet. Maps offered on the trail are mismarked. There are portable toilets, but historical markers and more garbage receptacles are needed.

On the opposite side of the outlet in Penn Yan are Mennonite farms. The Yates County Old Order Mennonites settlement is the largest horse-and-buggy community in New York. The stream is open to trout fishing, and the trail allows hiking, biking, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, dog walking, and horseback riding.

ParkPatrol_5Disabled waterfall followers can take advantage of roadside accessible cascades. On the west side of the Village of Montour Falls in Schuyler County, Chequaga Falls is a breathtaking 156-foot cascade off the Portage Escarpment cliff seen from S. Genesee Street. An adjacent park with concrete walkways allows an even closer view. Aunt Sarah’s Falls, a 90-foot cascade, can be enjoyed from nearby Steuben Street.

Chequaga is a Seneca word meaning “tumbling waters.” Montour Falls, population 1800 and once named Havana, was renamed in 1890 to pay homage to Queen Catherine Montour of the Senecas. During the Revolutionary War, continental troops destroyed her village and 49 other Seneca and Cayuga Nation villages in the area.

Another tourist insisted we visit nearby historic Montour Falls Memorial Library to see its six Tiffany bay window panels with featured “lamp of learning” medallions. Seeing the 1904 Greek Revival-style brick building and its prized windows was a lovely end to our waterfall adventure in New York.

Nine days later, on August 14, heavy rains deluged Montour Falls. Flash floods turned its romantic cascades into raging torrents, and 14 upstate counties were under a weeklong state of emergency.

 

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Park_map

Watkins Glen State Park


1009 N. Franklin St.
Watkins Glen, NY 14891
607-535-4511


Park Rating

palm-1palm-1palm-1palm-05palm-0


Hours: 
Dawn to dusk
Picnic Tables: Yes
Barbecues: Yes
Picnic pavilions: Yes
Campgrounds: Yes
Athletic fields: No
Night lighting: Yes
Swimming pool: Yes
Playground: Yes

 

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