Watkins Glen, New York: Secret Gems & Hidden Adventures Await

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Pier House at Seneca Harbor in Watkins Glen, NY

Watkins Glen NY ticks a lot of boxes. Waterfalls? Check. Wineries? Check. World famous racetrack? Check. This Insta-worthy destination is located in New York’s Finger Lakes, a leisurely 4 1/2 hour drive from midtown Manhattan. It’s got plenty of family-friendly fun things to do and a dreamy waterfront hotel to call home at the end of a busy day. Read on to learn more.

The writer was hosted.

The year 1948 when life changed forever in Watkins Glen, a village of 2,000, located at the southern tip of New York’s Seneca Lake. The first US motorcar race after World War II was held on a 6.6 mile circular course that began and ended in front of the Watkins Glen courthouse. The event ignited a passion that led to the development of an internationally famous motor racing speedway.

In addition to car racing, Watkins Glen is known for its state park, one of the most popular in the Finger Lakes. There are also a number of excellent wineries on both the eastern and western shores. Here’s a roundup of fun things to do in Watkins Glen, one of the best places to visit in upstate NY, to help you plan your family road trip to New York’s Finger Lakes. You can easily spend two days here; the comfortably elegant Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel is an excellent lodging option for visiting families.

1. Drive The Glen at Watkins Glen International

Watkins Glen International is known to auto racing fans as “The Glen.” The racetrack is a regular stop on the NASCAR circuit and hosts a number of special events, including the Finger Lakes Wine and Beer Festivals. If you’ve ever wanted to know what it feels like to take off from the starting pole, you can Drive the Glen. A pace vehicle leads the way as you cruise the course in your own car for three laps. I didn’t really have to ask one family if it was worth the $30. The dad’s smile was as wide as the antler rack on his “Best Bucking Dad” t-shirt.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Watch Ron Howard’s excellent film, “Rush,” chronicling the epic rivalry between Formula One drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda. Both drivers won races at the Glen and are honored in the Walk of Fame. Appropriate for teens.

Facility map at the Watkins Glen Internation Speedway
The Glen hosted Formula One Grand Prix races for 20 seasons and is considered a classic track. Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

2. Water, Water Everywhere! Tour Seneca Lake

Get yourself out on Seneca Lake when visiting Watkins Glen. There’s an activity suited for all ages and ability levels.

  • Kayaking is a popular activity. Bring your own or rent one from Summit to Stream Adventures.
  • Want to skipper your own boat? Glen Harbor Marina offers rentals of 19-foot bow riders and pontoon boats.
  • Take a boat ride.
    • Captain Bill’s Legacy, based at the Seneca Harbor Station, offers two options for Watkins Glen visitors: daily dinner cruises and narrated, sightseeing tours of the lake.
    • Want a little romance? Set sail for a sunset schooner excursion aboard the True Love.
Things to Do in Watkins Glen include sightseeing tours of Seneca Lake aboard the Seneca Legacy
You’ll learn fun facts about Seneca Lake while touring on Captain Bill’s Seneca Legacy. For example, it’s the longest and deepest of New York’s 11 Finger Lakes. Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

3. Cruise the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Circuit

Not a speedster? That’s totally cool. You can pretend “race” the historic 6.6 mile 1948 Grand Prix course – the first road race in the US after World War II. Start in front of the village courthouse and the Watkins Glen State Park Visitor’s Center and follow the brown road signs marking the course. The view of Seneca Lake is particularly dramatic as you round Big Bend and descend into town. Just remember that it’s not really a “race.” You need to follow the posted speed limits! BTW, Elkhart Lake Wisconsin also hosted motor races through city streets!

Drive the historic Watkins Glen Grand Prix course, a fun thing to do
The route is well-marked – just be sure to follow posted speed limits! Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

4. Hike the Gorge Trail at Watkins Glen State Park

Featuring dramatic cliffs and 19(!) waterfalls (more on that in a minute), Watkins Glen State Park is a superstar in the New York State Park system. Day visitors should plan to hike the Gorge Trail to see the best of the park, including the 85-foot high suspension bridge. During a flood in 1935, the water rose to within 5 feet of this bridge! Trail maps are available at the Visitor’s Center, located on North Franklin Street in town. The per-vehicle parking rate includes admission to the Olympic-size pool, if you need to cool off after your hike.

SheBuysTravel Tip: As hard as it might be to get everyone up and out, you’ll want to hike early in the day. Not only is it cooler, but you’ll have the trail to yourself so you won’t feel like you have to rush any dawdlers in your group.

Watkins Glen State Park stream bed
You’ll feel like you’re traveling through a fairy tale while hiking in Watkins Glen State Park. Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

Read More: Explore Green Lakes State Park in New York

5. Sip the Seneca Lake Wine Trail

Founded in 1986, the Seneca Lake Wine Trail consists of more than 30 member wineries. Surprisingly, the micro climate in the Finger Lakes is super for grape growing. The deep fresh water lakes provide protection for the grapes from early frosts in fall and late frosts in spring. You can sample classic European varietals like Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Gruner Veltliner or upstate New York natives like Catawba or Niagara.

Vineyards are located on both the eastern and western shores of Seneca Lake and there are a lot of them. If wine’s your thing, consider a full-service tour company like “Experience! The Finger Lakes.” Their professional guides will accompany you throughout your tour and help you get the most out of your tastings. A more economical option for DIYers, is hiring one of the Main Street Drivers. They are familiar with the wineries, will help you plan your day and then they drive you in your car.

Wine not your thing? A number of craft breweries can be found in the Finger Lakes region along the Seneca Lake Byway. Check out Two Goats Brewing for spectacular lake views and live music events. The hard stuff’s available at Finger Lakes Distilling.

SheBuysTravel Tip: I saw a number of really bored kids at the wineries. You’ll have a better time if they have something to do. Pick up a potholder loom and loops at FiberArts in the Glen on North Franklin Street and let them craft while you taste. If your family’s into geocaching, there are a number of them hidden along the wine trail, including one at Lakewood Vineyards.

Watkins Glen vineyard view
This might have been my first taste of Seyval Chardonnay, but it won’t be my last! Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

Read More: Texas Hill Country Wineries for a Girlfriend Getaway

6. Pick a Peach at a Local Farmers Market

Watkins Glen weekenders will appreciate the convenience of shopping for vittles at the downtown Farmers Market, held on Friday evenings from May – October, 4 pm – 7 pm in Lafayette Park. The Clute Park market is held on Wednesdays in July and August from 5:30 pm – 8 pm. Or check out the Montour Falls Farmers Market, held on Thursday evenings from May through October, 4pm to 7pm.

7. Ooh! Aah! Check Out the Finger Lakes Waterfalls

The waterfalls in and around Watkins Glen are beautiful. Consider a Labor Day getaway to enjoy them as your end of summer hurrah!

Rainbow Falls

Rainbow Falls is the most famous of the waterfalls in Watkins Glen State Park. It’s accessed via the Gorge Trail, and, like the park’s Cavern Cascade, you can walk behind it. The park’s trail map suggests visiting on sunny days in the late afternoon for the chance to see rainbows reflecting off the falls.

Hector Falls

No hiking required to view this roadside waterfall, the 3rd tallest in New York State (nearby Taughannock Falls is #1; Niagara is #2). The Hector Falls viewing point is located on Route 414, just north of Watkins Glen.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Route 414 is a super busy road, so hold on tight to the kids. You can also view Hector Falls on a Seneca Lake boat cruise.

Montour Falls

Three miles south of Watkins Glen is the Village of Montour Falls, once home to the Seneca Nation and named for one of its leaders, Queen Catharine Montour. View the village’s 165-foot waterfall from Main Street.

8. Meet the Animals at the Farm Sanctuary

Got a teen who’s suddenly declared herself a vegan? Or perhaps you’re curious to know more. The Farm Sanctuary is devoted to promoting a vegan lifestyle and rescuing animals from abusive factory farms. The Farm Sanctuary provides them with a loving home in Watkins Glen. (The organization also maintains a sister site in Los Angeles.). Daily tours are available, May – October.

9. Camp for Free at Finger Lakes National Forest

The Finger Lakes National Forest is the only federally-managed forest in New York State. It’s located between Seneca and Cayuga Lakes, about 20 miles north of Watkins Glen. It offers 3 free campgrounds including one for horseback riders. Another wonderful free feature of the forest? A 5-acre, u-pick blueberry patch!

10. Go Horseback Riding

Check out the Finger Lakes view up there. Up where, you ask? Atop a horse! If you are over 8 years old, you can go on a guided trail ride at Painted Bar Stables. Because the groups are small (3-4 riders), expect personalized riding instruction. Want the best of both worlds? Painted Bar has partnered with Fulkerson Winery to offer vineyard rides that include a tasting. Advance reservations are required.

11. Picnic at Seneca Harbor Park

Owned and operated by Schuyler County, Seneca Harbor Park is a petite and scenic park located on the shore of Seneca Lake. Amenities include a waterfront walking trail and fishing pier. It’s a lovely spot to enjoy a picnic for the whole family – leashed pets are permitted! Pick up provisions at Holy Cow, a full-service deli and meat market.

12. International Motor Racing Research Center

Interested in the history of car racing? Plan a stop at the International Motor Racing Research Center. In addition to an extensive library dedicated to the sport, the IMRRC features a rotating display of historic racing cars and maintains the Watkins Glen Drivers Walk of Fame.

watkins glen walk of fame
Follow the Watkins Glen Drivers Walk of Fame through downtown. The crosswalks are painted to look like checkered flags and tiny race cars top the street signs. Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

13. Eat and Shop on Franklin Street

The main drag in Watkins Glen is Franklin Street. Divided into north and south by Glen Creek, Franklin is home to a number of shops and restaurants, including the Seneca Cheese Company and Rooster Fish Brewing. If you’ve forgotten hiking boots, check out the aptly named Famous Brands Outlet. The store is huge and features gear, clothing and more from Yeti, Columbia, Merrell and other…famous brands.

franklin street watkins glen mural
This colorful wall mural captures a moment from the original Watkins Glen Grand Prix. Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

14. Enjoy Ice Cream Fresh from the Cow

Remember your very first lick of ice cream? Probably not. But you can recreate the moment and the taste by visiting one of the creameries in and around Watkins Glen. I visited Shtayburne Farm. Warning!! The experience of tasting the Summer Berry flavor may ruin grocery store ice cream for you. You can visit with the calves while eating your cone. One dad had a difficult time getting his toddler to leave. He kept insisting it was time to “Say ciao to Moo Moo.” She was having none of it.

If don’t want to venture away from town for your ice cream, it’s cool. There are 4 ice cream shops on Franklin Street in Watkins Glen. I polled teens and the staff at the hotel. The hands down locals’ favorite? The Glen Dairy Bar.

chocolate ice cream cone
This is a small. Seriously. Insist that your kids share this Glen Dairy Barn treat or you’ll end up throwing the ice cream away. And it’s too good for that. Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

15. Get Blown Away at the Corning Museum of Glass

On your way in or on the way out of Watkins Glen, detour through nearby Corning, New York, and visit the world famous Corning Museum of Glass. Open since 1951, the museum has been a must-see for generations of families visiting the Finger Lakes. You’ll learn everything you’ve ever wanted to know about glass (plus some), see functional applications and outrageous art installations. Don’t miss one of the many live glass blowing demonstrations.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Before you go, watch the Netflix series “Blown Away.” Glass artists compete against one another in a hot shop. It will deepen your appreciation of the physical work involved in producing an art glass piece.

Glassblowing demonstration at the Corning Museum of Glass near Watkins Glen, NY
Daily glassblowing demonstrations are a highlight of a trip to the Corning Museum of Glass. Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

Where to Stay: Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel

Want lakefront luxury at an affordable price? The Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel is an excellent lodging choice when you’re exploring the Finger Lakes. It’s one of five waterfront properties operated by the Hart Hotel Harbor Collection.

Read More: NYS Road Trip to the 1000 Islands

Splurge on a Balcony View

My lakeview double queen room with balcony was large and decorated in a sophisticated coastal style. The bathroom featured a large walk-in shower and was pristinely clean. A separate vanity area is located outside of the bathroom. It’s a clever feature that helps to avoid battles for the mirror. Larger families can book a double queen and adjoining king with jacuzzi tub. The balcony is ideal for enjoying your morning coffee or a sunset glass of wine.

lakeview double queen room at the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel
Another feature I really like in my room was the wood-look laminate flooring. It felt so much cleaner underfoot than the standard hotel carpeting. Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

In the Heart of Downtown

The location of the hotel was extremely convenient. Many of the local attractions are within walking distance, including the lake cruise ship companies, kayak rentals, Watkins Glen State Park and the Franklin Street shops and restaurants. It was nice to stop in town for a cold beer after my hike on my way back to my room to freshen up.

Dining at the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel

The property’s Coldwater Bar and Blue Pointe Grille are popular – make a reservation for dinner, especially on the weekend. Menu highlights include a cheese plate featuring locally sourced products and the Orchard Harvest salad. I was slightly disappointed that there wasn’t any of the lake trout on the menu, but I got over that quickly when I tried the lobster roll duo with homemade kettle chips.

lobster rolls with kettle chips in Watkins Glen NY
A taste of Maine in upstate New York. I can’t resist a lobster roll in summer. Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

Coffee Addicts Rejoice!

My favorite amenity at the hotel was the daily coffee service. No nasty in-room Keurigs or long trek to the hotel lobby. Each floor of the hotel has a coffee and tea station so I could indulge my caffeine addiction with little effort. Consider splurging on room service breakfast too. The Harbor Breakfast with eggs, home fries, choice of meat and bread is a very reasonable $11.

Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel in Watkins Glen NY
The Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel overlooks the harbor in Seneca Lake. Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

Want More Things to Do in Watkins Glen?

The Watkins Glen Chamber of Commerce provides in-depth info about area attractions, lodging and restaurants. Download the Watkins Glen Travel Guide. Or, go old school and request a print version.

Cathy Bennett Kopf serves as the Daily Editor of SheBuysTravel, reporting to Editor-in-Chief Cindy Richards. She began travel writing after serving as the unofficial (and unpaid) vacation coordinator for hundreds of family and friend trips. She launched her blog, The Open Suitcase, in 2012 and joined the SBT (formerly TravelingMom) team in 2016. A lifelong resident of New York, Cathy currently resides in the scenic Hudson River Valley. She’s a member of the Society of American Travel Writers, the International Travel Writers Alliance and TravMedia.
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