Watkins Glen NY is located at the base of Seneca Lake in the heart of the Finger Lakes region. Its central location is the perfect home base for exploring much of what the Finger Lakes has to offer. The town of Watkins Glen is just a 30-minute drive from nearby Keuka and Cayuga Lakes, in addition to the neighboring towns of Corning, Elmira, and Ithaca. We spent 4 glorious September nights here and wanted to share with you what we consider to be the 10 best things to do in Watkins Glen NY.
Seneca Lake is the largest of the Finger Lakes in total volume. At 618 feet, it is the deepest lake and at 38 miles long, it is the second longest lake behind Cayuga, which is only 2 miles longer. Seneca Lake rarely freezes in the cooler winter months, because it is fed by underground springs, which keeps the water in constant motion. There are countless opportunities for enjoying the lake while in Watkins Glen, including Seneca Lake boat tours and rentals, wine tours by boat, and sailing excursions.
Sailing on Seneca Lake
One of the best things to do in Watkins Glen is to set sail on a historic Schooner sail boat. The True Love was built by Pendleton Brothers Shipyard in Wiscasset, Maine in 1926. It has since been beautifully restored and spent several years traveling international waters. She now resides in Watkins Glen and takes visitors on scenic and romantic sails around the lake. The Schooner Love is located at Seneca Harbor Park Pier right behind the Harbor Hotel in Watkins Glen. She sails Seneca Lake daily May through October and can accommodate up to 22 passengers at a time. For more information and to book your sail on the True Love, click HERE.
Watkins Glen International
When most people hear “Watkins Glen”, they often think of Watkins Glen International, which is located just 4 miles from the downtown area. Race fans can experience NASCAR, IMSA, Ferrari, and US Vintage Grand Prix races here. WGI has been named the Best NASCAR Track in the US (by USA Today).
Between April and October, there is some sort of event at “The Glen” almost every single day, including wine and beer festivals! For a full list of events, check out their website. And if you want to really get in on the action, check out their Drive the Glen program. Have the opportunity to drive your own vehicle (motorcycles not permitted) around the 3.4-mile Grand Prix circuit behind a pace car. Vroom vroom!
The History of Watkins Glen
The history of racing in Watkins Glen dates back to the late 1940s. On October 2, 1948, Watkins Glen hosted the first post-WWII road race in America. Pick up a map at the local tourism office (214 Franklin Street) and drive the iconic 6.6-mile race circuit through town yourself. Each year in September, the town celebrates its historic start to racing with the Grand Prix Festival. Hundreds of classic sports cars line the streets. There is live music, wine tasting, food vendors, family-friendly activities, and a slew of racing memorabilia available for purchase.
True race fans won’t want to miss the International Motor Racing Research Center. The center, open year-round, contains 5,000 sq ft of racing history. Also be sure to take a walk about town to spot the beautiful hand-painted murals depicting the beginning days of racing in Watkins Glen. These colorful murals are the work of local artist Robert E Gillespie.
Racing isn’t the town’s only bit of fascinating history. There are some neat historic buildings around town worth visiting. The Schuyler Iron and Agriculture Works building (built in 1873) now houses the Seneca Harbor Wine Center. Pop in to this historic building for a complimentary tasting of Finger Lakes wines and champagnes.
Watkins Glen State Park
Possibly one of our favorite things to do in Watkins Glen NY turned out to be Watkins Glen State Park. No wonder it is voted one of the top attractions in the entire state of New York! It is truly GORGE-eous! The park’s most popular attribute is the Gorge Trail which features 19 beautiful waterfalls in just under 2 miles. Have a look (and listen) to the beauty of Watkins Glen State Park below…
WATCH NOW: The Sounds of Watkins Glen State Park
Stroll along under and over waterfalls and through caverns on this moderate hike. And know that you just might get a little wet! The Gorge Trail includes several sets of stairs, so unfortunately the trail is not stroller or wheelchair accessible. (However, here’s a link to a site that showcases Wheelchair Accessible Trails throughout the state of New York.) The Gorge Trail at Watkins Glen State Park is typically open from mid-May through October, and closes during the winter months. The Rim Trail overlooks the gorge and is open throughout the year. Please note, while dogs are permitted on the Rim Trail, they are not allowed on the Gorge Trail.
Guided tours along the Gorge Trail are available at 10 am and 1 pm Wednesday-Sunday from around the end of June to early September. There is also shuttle service from the Upper Entrance to the Main Entrance. (You would hike the trail from the Main Entrance to the Upper Entrance and then catch the shuttle back to the Main Entrance, if you prefer not to hike the trail back down.)
Shuttle service is available every 25-30 minutes daily during the busy summer months and on weekends only for the remainder of the year when the gorge is open. (Again, the Gorge Trail closes during the winter months.) The cost for the shuttle is $5 per person. Click HERE for the most up-to-date information about trail opening dates, tours, and shuttle service.
Finger Lakes Distilling
While the Finger Lakes is most well known as a wine and craft beer region, the area also has a handful of distilleries to enjoy! Finger Lakes Distilling opened its doors in 2009 as the region’s first stand-alone distillery. They also pride themselves on being a NY State Farm Distillery, which means they use locally grown fruit and grains to produce their high quality, small batch, handmade spirits from scratch. Finger Lakes Distilling is less than a 10 minute drive from downtown Watkins Glen in a beautiful facility inspired by Scottish whisky distilleries. They are open daily from 11-5. Their product line includes vodka, gin, whiskey, brandy, and liqueurs.
Make Your Own Gin
If you’ve ever dreamed of making your own gin, you are in luck! Finger Lakes Distilling has a program where participants are guided through the process of creating their own custom blend of gin. It’s called the OriGINal Gin Workshop. This 4-hour workshop starts with a gin cocktail and welcome with FLD Founder & President Brian McKenzie and FLD Head Distiller Jared Baker, PhD. The workshop continues with a tour of the facility and a presentation of the history of gin.
Participants will then sample, select, and grind up to 25 botanicals and process their recipe through a “Wee Still”. The OriGINal Gin Workshop costs $1,000 and can accommodate groups of up to 8 people. At the end, the group will divvy up 40 (375 mL) bottles of gin however they wish. For the most up-to-date information about this unique gin-making workshop, check out the FLD website.
Seneca Lake Wine Trail
Seneca Lake is located right in the heart of the Finger Lakes wine region. Of course, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the many wonderful wine tasting opportunities in and around Watkins Glen. Seneca Lake has more wineries than any other lake in NY – over 70 and counting! And over 30 of those wineries have come together to form the Seneca Lake Wine Trail. Only one winery on the trail (Castel Grisch) is located IN Watkins Glen, but many others can be reached with just a short car (or boat) ride!
Wagner Winery & Brewery
During our stay in Watkins Glen, we visited just one of the 30+ wineries on the Seneca Wine Trail. (Check out this map to see all of the wineries included on the trail.) We were more focused on hitting many of the wonderful breweries in the region. Though by visiting one of the many breweries on the Finger Lakes Beer Trail, we inadvertently also visited one of the wineries on the Seneca Lake Wine Trail! Wagner Vineyards is home to Wagner Vineyards Estate Winery and Wagner Valley Brewing Company. Why choose just one when you can do both so good?!
Not only is there a winery AND brewery on site at Wagner Vineyards, but there is also a charming cafe serving up delicious lunch options. Ginny Lee Cafe offers inviting patio dining with gorgeous views over Seneca Lake. You can also dine inside… but why would you with views like this? The menu at Ginny Lee recommends which of their award-winning wine and/or beer is best paired with each entree. It’s a feast for the senses and a wonderful stop just 20 minutes from downtown Watkins Glen. The cafe is open for lunch 7 days a week from 11-4 through the summer and early fall.
Seneca Lake Breweries
As mentioned, we spent a lot of our time in the Finger Lakes checking out the local breweries. There are several breweries on the Finger Lakes Beer Trail located along the shores of Seneca Lake less than a 20 minute drive from Watkins Glen. (See the full map HERE.) These close by breweries include: Grist Iron Brewing Company (our personal favorite), Two Goats Brewing, Pantomime Mixtures, Scale House Brewery, Lucky Hare Brewing Company, and Wagner Valley Brewing Company (mentioned above) on the east side of Seneca Lake. The trail also includes Seneca Lodge Craft Brewing and G.C. Starkey Beer Company on the west side of the lake.
There are additional breweries in and around Watkins Glen not included on the official beer trail that are definitely worth checking out. Rooster Fish Brewing is one of New York state’s first farm breweries (meaning they use only local ingredients). Rooster Fish offers some truly unique flavors in the heart of downtown Watkins Glen.
Located just 5 miles outside of downtown you’ll find the Seneca Lake Beer Company and The Beerocracy. Seneca Lake Brewing Company is the only dedicated cask ale brewery in the state of New York. Its pub, The Beerocracy, is a traditional Tudor-style British pub definitely worth a visit. You can read more about our experiences at these two breweries (and all of the breweries we visited) in our post Breweries in the Finger Lakes.
Seneca Lake Waterfalls
The Finger Lakes region is home to more than 1,000 waterfalls and gorges. Some of the best waterfalls can be found in Watkins Glen State Park, which we mentioned earlier as one of our favorite things to do in Watkins Glen. There are also plenty of one-off waterfalls nearby. The good news is that many of these gorgeous falls are located a short drive from Watkins Glen. Better yet, some of the nearby waterfalls require little to no hike to access! These easy-to-get-to falls include Hector Falls and Chequaga “Shequaga” Falls, both of which are less than a 10 minute drive from Watkins Glen. We highlight these wonderful waterfalls in greater detail in our Finger Lakes waterfalls post.
U-Pick Apple Farm
And for our final recommendation of things to do in Watkins Glen NY, we’d like to suggest Reisinger’s Apple Country. If your visit coincides with harvest season (August-November), you’ll definitely want to put this family-run family-friendly attraction on your list! Stroll through their close to 50 acres of orchards, fields, and meadows and experience a fun-filled time picking a variety of apples and fall raspberries.
Other seasonal fruit grown on the farm includes peaches, plums, blueberries and pears. These are sold packaged in the sales room, along with their homemade apple butter, jams, jelly, apple cider, and maple syrup. Reisinger’s is open 7 days a week (August-November), but if you visit on the weekend in the Fall, you’re in for a special treat – homemade apple cider donuts! Oh my yum! So delicious!
So, this rounds out our recommendations of things to do in Watkins Glen. This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list of absolutely everything there is to do. Though hopefully it will help you start planning your visit.
One day in Watkins Glen simply isn’t enough. We strongly urge you to stay a few nights to have time to experience many of the wonderful things we have recommended in this post. Wondering where you should stay in Watkins Glen? Wonder no more! We’re about to share with you a fabulous waterfront lodging option in the Finger Lakes!
Watkins Glen Lodging
During our 4-night stay in Watkins Glen, we were based at the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel. The hotel was voted America’s Best Waterfront Hotel by USA Today. Harbor Hotel has 104 deluxe guests rooms and suites, many of which feature balconies overlooking the marina and Seneca Lake. There are delicious dining options and luxury amenities found throughout the hotel. You can read more about our visit, along with where else we stayed in the Finger Lakes, by checking out our Lodging in the Finger Lakes post.
Wishing you a wonderful time in Watkins Glen!