If you know what Watkins Glen is, then you’ve already spotted the issue with this title. If you’ve not been there, Watkins Glen is probably the best and most gorgeous gorge within reasonable driving distance of Ithaca, NY, and is definitely worth a stop if you are in the area.
However, it is, without a doubt, the biggest of the many tourist magnets in the Finger Lakes Region. Fear the legions upon legions of visitors. The towering monstrosity of staircases loaded with camera toting kids and day tripping house wives. This is not a place where goats are particularly welcome, much less there actually being any space on the trails in the gorge for them.
The beauty of Watkins Glen, though, is that everyone goes to the front part of the park where the gorge is deep and has lots of waterfalls. They pretty much never make it to the back of the park, much less to the Finger Lakes Trail that comes into the back of the park. There’s some pretty nice stuff to see on the back side as well, and thanks to the FLT there’s even places to camp.
*It has been a while since I’ve done this hike, so be prepared for the unexpected! CNY Hiking is a great resource for this and other FLT hikes (http://cnyhiking.com)*
Location: Sugar Hill State Forest, then the Finger Lakes Trail, followed by Watkins Glen.
Directions to Trail Head: The “trail head” is actually a parking location to use a rustic trail shelter on the FLT within the Sugar Hill State Forest. On Templar Road where it runs into Van Zandt Hollow Road, (which runs along the southern edge of Sugar Hill State Forest), there is a spot where a rough two track road branches off going up hill. At this location there is a sizeable creek running right next to the road that the two track road coming off Templar Road crosses. This is the place to park! You’ll need to park along the road side. This trail head can drive you insane trying to find it, so leave extra time.
Is it goat approved? Yes, there are no anti-goat rules and the trail itself is out in the country. However, a short section of the FLT does go through private property that is actively hunted for deer in season, and if you go much further into Watkins Glen you’ll probably want the goat on leash just to keep up appearances.
Time for hike: I don’t know the exact mileage, but it’s something like 4.5-5 miles one way down into Watkins Glen (the town) and of course, then it’s 5 miles back to the shelter.
Best time of the year to hike: Hike this one any season but summer. The insects can be very intense in the summer.
Trails to Take
I usually start out by parking my car on Templar Road, crossing the creek, and going up the two track. This passes a neat little graveyard, and then the FLT heads off the roadway to your right, through the woods, and you’ll see the shelter come up off the trail on you right, just before the trail swings to the left to avoid plowing straight into the river/creek ahead. Leave something at the shelter to indicate that you will be there later should any through hikers arrive so they’ll save you a spot out of the rain, (I left my heavy pack with all my gear, but something less stupidly risky might be better). Most FLT guys are pretty chill, so if you don’t leave anything and show up at 6 pm at night they’ll probably still let you bunk somewhere. Though, this is a great opportunity to make the goat carry the gear in for a change.
Go back down to the car, cross Templar Road, and continue along the white blazed FLT trail, (the trail head should be almost directly across from the two track road you just came down). You’ll walk through a short section of Sugar Hill State Forest land, then cross Van Zandt Hollow Road. Continue up the trail on the other side of the road and you are now on private property (remember hunting season!). The trail meanders along a ridge line and the remains of deer may be present here. The trail is not as well marked and pretty easy to loose during this section. Continue to follow the river if in doubt.
Eventually you will go down a steep hill to a river with obvious signs of past flooding and a potential maze of downed wood. This is Townsend Creek. You can look for white blazes, but given all the flooding the trees that were blazed may be gone! You are looking for a white blaze on the opposite side of the bank near some evergreen trees, (if those are still there!). Take your time finding this one!
Once you cross Townsend Creek you are basically inside Watkins Glen State Park. Continue onward and the trail will start crossing sections of obviously dressed and human set stone, including occasional staircases. All show little signs of use. You will pass by Hidden Valley Camp which has bunk houses and other camp structures. It can be a nice place to stop and grab a bite to eat if not otherwise occupied by campers. Odd structures (like temporary fire rings, symbols, and other random artifacts) may be present in the vicinity of the camp.
The trail will cross Whites Hollow Road near where the road crosses a pretty stone bridge. There is a historical marker somewhere around this crossing that talks about the history of the Watkins Glen racecourse. Once you cross the road, continue down the edge of the paved access road, which will lead you to a dilapidated parking area. Past the parking area you will enter a picnic area, with the foundation ruins of a bathroom to your right against the hill. A huge picnic shelter will be sitting on the edge of pond.
The trail continues around the edge of the pond, goes up some short uphills, and then runs along the edge of the river. Eventually it crosses under a maintained rail line on a metal trestle bridge. Once you pass under the rail line you are in the busy part of Watkin’s Glen. Proceed at your own risk.
The FLT runs all the way through Watkins Glen and down to the actual road that runs through downtown. If you have someone to hold goats you could run into downtown and get some take out, but otherwise I like to turn around at the rail road bridge, save myself 2 miles of travel time, and get back to the campsite early.
Usually I turn around, wander back, set up camp and eat dinner, then hike back out to the car in the morning.
- The rustic shelters available on the FLT must be shared. If the members of your party do not completely fill the shelter you will be asked to share space with complete strangers. Be prepared with a tent or tarp should you arrive at the rustic shelter and find it occupied or semi-occupied with those unwilling to share a campfire with a goat. There is a horse camping location right after you cross the creek at Van Zandt Hollow Road on your right if needed.
- The crossing of Townsend Creek on the FLT is not possible after heavy rain (and it rains ALL THE TIME in the Finger Lakes region).
- The FLT crosses through private property that is hunted for deer in season (during deer season the trail is closed).
- Goats (and dogs) are not allowed to sleep inside rustic trail shelters on the FLT. Probably because animal funk is even worse than sweaty-ain’t-seen-a-shower-in-3-days hiker funk.
- Is your goat a binge eater? In the winter there isn’t much to eat around the trail shelter…so I hate to say it but you might want hay.
- This camping area is out away from civilization. Great for solitude, but also great for coyotes and other critters. During my stay we had some really surprised deer that got close up into camp trying to figure out what the goat was. Oh, and a skunk.
In sum: If you ever run into a Boy Scout Troop leader camping out on the FLT, ask him about the time he spent a really long night teaching a weird chick with a goat how to start fires with flint and steel.