Surrounded by picturesque wineries and a glacially carved landscape of rolling hills, waterfalls, lakes and gorges, Watkins Glen State Park offers visitors unbelievable natural beauty in a family-friendly environment. Located in western New York State, on the southern tip of Seneca Lake, Watkins Glen is a small hamlet of a little more than 2,000 residents. At just over a four-hour drive from New York City, this natural wonder is a perfect weekend getaway for East Coast photographers. The spectacular 156-foot She-Qua-Ga Falls and the 165-foot Hector Falls are roadside-adjacent and easy to find, as they’re clearly marked on local maps. For visitors looking for a little variety, hundreds of other waterfalls can be found within a short drive in any direction. Many of these remote waterfalls are located on private land, so be sure to contact the owners to avoid trespassing.
The main feature of Watkins Glen State Park is the 11⁄2-mile-long gorge trail following the flow of a stream that has spent tens of thousands of years carving its way through the earth to create waterfalls, pools and cliffs. Several sections of the trail wind past massive 200-foot walls of towering sedimentary rock, giving visitors a geological window into the distant past.
Like much of the northeastern United States, Watkins Glen hosts four unique seasonal environments. Summer is often hot and balmy, and winter can remain subzero for days. During the spring and autumn, temperatures are typically milder, yet daily changes in weather can produce drastic shifts in temperature. Cool mornings and warm afternoons make layering essential as you hike the gorge trail, climbing its 800 steps from the bottom to the top.
The park has about 20 major waterfalls that you’ll walk over, next to and even behind, so be prepared to get a little wet. Make sure to bring a water-resistant camera bag to keep your gear protected. Packing a fast wide-angle telephoto such as the Tokina AT-X 280 28-80mm ƒ/2.8 and a zoom telephoto like Nikon’s AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-200mm ƒ/2.8G offers a broad range of focal lengths while minimizing the number of lenses you need to carry. The wide-angle will allow you to capture the grandeur of the massive natural amphitheaters. The zoom lets you isolate the subtle nuances or distant cascades. A circular polarizer and a sturdy lightweight tripod such as the Manfrotto 190CXPRO4 are essential when shooting here. The polarizer reduces the glare and reflections from the perpetually water-soaked rocks and helps to bring out the natural colors of the landscape. The tripod makes shooting possible because, as you get deep in the gorge, the towering walls around you block much of the available light, making handheld shots difficult.
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The cooler weather and brilliant autumn colors make fall the best time to visit Watkins Glen and the Finger Lakes area. The contrast of bright, colorful leaves against the monochromatic shale stone creates an exciting photographic experience. Early morning is the best time to photograph the park because it’s usually less crowded and can provide the opportunity to get photos without people in them. The park is open year-round; the gorge trail is closed from early November until May.
Contact: New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, (607) 535-4511, www.nysparks.state.ny.us.