24 Hours in Watkins Glen, New York: A Sensory Adventure Awaits in This Vibrant Finger Lakes Town

Quieter Waters Above Mile Point Bridge Watkins Glen State Park

Approximately mid-way between New York City and Niagara Falls lie the Finger Lakes. And along the shore of Seneca Lake, the town of Watkins Glen beckons. When you answer her call, be sure to look beyond the world-famous race track and see dozens of other opportunities to indulge your senses.

Whether you’re vacationing with family, seeking solitude in a spectacular natural setting or looking for the perfect romantic getaway, Watkins Glen has exactly what you need. As my husband and I discovered over a brief 24-hour stay, this town and surrounding area are overflowing with some of the best natural and man-made attractions you’ll find anywhere.

Dinner and Down Time

Etched Window of Graft in Watkins Glen NY

Our Watkins Glen sensory extravaganza began with dinner at GRAFT wine + cider bar. Located in downtown Watkins Glen, this cozy watering hole and eatery is the only one of its kind in the area.

View of the Downstairs Bar Area at Graft

Simple and fresh locally sourced ingredients form the building blocks of Graft’s rotating seasonal menu. Sharing is essential for gleaning the maximum benefit from a meal or snack. Choosing from the mouthwatering items on the menu was a challenge. But we assembled an outstanding meal from the ricotta gnocchi, spring kale and radicchio Caesar salad and blue potatoes in an expertly executed sauce.

Everything was homemade and delicious. Wash it down with some of Graft’s juicy New York State hand-crafted wines or hard ciders, and you have a true taste of Watkins Glen’s finest.

Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel Patio

Pleasantly full, we made our way over to Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel to rest up for the next day’s exploration of the area. This classy yet comfortable hotel, the recipient of numerous awards, boasts a four diamond rating from AAA-American Automobile Association four years running.

The staff was professional and friendly. Although the hotel doesn’t accept pets, they went above and beyond by offering food and water bowls for my guide dog.

Fried Eggs and Home Fries Served at the Harbor Hotel in Watkins Glen, NY

Our ideal Watkins Glen Harbor room enabled us to take full advantage of the complementary Wi-Fi. The turndown service, which included chocolate, completed our perfect evening.

The next morning, we enjoyed a substantial breakfast at the hotel’s Blue Pointe Grille. Following breakfast was a much-needed walk in nearby Seneca Harbor Park. We took the brick path running along the lakefront. The pier house, a Watkins Glen signature structure, provided an excellent photo op.

The Still of the Morning at Finger Lakes

At Finger Lakes Distilling, Production Manager & Distiller, Jared Baker showed us around, walked us through the distilling process and patiently answered all our questions. Now, if you’re wondering what a craft distillery is doing in the middle of an area famous for wine, think grapes and grains. Lush vineyards surround Finger Lakes Distilling, including the one growing right out front. And area farms provide essential grains such as corn, rye and barley, as well as fruits.

Located on Seneca Lake’s East shore, Finger Lakes Distilling is the first stand-alone craft distillery in the region. Open since 2009, it is a NYS Farm Distillery, a small producer of a handcrafted product.

In the milling room mash fermented in a 1,250 gallon stainless steel vat. This process converts every molecule of starch into sugar. The fermentation process complete, the liquid is distilled in two copper stills, including one 25 foot continuous still.

Old and New Barrels at Finger Lakes Distillery

The whiskeys are then aged in barrels in a large warehouse. A chosen few spend their final two weeks in sherry casks to balance out the flavor.

Everything, from processing the raw ingredients to bottling and labeling, takes place at Finger Lakes Distilling. The traditional methods used have changed little in over 100 years.

Repurposed casks and barrels make the rounds among area wineries, breweries and Finger Lakes Distilling. Nothing goes to waste. Farmers even feed the remains of the mash to their beef cows. Finger Lakes Distillery prides itself in its Bourbon, Irish style whiskey, rye, gin, flavored vodkas, grappa, brandies and liqueurs. The distillery also takes responsibility for a cleaner environment and a lot of deliriously happy bovines.

Wine and Cheese

After sampling bold grappa, smooth single barrel whisky and impressive three-year-old rye at Finger Lakes Distillery, we moved on to learn about Finger Lakes’ famous wines at Atwater Estate Vineyards.

Seneca Lake View from Atwater Winery Deck

Atwater Estate Vineyards is located 7 miles north of Watkins Glen. The winery sits on 80 acres, the majority heavy with 17 varieties of grapevines. As if that isn’t enough, Atwater wows visitors with its expansive view of Seneca Lake before they even sample the wine.

As she poured, Tasting Room Manager, Amanda Gumtow, gave us a brief history of the Vineyards. Grapevines had been growing on the land since the early 1900s, Although there was no winery on the property, the wine industry and local pubs were flourishing. Then in 1920, Prohibition killed them both. It took time, but wine making made a strong comeback, and there are now over 100 wineries in the Finger Lakes.

Atwater was purchased in 1999 by Ted Marks, a local entrepreneur. The winery quickly gained recognition, and now grows Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot and Riesling grapes, among others

The winery produces reds, whites, roses and sparkling wines from sweet to dry. We tasted a dry Riesling. Fruity notes without descending into sweetness made this a delicious treat. The texture was clean and bright. The wine had a soft finish without that tangy bite that can easily ruin an otherwise delightful wine experience.

As we left for an afternoon of outdoor exploration, we discovered that Atwater sells a small selection of local meats and cheeses. “Picnic,” flashed through our minds, and we found a black tea cheese just begging for a fresh baguette. The cheese imparted a smoky flavor from the tiny specks of lapsang soushong tea imbedded throughout. And it did indeed contribute to a fabulous lunch.

Wondrous Waterfalls in Watkins Glen

Watkins Glen State Park is a magnet for every visitor to Seneca Lake. But the entire area has a wealth of waterfalls, walking and biking trails, horseback riding and all manner of water sports. Whatever your age or activity level, this stunning gift of nature has something to suit everyone.

Our time in Watkins Glen drawing to a close, we were determined to make the most of it. We first headed for the village of Montour Falls, and the sight and sounds of Shequaga Falls.

Shequaga Falls near Watkins Glen NY

It was surprising to come upon a spectacular waterfall, amid houses and trees, despite the roar of rushing, tumbling cascades of water announcing its presence. A small public park at the base of the falls overlooked a creek, affording an ideal spot to stop, smell the spring blossoms and listen to nature’s powerful voice.

The day was rapidly dwindling when we arrived in Watkins Glen State Park. This natural jewel is loaded with amenities for campers, hikers, nature lovers and photographers. At the time of our visit, there was construction in progress at the main entrance. However, the alternative was clearly marked.

Rainbow Falls Watkins Glen State Park NY

We set off in search of the gorge and the famous waterfalls. The path through the gorge was uneven and slippery in places. Make sure you wear appropriate shoes, a waterproof jacket and take something to protect your camera – a hotel shower cap will do – because you’re going to get wet.

Pools and Falls Above Central Cascade Watkins Glen State Park NY

If you walk the entire trail, you will be treated to 19 awe-inspiring waterfalls along the way. You’ll pass over and under them. You’ll walk trails that overlook the gorge. And what you see, hear, feel and smell will leave a lasting impression that will call you back.

Disclaimer: Our visit to The Watkins Glen was made possible through the generosity of Corning and the Southern Finger Lakes and The Watkins Glen Chamber of Commerce. However, all opinions are, as always, entirely my own.

Penny Zibula
Penny Zibula

Penny Zibula is a freelance travel writer and blogger based in New Bern, NC. She has had a life-long passion for travel, and for learning as much as she can about cultures crafts, foods and wines through the people she meets in both nearby and far flung places.

Along with her photographer husband, Simon Lock, and her guide dog, “Otto”, Penny has spent the last three years focused on making the most of what is supposed to be the couple’s retirement.

Penny’s background is in public relations and community outreach, with nine years as a television talk-show host and producer. As her career progressed, she found herself writing a variety of copy: articles, newsletters, annual reports, press releases, etc.

When Simon and Penny moved from Atlanta to New Bern in 2006 to start their business in auto repair, she began to cast about for opportunities to continue writing. Through her networking efforts, she  landed a part-time job as staff writer for The County Compass, a local weekly publication, where she learned that writing for a newspaper was a  niche unto itself.  

When Simon and Penny decided to close up shop and retire early in 2013, they began taking online courses and live workshops in travel writing, web copy, blogging and, for Simon, photography, through Great Escape Travel (GEP) and American Writers and Artists Inc. (AWAI).

Today, Penny writes regularly for her travel blog, http://sixlegswilltravel.com, and is continuously expanding her freelance travel writing for newspapers and both print and online magazines, with Simon taking all the spectacular photos. Both Penny and Simon are members of the International Travel Writers and Photographers Alliance ITWPA).

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