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Empire State adventures: Watkins Glen.

Mention Watkins Glen, and many who are unfamiliar with central New York think only of auto racing. Indeed, Watkins Glen International (a.k.a. "The Glen") has been around since 1948 and is now a premier NASCAR course. However, the Watkins Glen area offers plenty of attractions of a more bucolic nature too. One of these is Watkins Glen State Park, which celebrated its centennial in 2006.

Summer Events

Every summer, Watkins Glen State Park is the site of many popular activities and events. The season is launched by the Annual Seneca Lake Northeastern United States Cardboard Boat Regatta held on Father's Day weekend in June. This event began in 1995 with only 20 entrants, but by 2003, the number of entrants had tripled, and it continues to grow.

For the regatta, venturesome sailors actually board their craft, which really ARE made of cardboard--and recycled cardboard at that! Glue, duct tape and paint help to make the boats a little more seaworthy, and some have been known to last for years. The regatta is only one of the features in a full day of family fun, including live music and a parade at Seneca Harbor Park in downtown Watkins Glen.

July sees the annual "Reeling for Relief" fishing tournament, which benefits the Sullivan Trail Chapter of the American Red Cross. This is the largest fishing tournament in the Finger Lakes region for bass, trout and landlocked salmon. The contest is open to both children and adults, and multiple prizes are awarded.

In addition to fishing, there's the week-long "Bon Ton Roulet" bike tour. This is a non-competitive event open to people of all ages and abilities. Over the course of seven days, participants cover a designated, 350-mile-long route, occasionally stopping to rest and refresh. Sometimes this includes taking a quick swim in one of the many water bodies along the way.

If spending a week bicycling hundreds of miles isn't your idea of fun, try the Hector Fair, which is nearing its 50th anniversary. The fair runs from Friday through Sunday, and past fairs have included a parade, a car show, a book sale, animals, demonstrations and exhibits, rides and a chicken barbecue hosted by local firefighters. On the last night, the fair wraps up with a fireworks show.

After all that excitement, it's nice to wind down a little by taking advantage of the free evening concerts offered in Lafayette Park. Concerts are held one night each week throughout the months of July and August.

Along with the free evening concerts, there's the Italian American Festival held in Clute Park in early August. This weekend-long event includes a marketplace, crafts, live music, a bocce ball tournament, a parade, fireworks, rides, a car show and, of course, food. In other words, something for everyone.

Gorge Tours

For getting back to nature, not much can equal the scenery provided by the 19 waterfalls that grace Watkins Glen State Park. Several different routes lead to the gorge trail, which offers the best views of these waterfalls. During August, park naturalists lead free, hour-long guided walks on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings and again on Saturday afternoon.

Unfortunately, the gorge is not accessible to those with certain physical limitations. Dogs (except service dogs) are not allowed on the trails or in the pool area. Because the stone steps--all 800 of them--are often wet, your best bet is footwear that is not only comfortable but also provides good traction and resists moisture. Trails are open from dawn to dusk from May until November. Use of the trails and pool is free, but there is a charge for parking and for camping.

Nearby Attractions

Finger Lakes National Forest

This national forest, between Cayuga and Seneca lakes, offers numerous recreational opportunities throughout the year, such as camping, fishing, horseback riding, wildlife watching and hiking.

Finger Lakes Trail

The Finger Lakes Trail is a 553-mile hiking trail that runs east and west and crosses two state forests: Watkins Glen and Sugar Hill. This trail is designed primarily for pedestrians, and there are four lean-tos along the length of the trail system. Although horses are usually prohibited, they are allowed on some trail sections.

Sugar Hill State Forest

The Sugar Hill State Forest, west of Watkins Glen, comprises about 12,000 acres. It includes the Six Nations Recreation Trail System, primarily designed for horseback riders and snowmobilers. The Sugar Hill Fire Tower, the Sugar Hill Archery Course and part of the Finger Lakes/North Country Trail are located here as well. In addition, an abandoned gold mine can be found in "Goldmine Hollow."

Six Nations Recreation Trail System

This trail system, about 45 miles long, is located between Keuka and Seneca lakes. The Sugar Hill Recreation Area, found at the trail head, offers camping, running water, picnic tables, archery targets. a pavilion, hitching rails and more than a dozen sheltered horse stalls. Several archery tournaments are held here each summer.

Connecticut Hill

Southeast of Watkins Glen, Connecticut Hill was the site where the first wildlife monograph was conducted. between 1930-1942 on ruffed grouse, one of New York State's most popular native game birds. Though the study was published some 60 years ago, it remains one of the classic studies on the species. Although ruffed grouse are found throughout the state, their numbers have been declining due to the loss of their preferred habitat--younger forests.

Connecticut Hill is the largest wildlife management area (WMA) in the state--11,045 acres of tough, hilly terrain. The area features many streams and ponds, some of which were built more than 50 years ago with the objective of attracting waterfowl. In addition to waterfowl, Connecticut Hill's diverse habitat is home to an equally diverse wildlife population, which includes a variety of songbirds and mammals.

Connecticut Hill is open to the public year-round for hiking, hunting, fishing, trapping, nature study, birdwatching, picnicking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Because it is a WMA, the operation of motorcycles, ATVs, motorized boats or snowmobiles is prohibited, as is swimming.

With such a wide variety of recreational possibilities, it's easy to see why Watkins Glen is such a popular summer vacation destination.

If You Go

Watkins Glen is located at the south end of Seneca Lake, in central Schuyler County, about an hour and a half south of Rochester. The Schuyler County Chamber of Commerce maintains a website listing attractions, a calendar of events, tips for outdoor recreation and contacts for more information:

Bernadette LaManna is an editor with DEC in Albany, and a frequent Conservationist contributor.
COPYRIGHT 2007 New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:LaManna, Bernadette
Publication:New York State Conservationist
Article Type:Cover story
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Jun 1, 2007
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