Watkins Glen Gorge
(Editor’s Note: This article is the second of a series exploring plants and horticulture within driving distance of central Pennsylvania.)
In the previous column, I talked about the wonders of Innisfree Garden. While beautiful, it is a long drive into New York. For those that are looking outside of our mountains and valleys for some horticulture opportunities, yet a bit closer to home, check out the Finger Lake region. The next series of articles will explore plant exploration into that area as you plan next year’s vacation.
Watkins Glen State Park sits just south of Seneca Lake. The hike through the gorge is stunning; with numerous waterfalls, cliffs, overlooks, and geologic formations formed by Glen Creek. A 2015 USA Today Readers’ Choice Poll placed it in the top 5 as most popular (out of 6,000 nationwide state parks).
But look beyond the water and rock structures, plant life proliferates. And if you look closely, you can observe different plant communities within the gorge.
The steep sides that face north get much more sun. In this microclimate, sun-loving plants dominate and include ash, wild sunflowers, goldenrods, raspberries, wild columbine, and grasses. These areas receive a lot of light and the substrate can dry out quickly. Plant life that needs a lot of moisture do not thrive in these conditions.
The north facing wall receives a lot of shade. On the gentle inclines, dominate trees include yellow birch, hemlocks, and mountain maples. In the steeper areas, especially where the walls remain cool and damp for most of the growing season mosses and ferns dominate.
The hike through the gorge is relatively easy and can be done in a pair of tennis shoes with good tread. Because of the pandemic, hiking is one-way. Starting from the main entrance, it is a 1.5-mile uphill climb within the gorge. It can be a bit strenuous at times with some of the stone steps. In addition, the same moisture that promotes the ferns and mosses also falls onto portions of the trail and become slippery. The return trip is downhill above and on either side of the gorge. There are some overlooks that allow great views of the gorge below.
Carve out about 3-hours for this hike, especially if photography is involved. Because of its beauty, easy access, and comfortable hike it can get a bit crowded on nice summer days. Consider an early start or wait until late afternoon when the crowds start to die down.
Tom Butzler is a horticulture educator with the Pennsylvania State University Cooperative Extension Service and may be reached at 570-726-0022.