Watkins Glen

A lone schooner coasts along the wooded shore of Seneca Lake

Watkins Glen, New York

Getting to the Wine Capital of the East Coast
is half the fun, but watch your head

Story and photos by Terry Woehr

Where, you ask?  Wasn’t there a rock concert there 30 years ago? Don’t they race cars there sometimes…are the races at a track, or do they still run through the streets of Watkins Glen, like they did in the 40s and 50s?  Water?  And how in the world do you get a trawler to Watkins Glen?

Watkins Glen, N.Y. is at the southern tip of Seneca Lake in New York State’s Finger Lakes region. To get to Watkins Glen by boat, which everyone should do at least once in their cruising life, merely head north on the beautiful Hudson River, passing spectacular sights such as West Point, Anthony’s Nose, Storm King Mountain and the Catskill Mountains up to Troy, where the Erie Canal begins its cut across New York State. The Erie Canal, considered a destination by many, intersects the junction of the Cayuga-Seneca Canal. Head south and you’ll find the first accessible Finger Lake for cruisers; Cayuga Lake. At the southern tip of Cayuga is the city of Ithaca, NY-home of Cornell University and another destination cruisers shouldn’t miss. Passing by the turnoff to Cayuga Lake, enroute to Seneca Lake you will come upon Waterloo, Seneca Falls and Geneva, NY, each one offering cruisers fine amenities.

Seneca Falls         Sue Graham

Thirty eight miles south of Geneva, navigating between the grape vineyards that line both shores, in depths of more than 800 feet, at the southern terminus of Seneca Lake is the remarkable village of Watkins Glen. Watkins Glen bursts at its seams every summer-when race car buffs arrive to enjoy SCAA sponsored races, rallies, and in August the NASCAR series comes roaring into town, bringing in 150,000 spectators to enjoy only one of two road courses on the NASCAR circuit. Watkins Glen holds the distinction of being the capital of road racing in the U.S., hosting the first race after World War II in 1948. 

Aside from the racing history, Watkins Glen has some of the most spectacular natural beauty you’ll experience. The Watkins Glen Gorge will challenge even the heartiest souls with its stone steps rising 1-1/2 miles upward to the top. The waterfalls are spectacular, and if you’re here when the columbine is in bloom (early summer), it’ll take your breath away faster than the hike does. Clute Park offers a beach for swimmers (who don’t mind ice cold water) and a park-like setting to enjoy sunsets and a quiet afternoon with a good book. Often during the summer, you’ll see 8 to10 boats rafted together close to shore, a party between them all. Watkins Glen has a convenient village marina to the west of the canal entrance. Mostly sailboats tie up there, as the bridge clearance to the canal and the remaining marinas is 15 feet 10 inches. Other marinas are found on the Chemung Canal leading south to the village of Montour Falls.

The author, at left, with Neil and Gail O’Donnell, owners of the GH 37 Sybarite II.

By far, the most enjoyable activity you can partake of while you are tied to a dock in Watkins Glen is a tour of the many wineries that dot the landscape of Seneca Lake’s shoreline. The Seneca Wine Trail vineyards produce award winning wines (and there are even a few that dabble in some excellent micro-brew beers) and offer wine tasting, tours, and food to compliment their wines. The Finger Lakes wineries are known for excellence in Rieslings, Gewürztraminers, and Chardonnays. They are also adding some gold medal reds to their resumes as well.

The village of Watkins Glen itself is quaint, and with the exception of weekends when racing, wine and festivals are in full swing, the pace is slow and relaxing. Franklin Street is the main shopping boulevard, with local eateries, antique shops, racing memorabilia shops and local artisan coops that offer wares to tempt even the most prudent shoppers. 

For those of us who are cruising with our Great Harbours and N37’s, you should know a few things before planning a trip that includes the Erie Canal and Watkins Glen. First of all, height/clearance is a big concern.  If you have kept your Mirage boat to original design specs, you’ll clear most of the bridges most of the time. Any 47 owners with fly bridges added to the tops of their pilothouses are out of luck. You’ll make it to the junction of the Erie Canal and the Oswego River, at Three Rivers where the Seneca River and Oneida River, join to flow north creating the Oswego River.  If you cannot clear 15’6” you cannot traverse the Erie Canal west, only choice is to head north on the Oswego to Lake Ontario or return east.   We put our navigation mast down as we depart from the welcome center in Waterford, NY and don’t put it back up until we are docked at our slip in Watkins Glen.

Glen Harbour Marina has a few transient slips available, as does Lembeck’s Marina on the western shore of the canal.  A little further south is Watkins Glen Yacht Club, where Berlie Mae makes her home for the summer season. We welcome all Great Harbours to our beautiful facility, where for $20 per night you have water, 30 amp electric (twins, if you need), cable TV and shower facilities. Visit our “Tiki Bar” where you can sit and enjoy company and a beverage (BYOB) during afternoon social hours. Not far from our beautiful club are the Corning Glass Museum, and National Warplane Museum and for those of you into culinary delights, Monica’s Pies is in nearby Naples, N.Y.

There are 28 locks to traverse between Troy, NY and Watkins Glen…something that reminds one of historical nature of the Canal. Spend a night or two in Seneca Falls-home of the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, where Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Mary Baker Eddy and other’s fought to attain the rights we now have as women.

Watkins Glen is a spectacular destination for cruisers. Somehow it seems perfect for those of us who are cruising in our Great Harbour’s. Give Ted and Terry aboard the Berlie Mae a shout if you plan a visit.  We’ll make sure you have a place to tie your lines to, and provide a hearty welcome here in Watkins Glen.    

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