Thursday, 12 July 2018

Waterfall Chasers: Watkins Glen and Reptiland

On a Saturday morning, we reluctantly bid goodbye to our friends in New York (they made the children pancakes for breakfast first, earning their eternal devotion) and headed south.

We have a road-trip rule that you can only use iPads when we're on an interstate, so the children were completely horrified to learn that we would not go on an interstate at all for the first leg of our trip, instead taking country roads down the length of Lake Seneca. Fortunately, I had packed some Mad Libs, heretofore ignored, and we did these for over half an hour of hallmark-worthy family bonding time... until my daughter managed to pick an argument over how she kept getting asked for adjectives while I got asked for fun stuff like animals.

Our first destination was Watkins Glen State Park, where the water from Lake Seneca flows out through a gorge in several pools and cascades. It's much like a large-scale version of Seven Tubs, except you are strictly Not Allowed to get in and explore. Instead, visitors are restricted to a man-made path up the gorge and back... It sounds boring, except said path is a work of art, integrating its structure with the natural rock formation, and leading the visitors over bridges, through tunnels and behind waterfalls.

Rainbow Falls

I figured it would be an entertaining enough walk to keep the children's attention on exploring rather than the distance traveled... and that probably would have been true had it not been for the helpful sign at the start informing us that it was 1.5 miles and 832 steps each way. My children instantly realised they had been had: this was a three mile hike. (At seven and nine, they are both perfectly capable of walking three miles without noticeable exertion, but however often I prove this to them, they refuse to accept it.)

It was all going so well until we started...
I had to stage something of an intervention here, sitting them both down on a bench and informing them that ice cream was at stake: whiners need not apply. This also provided a helpful service to the older couple at the other end of the bench who had just been lamenting that it had been easier when the kids were younger. They looked at us and remembered, no... no it had not.

Anyway, the kids mostly got over themselves, especially when they saw that the trail started with a tunnel into the cliffside. They disappeared into it and came out on the first bridge while I was still taking pictures from the bottom. We did not make it to the end of the trail, but we went behind the two waterfalls, which was what I had really wanted. Rainbow Falls with its broad curtain of rain is the more serene and attractive of the two, but ducking under the shelf of rock behind Cavern Cascade and getting splashed by the stream of water hitting the rail was more fun, and my personal favourite spot on the trail.

Cavern Cascade
Watkins Glen is a well-known spot, so visiting it on a Saturday (and late morning, no less) was not ideal... the trail was busy and at the spots where it passes behind the two waterfalls, the crowds start bottlenecking as everybody tries to stop for a picture and to allow other people to start taking their pictures. I couldn't change the day of our visit, so we sucked it up, but the general recommendation is to go on a weekday... preferably early or late. We were always conscious of keeping out of people's way, which prevented us from fully letting go and enjoying the trail. Still, even when crowded, it's an astonishingly serene little spot, and while we were all a little irritable at this point into the trip, none of us could stay angry with each other for long.

At the end, we ran into the older couple again, who gave us a thumbs up for making it. I assume they meant not killing each other rather than successfully navigating the trail.

This was the day that England were playing Sweden in the quarter-final of the World Cup (prompted by his father, our son was wearing his England shirt to celebrate), so I checked the news as we finished, to find that England were 1-0 up. We decided to get lunch in town so that we could follow the live updates for the rest of the match.

The gorge of Watkins Glen State Park, literally comes out onto the town of Watkins Glen's main street, so we simply left the visitor's center and took a right. Watkins Glen is a delightfully eccentric place. When we arrived, there were at least three different troupes of Morris Dancers gathering at the vistor's centre. I have no idea why; they were gone by the time we finished the trail. Along the street, a sign announced the start and finish line of the Watkins Glen Grand Prix, chequered flags adorned the road, and paving stones were inscribed with the names of the winners.

A few blocks down, we encountered the World's Smallest Diner (citation needed), and I immediately wanted to eat there, even if the menu consisted solely of a hot dog with choice of two toppings. My ingrate children refused in favour of an overpriced pizzeria. So we sat there, following the BBC's live updates of the match, and when England won, we shamelessly played Three Lions to celebrate.We  followed up with ice cream, sitting in rocking chairs on the porch at the Colonial Inn... something I can thoroughly recommend.

I mean, how could you not want to eat here??
The other stop on our itinerary that day was Reptiland, for my daughter who had requested animals at every opportunity. I wasn't going to do every zoo we passed, but this was a fun way to break up the journey. We only spent about 90 minutes there... that was all that was needed, but we like living reptiles and we like dinosaur animatronics. Even on a Saturday afternoon, it wasn't crowded.

Alligators: regular and albino.

 Our personal highlights were the moving dilophosaurus that actually spits, and stroking a baby alligator after watching one of the educational shows. However, I was completely mesmerised by the snapping turtle who was lurking patiently, his mouth open with a worm-alike appendage wriggling from his tongue, and the lone fish in his tank who kept swimming up to look at his predator and then determinedly swimming away again. We passed this tank several times and each time the kids had to drag me away as I was convinced this time would be the time he got the fish. For all we know, that fish is alive still.

Spitting! (We are easily pleased.)

The mistake I made was not booking a hotel for the Saturday night. I had one in mind, in Donegal, but when we arrived, it was full. So were the two other hotels nearby. After some digging around, I found a hotel in Connelsville, which would be convenient for our trip the next day, but was another half an hour of travel here and now. We were lucky though—it was a good hotel for a good price. We could easily have found ourselves in a situation where we had to pay more than we wanted, just for the sake of getting a bed for the night. Lesson duly learned! Next time I'll book ahead.

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