Hiking and Eating in Watkins Glen

Morvalden’s Park and Christina’s Kitchen

A perfect hike-to-eat combination in Watkins Glen

Story and photos by Janet McCue

My husband admonished me recently about the lack of cardio workouts in my life. Perhaps admonish is too strong a verb for his gentle questioning but I stumbled defensively through a litany of my exercise routines. Truth was, my post-holiday life had been rather sedentary. I needed to take a hike and it needed to be uphill.

WGSPThe Finger Lakes Trail (FLT), a 950-mile system wending its way from Alleghany State Park in western New York to the Long Path in the Catskill Forest Preserve, cuts through Watkins Glen State Park (WGSP). Considered a “flagship park” by New York State, WGSP was the first state park in the Finger Lakes region. It’s also one of the most popular, mesmerizing 700,000 visitors a year with its 19 waterfalls, mile-long channel and perfect “potholes” scoured into the Devonian bedrock. A recent poll taken by USA Today awarded WGSP third place for best state park in a field of 6,000 state parks across the country. Yet many locals often forget to visit.

If it’s the crowds that are keeping us locals away, fear no more—at least until summer. Although the gorge walk closes in winter because of icy conditions, there are beautiful alternative hikes in the park with nary a visitor in sight.

Since I was doing my self-righteous cardio workout, I started my walk on the FLT off of Old Corning Road (close to the Franklin Street Park entrance). I huffed uphill on a rutted service road until I got to a clearing where the elegant 19th-century Glen Mountain House once welcomed visitors from around the world. Before it became a New York State Park, Watkins Glen was a private resort with its own PR engine: Morvalden Ells, newspaperman, entrepreneur and marketer. Many of the evocative names (Rainbow Falls, Elfin Gorge) used today to describe the falls and natural features of the park were devised by Mr. Ells. Standing on the same suspension bridge over the gorge and looking down at the serpentine channel below, it’s easy to imagine Morvalden waxing eloquent about the wonders of this “book of nature” to his Victorian visitors.

photo 2The FLT heads off (and up) onto what I imagine were once carriage roads carrying tourists along the gorge. Remnants of a low rock wall punctuated with clusters of rock polypody ferns line one side of the trail and gorge views beckon on the other. Stone pedestal tables covered in moss evoke Victorian picnic scenes and I fantasized about a winter cookout next time. The stillness of winter and the sounds of gushing water were my companions. My uphill climb ended at a different type of bridge over the gorge—a railroad trestle owned by the Norfolk Southern Corp. I pondered the wisdom of using this rusted trestle—almost as old as the Park itself—to transport LPG gas and other Crestwood Midstream petroleum products safely across the gorge of a park visited annually by more than 700,000 people.

I backtracked down the trail then climbed again up to the pavilion at the South entrance of the Park so that I could boost my heartrate and later boast to my husband. On my way back to my car (parked at sea level or at least lake level), I did a brisk walk down Franklin Street to the new restaurant in town, Graft Wine & Cider Bar, where I joined two friends.

Morvalden would have had no trouble marketing Graft. The kitchen stars Christina McKeough and her husband Jonah, the duo who founded Hazelnut Kitchen in Trumansburg (now under new ownership). At Graft, the menu features savory and sweet local products and creative tapas-sized dishes to share, and the wine selection—both on the menu and on the shelves—features a broad array of local and regional wines and ciders, which you can purchase while you dine or to take home and enjoy later. My friends and I shared six dishes then voted on our favorites. Russ voted for our starter-snack, fragrant turmeric cashews mixed with seaweed and sesame; Anna Katharine for the Piggery kielbasa casserole with fingerling potatoes, house-made sauerkraut braised in Riesling, and Graft’s own spicy mustard.

I was tempted to vote for the kielbasa too, but still enchanted by the perfect Brussels sprout salad with a sprinkling of apples, walnuts, Parmesan cheese and lemon vinaigrette drawing it all together, I waited until our dessert came before casting my final vote. And it was good that I did: The chamomile pot de crème sprinkled with a honey bee pollen won my heart. The 2014 Atwater Vineyards Dry Rosé of Merlot that Anna Katharine and I selected to go with our meal was a double gold winner in the Rosé Competition in California and it held up well to the turmeric, the dukkah on hummus, the pâté, the Brussels sprout salad, the kielbasa, and the chamomile pot de crème.  Atwater produced just 38 cases of the Rosé and it’s available only through the winery and at Graft, so get it now!

As we sipped our wine, we watched a parade of happy diners descend from the upstairs. We wondered what we were missing on the second floor and were surprised to find Ted Marks, owner of Atwater Vineyards, (his daughter, Katie, is the proprietor of Graft) and Steve Wagner, Graft’s manager, when we crept upstairs to see. Steve explained that the second floor dining room can be reserved for small private gatherings. The chalkboard welcomed that night’s diners: “Welcome Ladies Book Club! Women readers are divine.” I suspect those women readers ate as divinely as we did.

Janet McCue is an avid hiker who enjoys both the beauty and the bounty of the Finger Lakes. Her website follows her six-day culinary trek through the Finger Lakes, a journey that Edible Finger Lakes covered in its July/August 2014 issue (“Hike to Eat”).

For more of Janet’s work, click here.

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