On the Track at Watkins Glen International

While the state park is fun and the wineries in the area are getting better every year, Watkins Glen is famous because of its speedway, a storied road track that’s hosted everything from NASCAR to Formula One to, this summer, a three-day Phish-stravaganza. When I rolled through town, there wasn’t much happening in the way of races.

So I took my car on the track.

Traveling the American Road – Watkins Glen International

It wasn’t as furtive as it sounds: for 25 bucks, anyone can sign up for a Thunder Road Tour of The Glen, as the track is known, and drive its infamous first turn, navigate the “esses,” negotiate the tight curves of the back end and come to a stop on the start-finish line for a photo op. Four other cars would be rounding the track with me, but we were under strict instructions not to try to pass each other, much to my dismay. (“Try not to put the other cars into the wall” was an instruction I did appreciate.)

My first lap was a gimmie, a chance to get a feel for the track and relax at the thought that I wouldn’t need to stop for any traffic lights or check my blind spot: This is certainly not highway driving.

The second loop was faster and much more fun, a chance to take the turns a little harder, punch the accelerator in the straights and test the brakes. It was also the lap on which our peloton would stop on the start-finish line. After getting used to “racing,” pulling the car to a stop felt nearly impossible. We all hopped out, and I took a picture for a family visiting from South Carolina, who in all their years watching racing has never set foot on the pavement of a track. They were giddy.

While we were stopped, I ask the driver of our pace car how fast we were going compared to a typical race day. His answer? About 30 percent, with our 60 mph a mere fraction of the 180-plus that drivers can achieve when gunning for the winner’s circle.

I vowed to really crank it up for the last of my three laps, pushing hard into turns in my Explorer, trying to squeeze as much race-day excitement I could from the controlled scenario. There were some thrills, but what I really got out of the day was a burning desire to see a real race live. Probably one at The Glen.

The Secret Lost World of New York’s Finger Lakes

The funny thing about road trips is that you end up spending a lot of time behind the wheel of your car. There’s always another city to get to, asphalt to be consumed, another waypoint to hit. So by the time I pulled into Watkins Glen, a small town in New York’s Finger Lakes region, I was ready to get out and stretch my legs.

Fortunately, the village is home to one of the coolest state parks in New York, hidden in plain sight, right off the main drag.

Traveling the American Road – Watkins Glen State Park

Watkins Glen State Park is home to a “staircase of waterfalls” that cascade down through innumerable layers of shale and sandstone, guarded by towering cliff faces from which heavy drops of condensation fall, splashing on hikers’ heads. It’s a Lost World here, with electric green ferns dangling, water whooshing over ledges and swirling in natural Jacuzzis, mist hanging heavily in the air and amateur naturalists armed with telescoping aluminum walking sticks and floppy, broad-brimmed hats. (Another secret of the park is that the pathway along Glen Creek, while sometimes slippery, is hardly a technical hike.)

The park is a verdant escape, a place for a one-hour break from reality, planted right in the heart of a town best known as a car-racing capital, the home to Watkins Glen International, one of the country’s most storied road tracks. There’s no doubt the park gets crowded on the weekends, but during my Wednesday morning visit? I was happy to have my time outside the car to myself.