Watkins left New York for the California gold rush sometime between 1849 and 1851. He first worked in a bookstore, then as an operator for Robert H. Vance's daguerrean gallery in San Francisco. He set up his own gallery, eventually called the Watkins Yosemite Art Gallery, which he owned or operated (others owned it during difficult financial periods) until April 16, 1906. On that date the great San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed his studio and most of his life's work. During his active years Watkins made many trips to Yosemite Valley, to the Northwest and to the Southwest. He was a member of numerous surveys and excursions, such as the 1866 Geological Survey of California, and his work was widely exhibited.
He was especially noted for his mammoth- plate landscape views of Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove. Over his fifty-year career he also took views of cities, towns, mining camps, missions, orchards, ranches and engineering works. Watkins produced stereo views as well as 16 x 20s, and even constructed his own stereo camera.
Quotes from others about the person
Oliver Wendell Holmes has described his Yosemite photographs as "clear, yet soft, vigorous in the foreground, delicately distinct in the distance, in a perfection of art which compares with the finest European work" (Atlantic Monthly).
Watkins met Frances Sneed photographing in Virginia City, Nevada. They became romantically involved in 1878 and were married a year later, on Watkins’ fiftieth birthday. The couple had two children: a daughter Julia in 1881, and a son Collis in 1883.