NIAGARA FALLS, New York — I’ve been on boat rides and Ferris wheels, visited wax museums and wineries.
One thing I’ve never done on a visit to Niagara Falls – take a hike. That is, until last weekend, when I spent two days exploring Niagara Falls, New York, home to the nation’s first state park, founded in 1885.
I arrived in town early Saturday afternoon and headed straight for the Maid of the Mist, the century-old boat company that takes visitors on water-soaked tours of the falls. By 2 p.m., the company was turning people away, with afternoon tours already filled to (reduced) capacity. “Come back tomorrow,” said an apologetic supervisor.
Cave of the Winds, the popular park attraction that gives visitors access to the base of Bridal Veil Falls, also was sold out for the day.
So my husband and I headed back to the car and drove 4 miles north to a spot along the Niagara River known as Devil’s Hole State Park. I laced up my hiking boots and headed into the gorge.
My previous trips to Niagara Falls – I’ve made perhaps a half-dozen in the past 20 years – have all focused on the Canadian side. I accepted, seemingly without challenge, the often-repeated view that the falls are better seen from the north side, and that there is more to do in Ontario.
Even if that’s true – and certainly it’s an opinion that’s open to interpretation – it doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to do on the U.S. side.
Besides, Americans can’t go to Canada now. The border has been closed for all but essential travel since mid-March in an attempt to stem the spread of coronavirus. The closure was recently extended until Wednesday, Oct. 21, and many observers think it won’t reopen until next year.
So if you want to see one of the world’s most spectacular natural wonders anytime soon, you’ll have to do it from the New York side.
But there are challenges with visiting New York, too. New York currently has 35 states and territories on its travel advisory list, which requires visitors from these locations to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival, essentially prohibiting leisure travel from these areas.
As I was planning my trip in mid-July, Ohio landed on New York’s travel advisory list, thanks to spiking covid-19 cases. I delayed my trip, rescheduling it for last week, after Ohio was removed. (States are added and subtracted every week, making it hard for even New Yorkers to keep track. The woman who checked me into my Niagara Falls hotel didn’t realize Ohio had been removed. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t,” I assured her.)
My visit focused on the 400-acre park, the vision of famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who championed public access to the falls in the late 1800s amid growing commercialization of the area.
Millions of visitors have benefited from that vision, which includes expansive green space along the water, meandering walkways and spectacular overlooks.
Queuing up for Maid of the Mist
The best way to experience the falls, however, isn’t from a scenic overlook – it’s up close and personal, and the park offers two iconic ways to get wet.
Shut out on Saturday, we returned to the Maid of the Mist on Sunday, arriving at 10 a.m., the departure time for the day’s first tour. We were told that the wait was approximately two hours.
Long lines for the boat tours have become routine on nice-weather weekends, in part because tours are operating at half capacity and also because the Maid is running with just one boat this season, due to some certification delays of the company’s two new all-electric boats. Whatever the reasons, timed tickets would eliminate the queuing – the state of New York, which contracts with Maid of the Mist, should insist on it.
I’ve waited in longer lines for roller coasters, so I stuck it out, and I’m glad I did. This 20-minute boat tour, which takes riders past the American Falls and then hovers at the base of Horseshoe Falls for several minutes while spray surrounds, is as much fun as I remembered, a peak experience that everyone should try at least once.
A word about social distancing on the boat: Back in July, several images taken of two Niagara Falls tour boats went viral, supposedly symbolic of the two countries’ vastly different approaches to the virus. The photo showed a Maid of the Mist boat, packed with guests, adjacent to a Hornblower cruise, which operates from the Ontario side, carrying just six passengers.
Hornblower boats are now permitted to operate with more passengers, and indeed, they appeared to have many more guests onboard when I saw them last week – although not as many as on the Maid, which is operating at less than half capacity, allowing approximately 175 riders.
The problem is that everyone wants to stand along the perimeter of the boat, where the views are best. At times, we were definitely closer than 6 feet apart, but we were all wearing masks, we were outside, and the air circulation was – to put it mildly – robust. It did not feel unsafe.
After the boat ride, we hustled over to Cave of the Winds, where we had a timed ticket for just before 1 p.m.
This popular activity has a lot of history too, dating to the 1840s, when Cave of the Winds was really a cave. A rock fall altered the experience in 1920 – instead of touring behind the falls, visitors now explore the base of the falls, atop multi-level wooden decking that has to be replaced every year.
An elevator takes you to the bottom of Bridal Veil Falls, where you can spend as much time as you want wandering around. You can stick your hand in the falls and stand underneath a torrent of water in an area called the Hurricane Deck.
You will absolutely, positively, get wet, even with the complimentary yellow poncho. The attraction used to hand out sandals to participants, but no longer – so choose your footwear accordingly.
Timed tickets for Cave of the Winds must be purchased in person on the day of the tour – so get to the ticket counter early, particularly on nice weekends. We bought ours at 9 a.m. and had a choice of tour times, but when we returned at 12:45 p.m., all tours were sold out.
After our tour, we strolled the 2-mile paved walking path around the perimeter of Goat Island, immediately upriver from the falls, with terrific views of the frothy water on all sides. Terrapin Point, with up-close views of Horseshoe Falls, is along this path, as is a pedestrian bridge to Luna Island, offering tremendous views of the American Falls.
But for the best hiking, head downriver from the falls, along the Niagara Gorge.
There are numerous trails and access points along the 7-mile canyon, which stretches from Niagara Falls to the eastern edge of the Niagara Escarpment, the massive geologic formation that extends from Wisconsin into western New York.
We descended the gorge at Devil’s Hole, then hiked south along the river past Whirlpool Rapids.
This was gorgeous hiking, with the raging turquoise river to our right, massive rock formations to our left and towering trees overhead. We hiked for nearly 3 hours, stopping frequently to take in the views.
At Whirlpool Rapids, we watched the jet boats play in the froth and checked out the Aero Car cable car traveling above us.
This was mostly easy to moderate hiking, with some rock scrambling in the Whirlpool Rapids area. The hardest part was ascending the staircase out of the gorge – 200 feet straight up, which got my heart pumping.
Up top, we took the mostly flat Rim Trail back to where we started, with more views of the river below.
To be sure, these views were not comparable to the sights from the Ferris wheel across the river. In some ways, though, they were even better.
If you go: Niagara Falls State Park
Where: Niagara Falls, N.Y., is an easy 3½-hour drive from Cleveland, east on I-90 to I-190 north and then the Niagara Scenic Parkway into town.
When: The park is open year-round, but some activities are seasonal. Cave of the Winds operates daily through Sunday, Oct. 18; tickets are $19 ($16 for children). A modified “gorge walk” is offered starting in mid-October. Information: niagarafallsstatepark.com/attractions-and-tours/cave-of-the-winds.
Maid of the Mist operates daily through Sunday, Nov. 8. Tickets are $22.25 for adults ($13 for ages 6-12). Information: maidofthemist.com
Where to stay: We stayed at the historic Red Coach Inn, open since 1923 in an English-style Tudor building across the street from the park. Overnight rooms come with a terrific full breakfast. Rates start at $100 per night, more on the weekends. Information: redcoach.com.
Niagara Falls: By the numbers
Niagara Falls is actually three separate waterfalls, all powered by the magnificent 36-mile Niagara River, which connects Lake Erie and Lake Ontario:
* American Falls, 120 feet high by 940 feet across;
* Bridal Veil Falls, 120 feet high by 45 feet across;
* Horseshoe Falls (also known as Canadian Falls), 167 feet high by 2,700 feet across
Editor’s note: This is one in an ongoing series about state parks in Ohio and surrounding states. Please email suggestions to Travel Editor Susan Glaser, [email protected].