Into the Mist of Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls is a legendary wonder, drawing millions of tourists with its rugged, accessible beauty and thundering, jaw-dropping power

 

The liquid wonder of Niagara Falls greets you before you ever see it – a billowing cloud of mist that boils on the distant horizon, only a hint of the dramatic spectacle that is to come. For once you are standing alongside the thundering curtain of water – a chain of three waterfalls, actually – only then do you appreciate the sheer force and astonishing grandeur of this natural marvel.

To float at the foot of Horseshoe Falls is to be temporarily swallowed by a typhoon.

There you stand, shoulder-to-rain-poncho-clad-shoulder with other eager gawkers on a slippery ship’s deck, caught in a deafening, otherworldly land of liquid muscle. Swallowed by blankets of stinging spray. Squinting against the sheer whiteness of a 13-story wall of water, which seems, at the moment, to utterly engulf you. Rocked by the pounding force of a river caught in a roaring plunge – some 600,000 gallons of water passing over its rocky lip per second.

Then you glance at the faces around you, the other average American thrill-seekers who elected to take this ride on “The Maid of the Mist,” a famous fleet of double-decker observation boats.

Amid the grimaces and the gasps and the blood-curdling screams there bloom, miraculously, smiles.

Expressions of wonder, delight, amazement and incredulity collide on this deck, and rightly so.

This is better, you realize, than all the man-made amusement park rides out there. Why?  Because Walt Disney could never have invented this. Nature simply made it this way.

It’s easy to dismiss Niagara Falls as part of the So-Big-It-Is-Overdone brand of sightseeing. Don’t make that mistake. Sure, it’s an iconic American – and Canadian, for that matter – tourist stop.

However, in our book, it’s a must-see destination. If you’ve never been there, you really ought to go. If you saw it as a kid, rekindle that childlike wonder and treat your own family to the outright thrill of it. As attractions go, it’s affordable, offers a lot of bang for the buck, and is accessible. The best news? A recreational vehicle is a great way to take it in.

Visiting Niagara Falls is doable for even the biggest motorhome or the smallest pop-up camper. Whether you treat the attraction as a quick stopover en route to other sites or the ultimate destination, it’s a winner for RVers.

Campground choices are abundant on both the American and Canadian sides, from state parks that hug the shoreline of Lake Ontario to small, country campgrounds and even close-to-the-city options. Based upon our experience, that’s a big improvement from being caught in the overpriced commercial glut that crowds the area closest to the falls – unless downtown congestion gives you a thrill.

Frankly, staying just outside the central falls region has its advantages. Niagara Falls is a showstopper. But it’s only one in a string of great natural and historic attractions the area has to offer.

From hiking past world-class river rapids along the Niagara Gorge Trail System, walking the pages of American history at Old Fort Niagara, or wetting a hook on the shores of Lake Ontario, visiting in an RV gives you the flexibility to follow your won whims, while sticking to a budget that allows you to linger a little longer.

Follow the water

Tucked in the northwestern corner of New York State, Niagara Falls is actually a trio of waterfalls that tumble over ancient cliffs along a great, arching bend in the Niagara River.

The mighty river is broken by a small cluster of islands. To one side stretches American and Bridal Veil Falls, at 1,060 feet wide. To the other side is the Canadian or Horseshoe Falls, spanning 2,600 feet.

Taken together, Niagara Falls is ranked in the top 10 among the world’s largest waterfalls in sheer water volume and velocity, yet only a fraction of water from the river actually reaches the falls.

Power plants on both the American and Canadian sides divert over half the Niagara River’s flow, via up stream tunnels, in order to produce nearly 2.5 million kilowatts of electricity.

Carved around the end of the Ice Age, this massive geologic spectacle is easily viewed from several scenic points – many bring you so close it seems that you could reach out and touch the waterfalls.

To find the falls from the U.S., follow the Robert Moses Parkway through the town of Niagara Falls, N.Y., toward Niagara Reservation State Park. (Tip: Look for a roundabout and follow the signs).

The trek takes you into the town’s most touristy district, where parking can be a challenge, especially in summer months. Sure, you could roll the dice, find in-town parking, and hike to the park via pedestrian bridges, but for a modest parking fee, you could be right in the heart of things.

Instead, head into the 400-acre state park itself, where admission is free and RV parking is available for a fee. From here, you can walk to view all the falls – a relaxing stroll along paved paths – or take a scenic trolley ride around Goat Island, where you can absorb everything at once.

Goat Island was named after John Stedman, whose goat herds froze to death here in 1780. Local lore holds that the island has never been actively inhabited – except, possible, by goats. Today, that pristine quality still shines through in the water and woodlands.

If you don’t do anything more than park on Goat Island and enjoy the natural habitat, pausing to gawk at the falls now and then, the trip will be worth your time. It’s a terrific natural setting for a picnic, a walk or a flat, easy bike ride.

In addition to magnificent close-up views of all three waterfalls, this day park is a portal for other fine attractions. Walk around the base of Bridal Veil Falls – just a few feet away from the pounding water – on a Cave of the Winds tour. Get a bird’s eye view of all the falls from Observation Tower at Prospect Point. Grab lunch at Top of the Falls restaurant. Venture to Three Sisters Island to watch the rapids dance just above Horseshoe Falls.

Or catch a trip up the Niagara River on the famed “Maid of the Mist” boat excursions, which take you within a stone’s throw of all the falls, complete with complimentary blue rain ponchos; it’s a “gotta’ do it” adventure. Expect to return soaking wet and grinning.

The most popular time to visit is late June, July and August, when you should be prepared for long lines at top attractions, such as “Maid of the Mist.” During peak season, early mornings or late afternoons are the best times to visit. Or consider avoiding the crunch with a full trip to catch some spectacular foliage.

Niagara Falls is a dream for photography buffs. Like a pretty girl, the falls just don’t seem to take a bad photo. Plus, just the right slant of sunlight can produce spectacular rainbows in the mist billowing from the falls. (Tip: If you take your camera on a boat trip, do bring waterproof protection.)

It’s easy to invest an entire day at Niagara Falls State Park, and well worth the time.

But that it’s only half of the picture.

A different view

As long as you’ve come this far, you might as well zip over to Canada for another perspective on Niagara Falls, especially at night, when the falls are illuminated in soft, candy-colored lights – March through December – and fireworks erupt overhead on scheduled summer nights.

The best way over is across Rainbow Bridge, located just downstream from the American Falls and easily seen from Niagara Falls State Park. (To the south, at Buffalo, take the Peace Bridge; to the north, try the Lewiston-Queenston International Bridge.)

You can walk across Rainbow Bridge to Niagara Falls, Ontario – and earn a fine panoramic view of the falls – or drive over. But be aware that border crossings these days are serious business.

Make sure to always have your passport and birth certificates available, it’s a good idea to have them in your vehicle. When talking to border agents, turn off radios and cell phones and don’t clown around. Local residents advise that a little courtesy can go a long way, and shorten your wait considerably. Also, to avoid lines avoid border crossings on holidays.

Compared with sleepy Niagara Falls, USA, the Canadian counterpart is practically Las Vegas, with towering architecture, loads of glitzy neon, and a shimmering nightlife. Parking is crazy, streets are congested, and the commercial corridor that rings the Niagara Gorge is packed with high-rise hotels, casinos, restaurants and shops of every stripe.

Paid parking is available late May through early October at Rapidsview Parking Lot, just south of the Table Rock Center at Horseshoe Falls. The price includes a free shuttle to the falls. And yes, you can also catch the “Maid of the Mist” boat tour from this side of the river.

If it all seems too much, just stick alongside the river gorge. Enjoy a stroll through Queen Victoria Park, which borders the falls. Take a hike through the Dufferin Islands Nature Area. Grab lunch at The Shops at Table Rock – the chief spot for viewing Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side. Or savor the sights on a romantic horse-drawn carriage ride.

Al Booker, from Ontario, has been coming to the falls since childhood, taking in both sides of the river. This time, he was camping at a KOA near Lewiston, NY, in a Class C motorhome.

His advice for visitors to Niagara Falls, Canada?

Avoid the “over-touristed” district around Clifton Hill, and instead try “just going up to Table Rock, having a beer and looking out over the falls.”

To enjoy the full effect of the falls after dark – and the summer fireworks display – the Canadian side is a hands-down winner. Stake out a spot by dusk, as crowds turn out in force. Evening pyrotechnics begin at 10 p.m. Fridays and Sundays from May through September, plus a handful of holidays.

From here, it’s an easy shot north along the scenic Niagara Parkway. If you’ve come this far, do take time to visit the Niagara Parks Botanical Garden – a 99-acre outdoor classroom for the Niagara Parks School of Horticulture – and the nearby Niagara  Parks Butterfly Conservatory.

There are plenty of scenic turnouts, a chance to study the rapids churning the deep green waters of the Niagara River. You can also pull over and stretch your legs on the Niagara River Recreation Trail, a paved path that stretches some 35 miles along the Canadian side of the river.

Beyond the roar

Only a few miles north of Niagara Falls, a serene silence replaces the roar of the falls.

For travelers on the American side, Whirlpool State Park is an unsung treasure. In essence, you’ll find two parks – first, a street level park, with shaded, gently sloping picnic grounds, a playground, and some of the best vistas to be found of the Niagara River’s whirling Class 6 rapids.

Follow the trails that slope downward and you’ll see a different park, showcasing what are thought to be among the wildest, most formidable and dangerous rapids in the world – America’s largest series of standing waves.

Once the Niagara River takes its great plunge at the falls, the water gets in a hurry. Elevation along the river drops sharply in a short span through a narrow gorge, creating the spectacular Whirlpool Rapids. The rapids culminate in a sharp bend in the river known as The Whirlpool, a broad, raucous cove where the river suddenly changes direction.

From Whirlpool State Park, you can follow the Niagara Gorge Trail, which meanders about 14 miles, or tackle the series of steps and nature trails that descend deep into the gorge, eventually leading to the Whirlpool Flats Viewing Areas and fishing access.

Whirlpool State Park offers plenty of parking and admission is free. You’ll find it about two miles north of Niagara Falls, NY, just off the Robert Moses State Parkway. Or keep veering north on Robert Moses Parkway to catch Devil’s Hole State Park, 42 acres of nature trails, gorge caves, picnic areas and a 30-foot walkway along the river, which offers a great view of the rapids.

Follow signs for the Scenic Seaway Trail – part of a 518 mile scenic byway that winds from Lake Erie, along the Niagara River, to Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. You’ll spin through some charming villages that offer fun diversions.

At Lewiston, check out a musical performance at the Earl W. Bridges Artpark State Park or catch a very wet jet boat tour of the famed Niagara Whirlpool. You can take in a car race at the Ransomville Speedway. At Youngstown, catch coffee and a morning pastry at a cafe, or if you’re lucky, stumble across a Strawberry Shortcake Festival at the local Episcopalian Church.

Keep pushing north and you’ll reach Old Fort Niagara – another don’t-miss destination, where you’ll explore original French and British buildings and fortifications from the 1700s, some of the oldest buildings on the Great Lakes.

Situated on a bluff overlooking Lake Ontario at the mouth of the Niagara River, the site offers living history events – including the largest War of 1812 encampment in North America –and hands-on programs, historical exhibits and collections.

The expansive views of Lake Ontario, the Niagara River and Canadian shoreline are worth the price of admission. Grab a map and hook up with one of the fort’s fabulous history guides for some on-site education.

Sean and Stephanie Stephens, of Ohio, found plenty of parking at the fort, even for a large motorhome. And that was a good thing.

The Stephens’ clan home-school their four children. Joined by a grandmother from Oregon and two “loaner kids,” they were using a trek to the Niagara region as a rolling history lesson in their Class A motorhome.

“It’s hard to do better than this,” said Sean, nodding at the historic fort.

The best of both worlds

Once you’ve shaken off the Big City, you’re in camping country. And most of your options are only a quick drive away from the falls.

Campgrounds know their stuff, catering to visitors who’ve come for the falls. They strive to provide the best of both worlds – an encounter with the natural world, a taste of the tourism.

Seven miles south of the falls, the Niagara Falls KOA, on Grand Island, offers a rural ambiance, paddleboats on a private pond, outdoor movie nights, bike rentals, craft classes for kids, a heated pool, and train rides to a nearby water park. A tour company picks up on-site and delivers visitors to Niagara Falls three times a day.

To the north, just outside Lewiston, the Niagara Falls KOA North caters to a smaller, quieter crowd. But you can still pick up a van tour of the falls from here – a 10-mile ride – or simply enjoy a quiet swim in the pool.

Venture a bit farther east, and the Niagara County Camping Resort, outside the city of Lockport, provides two private lakes, a swimming beach, petting zoo, live entertainment and free miniature golf. And guided tours of the falls – U.S. or Canadian sides – depart directly from the campgrounds.

But one of the most charming campgrounds we found was a humble state park just north of Youngstown, NY. Located 20 minutes north of Niagara Falls, Four Mile Creek State Campground offers roomy campsites in sunny and shady settings, mature trees and foliage, prime campsites along the shores of Lake Ontario, hiking through a densely wooded bluff, and a nearby marsh for bird watching.

“We’ve been here before,” said Jim Recco, of NY, who came to Four Mile Creek this summer with his wife, Sandy, their two Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and their sleek toy hauler.

“This park is nice because the roads are well kept, and they may have the best showers in any state park in the state,” Jim chuckled. “Plus, you have 30-amp and water hookups.”

The Reccos also appreciate the campground for its proximity to the Robert Moses Parkway.

“From here, it’s a quick ride down to the falls. “And it’s a nice ride,” he added.

In a shady corner of the campground on a warm day, Dick Clark, of NY, reconnected with a handful of old friends. “We all started meeting in the ‘70s to go to car races,” Clark recalled.

“We only live 18 miles away from each other,” he laughed, nodding at a friend, The Legendary Pass-Out Pete. This is a good park for a reunion. The sites are roomy, the prices slightly less than you’ll find at private campgrounds, and you can always find a shade tree on a sunny day.”

“It’s a good atmosphere with a friendly staff, which is always nice,” added Adrienne Porter, of NY. “But we meet a lot of people who camp here just to be near the falls.”

 

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