Here’s our take: Yes, Niagara Falls has a tacky and touristy side. But it’s worth visiting, if for no other reason than to ride the iconic Maid of the Mist into the churning waters beneath the waterfall. (Plus, it truly is beautiful, and we found plenty of non-touristy adventures.)
But First, A Few Days In Amish Country
For the sake of remembering how we got from southeastern Michigan to Niagara Falls, I’m documenting here our stop at Geneva State Park in northeastern Ohio. It’s a lovely park on the shores of Lake Erie with nice biking trails, in the midst of Amish Country.
We spent a day biking the trails in the park, and another day exploring the local covered bridges and stocking up on Amish goodies at the general store in Mesopotamia: dilly beans, pickled beets, curried pickled cauliflower, and pickled asparagus. So delicious, and so addictive.
(Click on any photo for a larger image)
Geneva State Park is about 10 miles from the town of Ashtabula, which boasts the terrific little Cloven Hoof Brewing. Along with hanging out at the brewery and drinking beer with the friendly locals, the primary entertainment seems to be watching the drawbridge raise every hour to allow boats access from the Ashtabula River into Lake Erie. The enormous coal pile and freighters just across the river are a vivid reminder that this is the heart of industrial America.
Moving On To Niagara Falls
Leaving Geneva State Park, we moved on to Four Mile Creek State Park, the perfect location for exploring Niagara Falls. I never realized that Niagara Falls is actually three massive falls: Horseshoe Falls (the largest), American Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls. The Niagara River forms the border between the U.S. and Canada, and we walked across the river on the Rainbow Bridge to experience both sides of the falls.
The two sides couldn’t be more different. Canada wins the prize for the best views—it looks across at the beautiful falls on the American side. But Canada also wins the prize for over-the-top tacky tourist attractions, including a Ripley’s Believe it or Not, three (three!) wax museums, haunted houses, arcades, zip lines, and casinos. Fortunately, there’s a nice wide walkway along the river, and we just ignored the tourist traps and turned our attention to the falls.
Refreshingly, the American side is protected by lovely Niagara State Park, and the attractions are focused on the waterfalls. Unfortunately, just beyond the state park lies the dumpy town of Niagara Falls, which has seen much better days.
But you know what? It’s easy to avoid all of the drawbacks and to focus instead on the immense natural beauty of the falls.
We were studiously avoiding the tourist attractions when we inexplicably decided we HAD to do the Maid of the Mist tour, the sturdy little steel boat that offers an up-close experience of the falls. We donned our useless blue plastic ponchos and joined a few dozen other tourists to experience the tremendous power of the falls from the water. We got soaked. And we had a blast. The Canadian side offers a similar boat tour aboard the Hornblower, but it looks like they pack a lot more people onto the boats.
Hiking In Niagara Gorge
For a nature adventure that seemed far away from tourist attractions, we hiked the Devil’s Hole and Whirlpool Trail in the Niagara Gorge. The hike was only 4.7 miles, but with 1500 feet of elevation gain, including 415 rough-hewn steps down to the river and 415 steps back up, we got a good workout.
Our traveling buddies Beth and Perry met up with us for a couple of days in Niagara Falls. As always, we had a great time together. We met by happenstance swimming in a Florida spring several years ago, and have since met up on Lopez Island twice, in Big Bend National Park, in Nashville, in Cedar Key, and now in Niagara Falls. I love the random encounters we have that result in forever friendships.
Old Fort Niagara
Along with Beth and Perry, we biked from our campsites at Four Mile State Park to Old Fort Niagara, an easy 10-mile round trip ride.
Situated at the mouth of the Niagara River, Old Fort Niagara controlled access to the Great Lakes and therefore, the heart of the continent. Established in the late 1600s by the French, the fort changed hands several times (French/British/American) and played an important role in the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. Although I can get enough of military history pretty quickly, this is a really interesting fort with excellent reenactors and a beautiful location.
Niagara Power Vista
For a behind-the-scenes look at how water from the Niagara River is used to generate power (the Niagara Power Project is New York State’s biggest electricity producer), we spent a couple of hours at the Niagara Power Vista Visitor Center.
We watched Edison and Tesla argue over AC versus DC power, tried our hand at operating a power grid during a storm (big fail), and experimented with a Van de Graaff generator that made our hair stand on end. Best of all was the high-tech virtual reality ride of a water droplet, where we started life as a raindrop falling into the Niagara River and ended up zipping along high-tension power lines lighting up New York state. This place is totally cool, and it’s free.
Biking To Niagara-On-The-Lake
Everyone told us we had to visit picturesque Niagara-on-the-Lake. When we discovered that we could bike the Niagara River Recreation Trail into town, we loaded up our bikes and crossed into Canada for an all-day adventure. We started at the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens (free parking) and then followed the river for 10 miles through rolling vineyards into the cute little town.
Lunch at Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club overlooking Lake Ontario (established in 1875, it’s North America’s oldest course); a walk through the Heritage District (the 1869 Niagara Apothecary, with retired pharmacists as docents, is fascinating); and a stop at Reif Estate Winery for a bit of wine tasting completed our Niagara-on-the-Lake adventure.
Before leaving Canada, we enjoyed a tasty light dinner of mussels at quirky little Tide and Vine. And then we headed back across the border, where we were subjected to what they called a “random search” by the U.S. guards. They had no reason to search our vehicle and admitted as such. The border guards were very polite, and they laughed when I told them I would much rather have won the lottery. But I do not like leaving our vehicle while they search it unattended. If they want to search, why can’t we be there to watch what they’re doing? And is this even legal?
It took less than 10 minutes, and honestly, I suspect we were chosen because the guards were thoroughly searching a couple of vehicles belonging to Muslim families while we were there. I think they don’t want to be accused of profiling. Just my guess. Crossing the border has become an anxiety-provoking experience for everyone; I can only imagine how terrible it must be for people of certain ethnic and religious groups.