I first encountered Niagara Falls in the movie Niagara starring Marilyn Monroe. In the opening scene, George Loomis stands before the Falls dwarfed by their size, their majesty and their power. White water thunders all around him, blasting him with spray as he shouts up at it. “Why should the Falls drag me down here at 5 o’clock in the morning? To show me how big they are and how small I am?”
I was fascinated that you could get so close to something so dangerous and was determined to one day see the legendary Niagara Falls for myself. And so it was that in the autumn of 2020, having moved to Manhattan just before Covid hit, and itching to go somewhere, anywhere, after months of lockdowns, I planned a train journey to Niagara Falls from New York City.
We spent two full days at Niagara Falls admiring them from every lookout and every angle (except the Canadian angle due to border closures). We even explored the rapids, whirlpools and woodland hikes down stream. It was unforgettable. Exhilarating! Magical! I felt like a child again, filled with the joy of simply being alive. Perhaps it was all those negative ions but I was elated for the two days I was there. If you haven’t been to Niagara Falls, go. Life is all about experiences like this.
If you’re travelling to Niagara Falls from New York City you have three options — train, plane, or automobile. I’ll outline each in a moment, but first let me tell you about the magic of Niagara Falls State Park, the exhilaration of the Maid of the Mist boat tour, the dizzying views from Niagara Falls Observation Tower and how to find the secret Niagara Gorge Hiking Trail that follows the rapids to Whirlpool State Park. All this can be done on foot.
Niagara Falls State Park
I had expected Niagara Falls to be more developed than it is with buildings right to the rim, but the beauty of nature has been respected, thanks to a landscape architect named Frederick Olmsted. Fred campaigned for almost twenty years to protect the waterfalls and its surrounding woodlands from private interests and in 1883, the state of New York protected the wooded islands that dot the rim of the falls and the waterfront woodlands downstream with the creation of a reservation which eventually became the United States’ first ever state park — Niagara Falls State Park. Thank you, Fred Olmsted! Mwa! I love you!
Niagara Falls consists of three waterfalls — American Falls on the left, the skinny Bridal Veil Falls in the middle and the wide curved Horseshoe Falls on the right.
It’s an easy stroll from the American Falls Viewing Area across the Goat Island bridge. Look down at the rapids beneath your feet before kissing the ground on Green Island and then again on Goat Island. I’m just kidding. It’s not scary at all. Turn left and follow the trail to Luna Island with close views over American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls. It’s mesmerizing to stare down at the falling water crashing on the jagged rocks below, and a little breath-taking. Admire the dare-devil ducks and geese flirting around the edge of the falls.
Continue past the Nikola Tesla Monument… (What’s he doing here? Well, he wanted to harness the power of Niagara Falls by placing a wheel under them. Years later, his wish came true. His system of alternating current (AC) led to the construction of the first AC hydroelectric power plant in Niagara Falls. He lit up the lives of many! America was electrified thanks to AC electricity and the rest of the world soon followed. But I digress…)
Take in the views of the rickety wooden walkways that make up the Cave of the Winds and how dwarfed they are by the mighty Bridal Veil Falls. Keep walking to Terrapin Point which has an overlook of the most magnificent part of Niagara Falls –– Horseshoe Falls. Keep going to the Three Sisters Islands, a tiny string of islands where you can really get a feel for the rapids rushing all around you before they plunge over the Horseshoe Falls.
Cave of the Winds Niagara Falls
Buy a ticket for the Cave of the Winds and walk those rickety wooden walkways at the base of Niagara Falls. This is as close as you’ll get to the base — you can actually run beneath the Bridal Veil Falls and get soaked if the spray hasn’t already done the job. The roar of water, the blast of spray and an onslaught of those mood-enhancing negative ions will leave you feeling euphoric.
On your way back through the tunnel to the elevator, take the time to look at the photos hanging on the walls and read some of the fascinating stories about Niagara Falls. I especially liked the story about 63-year-old Annie and the story of Harriet “moses” Tubman and her role in the Underground Railroad. More about them later.
Niagara Falls Boat Tours – Maid of the Mist
Buy your ticket, pull on the stylish plastic poncho, and get set for an adventure into the mist at the base of the majestic Horseshoe Falls. The tours don’t run in winter and we caught them in their final week so, due to the low number of tourists, we got the little boat. I was excited about this because it looks like a plucky little tug boat.
I wanted to film our adventure but I had to put my camera away when we reached the mist because it wasn’t like mist at all. It was torrential horizontal rain. It felt like being blasted in the face with a fireman’s hose. And as the water seeped into our plastic ponchos and trickled down our necks, and as the little boat rocked and rolled on the churning waters, and as we gripped the railing for dear life, the captain announced “This, ladies and gentleman, is Niagara Falls.”
As you disembark from the boat and ascend the elevator, take a right and go out onto the Niagara Observation Tower for a photo of the boat taking another trip out to Horseshoe Falls.
Niagara Gorge Hiking Trail
The Niagara Gorge Hiking Trail starts at an elevator in the now defunct Schoellkopf Power Plant a ten minute walk from Niagara Falls passed Rainbow Bridge. The elevator shaft is brick with double doors into a lobby. Enter the double doors and take the elevator down the elevator shaft. You’ll exit onto a dockyard. Turn right and you’ll see the beginning of the trail head. If you have trouble finding it, search for Schoellkopf Power Plant on your GPS or visit the nearby Niagara Discovery Center to have it pointed out. When you reach the Whirlpool Rapids bridge, look for stairs. They’ll take you up to Whirlpool State Park.
Whirlpool State Park
At the Whirlpool State Park the rapids swirl and coalesce into a great circling whirlpool at the bend in the river. It’s rather a lazy whirlpool, not the sort loud sucking kind you see when you pull the plug in bath.
Other Niagara Falls Attractions
There is so much to do in the region it would take several blogs just to cover it all, but I’ve put together a shortlist of attractions for the nature lover, the wine lover and of course, the waterfall lover. 🙂 The Discover Niagara Shuttle is free and can get you to many of these locations.
- Niagara Adventure Theater — gather a mountain of fun facts about Niagara Falls with which to entertain and educate your friends.
- Aquarium of Niagara — Come and meet the rescued seals and penguins. They have seal and penguin encounters so you can actually interact with them.
- Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center — the fascinating story of fugitive slaves making the dangerous journey from the deep south across the country to escape into Canada where they would be free. The Discover Niagara shuttle will take you there.
- Oakwood Cemetery — picturesque in every season, but the gnarled tree branches are particularly spooky in winter. Bring your camera!
- Devils Hole State Park — hiking trails to Whirlpool State Park.
- Lewiston town — great for bars, restaurants and cafes. The main street is pretty and the buildings full of historic charm. The free Discover Niagara shuttle will take you there in spring, summer and early autumn.
- Art Park — for some outdoor sculptures.
- Winery Tours — the Niagara Falls region is famous for sweet wines but there is a good variety of other types, too.
On the Canadian Side
- Journey Behind the Falls — get close to Horseshoe Falls
- Niagara Parks Botanic Gardens
- Flower Clock
- Floral Showhouse
- Butterfly Conservatory
- Niagara Sky Wheel
- Bird Kingdom
Fun Facts About Niagara Falls
- Harriet Tubman helped fugitive slaves cross the Niagara River into Canada where they would be free. The system of safe houses and secret routes was called the Underground Railroad, it was not a literal railroad. Years later, Harriet Tubman told an audience: “I was conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say – I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.” To learn more, visit the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center.
- The first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive was 63 year old Annie Edson Taylor in 1901, and the first thing she said when she got out of that barrel was that no one ought to try that ever again. Since then thousands of people have been swept over the Falls but only 16 have survived.
- Only one person has survived an accidental fall — seven-year-old Roger Woodward in 1960. Roger and his sister Deanne were in a 12-foot aluminium fishing boat helmed by their uncle, James Honeycutt who lost use of the boat’s propeller a mile upstream. The boat capsized in the rapids. Deanne was pulled from the river just 20 feet from the brink of the Falls, but Roger and his uncle went over. Roger, who was wearing a lifejacket, stayed buoyant and was rescued by the Maid of the Mist at the bottom of the falls but his uncle died.
- The spray from waterfalls are full of negative ions which create a positive mood, enliven the senses and wake you up.
- Goat Island got its name in 1778 after John Stedman rowed his herd of Goats to the island to protect them from wolves. Sadly, they froze during the winter, all except one old billy goat.
- High wire tightrope acts used to be performed across Niagara Falls. Tightrope walker “Blondin” carried his manager across on his back, stopping half way to rest.
- Twenty percent of the world’s freshwater lies in the Great Lakes and most flows over Niagara Falls.
- There are two hydroelectric plants upstream and their intake affects the volume of water flowing over the Niagara Falls.
Niagara Falls from New York City
The Train to Niagara Falls
Amtrak’s Empire Service and Maple Leaf trains depart Pennsylvania Station in downtown New York at least twice a day and cost between $35 – $80 each way. (I paid $70 each way in September 2020.) It’s a fast train with limited stops so the journey is 8 hours 50 mins. The journey passes along the Hudson River, through picturesque riverside towns, woods, wetlands, a crumbling castle (Bannerman Castle) and the cities of Albany, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo. Have your camera ready and pack a picnic. It’s a beautiful constantly changing scenery. Niagara Falls train station is a 5 minute cab ride or a 30 minute walk into the center of town. The train is the most cost effective option, and if you live near a train station, it’s also simple and straight-forward.
Journey Time: 8 hrs 50 min
Cost: $140 per person
Driving to Niagara Falls
Driving to Niagara Falls from New York City will take 6 hours and 30 minutes non stop with no traffic. Add a stop or two (I’d suggest Storm King, Goosepond Mountain State Park or Liberty) and factor in some traffic and you’ll be closer to 7 or 8 hours. Car rentals from Manhattan are generally around $130 per day plus insurance for a standard car (eg. Volkswagen Jetta). For a four day trip, this amounts to $520 — a lot more than the train unless your traveling in a group of four. But it does give you the freedom to stop and explore along the way.
Journey Time: 7.5 hours with a one hour stop. Longer with traffic.
Cost: $520 ($210 each if traveling as a couple)
Flying to Niagara Falls
You can find nonstop flights from New York to Buffalo for around $200 round trip, and you can rent a standard car from Buffalo airport for $54 per day plus insurance. Of course you’ll need to factor in the time it takes you to make the journey to the airport, getting through security and waiting to board, disembarking at Buffalo, picking up your rental car and driving to Niagara Falls but the flight itself is around 1.5 hours.
Journey Time: 4 – 5 hours
Cost: $200 per person plus car rental.
Thank you for reading and I hope you enjoy your next adventure!
Little Green Nomad