by Chris Clemens
I am currently 37 years old. I was born, raised and have never lived anywhere other than Rochester, New York, which is approximately an hour and fifteen minute drive from one of the most popular tourist destinations in America. Niagara Falls is a collection of three tremendous waterfalls that straddle the Canada/United States border. Horseshoe Falls, Bridal Veil Falls and the American Falls each have a splendor of their own, but when viewed as the massive expanse that is their collective Niagara Falls, the majesty of the entire park is unmatched in our region. I’ve been to both the U.S. and the Canadian side multiple times during my life, but this summer I began to wonder, “Why the hell have I never gone under the falls??” I decided that this was the summer it would happen. I would finally experience the Cave of the Winds!!!
First formed during the last ice age, the trilogy of falls spills water from the Niagara River over a portion of the Niagara Escarpment, a naturally formed cliff the result of many years of erosion. This escarpment in particular runs through much of Western New York and right on up into Michigan but nowhere is the escarpment as majestic as it is in Niagara Falls. Wanting to protect the land and ensure that the falls could always be accessible to anyone wanting the experience, President Grover Cleveland signed into law the Niagara Appropriations Bill in 1885. In doing so, he created the nation’s very first state park, first dubbed the “Niagara Reservation”.
For the American Falls side of the park here in New York, they’ve created the Discovery Pass so that one $45.00 ticket ($34.00 for children) gets you access to all of the attractions in the park.
Cave of the Winds
With the unrelenting heat and dry weather we’ve had this summer, the idea of standing near the base of American and Bridal Veil Falls where 75,000 gallons of water per minute crash down seemed heavenly. We went on a Saturday, which is the same day of the week that approximately 10 gazillion other people chose to visit. (Factually, the Niagara Falls Visitor Center welcomed just over 40,000 people in 2014, but it felt like 10 gazillion…)
With that many people experiencing the park, we chose to check off our Bucket List item of the Cave of the Winds right off the bat, and if you’re looking for travel tips from this blog, that’s the best one I have for you. Get there right when it opens. The line wasn’t terribly long in the beginning of the day and it moved pretty quickly. A couple hours later, the length of the line was easily five times longer than we started. Visitors descend 17 floors down an elevator and then out onto a series of decks that take you close to the base of the falls and you can spend as much time as you want out there.
Moving throughout a series of decks and stairwells down to the base of walls, it would be fairly easy to avoid getting wet if it wasn’t your thing. The Hurricane Deck, if you so choose, will place you directly at the bottom of the Bridal Veil Falls. Visitors are provided a poncho to keep your clothes dry, but even the most adventurous corner of the Hurricane Deck will soak you head to toe. And, it’s glorious.
For me, the Hurricane Deck was kind of like being tattooed: It takes a little while to get the first one, but you wanna rush right back for the second. Or, third. Or, fourth….
Niagara: Legends of the Adventure Movie
Your Discovery Pass also gives you access to a regularly playing film about how Niagara Falls was formed and first discovered. I don’t typically love going indoors for activities during summer months, but the 30-minute film was a nice break from walking all day. Even for someone who spends as much time as I do reading and learning about our region, the film taught me a few new facts and presented it in an easy to follow narrative.
Since I just mentioned all the walking, I’ll also mention that your pass gives you access to a trolley system that will tour you around the park. We chose to walk some and take the trolley some, but having the option was great. As an added bonus, the trolleys apparently have free WIFI available. During my visit I wasn’t able to get that to work, but hopefully it’ll work awesome for you!
Niagara Gorge Discovery Center
A little past the main section of the park and right on the edge of a cliff overlooking the river, you’ll find the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center. A series of interactive exhibits about the gorge and how it’s used to make power and even the makeup of the soil all are available in this small museum. If you’re looking for another movie, there’s a short 15-minute flick you can catch here, too. Then, you can also take an elevator from the parking lot all the way down to the edge of the river. Or, for those of you who are in better physical shape than me, there are a series of cool hiking trails that will get you there. In fact, I told the story of one a while back right here.
Just a bit beyond the Discovery Center, your pass also provides access to the aquarium. A live sea lion show is surrounded by exhibits featuring all kinds of water life. Being able to see some of the world’s most interesting sea life up super close was pretty cool!
Maid of the Mist
So, the Discovery Pass will also give you access to another method of getting wet from the spray of Niagara Falls. The Maid of the Mist boat ride that takes visitors right near the base of the falls is super famous, and has shown up in countless syrupy romantic scenes in tv shows and movies. After hours and hours of exploring all the other exhibits, we chose to skip the long line that had formed for the Maid and come back another day. Since getting to the Cave right when it opened worked so well, I’m thinking that strategy will be a strong one for the Maid–next time.
Annie Edson Taylor
While in Niagara Falls, we felt it only proper to visit the grave of Annie Edson Taylor and pay our respects. Taylor was the first person to jump in a wooden barrel to ride over Horseshoe Falls and live to tell the story.
First born in Auburn, New York (about two and a half hours east of her resting place) on October 24, 1838, Taylor had a few careers around the United States that didn’t quite pan out. She descended Horseshoe Falls in a custom made wooden barrel on her 63rd birthday in 1901.
She later died in Lockport on April 21, 1921 of a disease called “morphea”, which oddly is thought to not be deadly. Taylor now rests in a section of Oakwood Cemetery in Niagara Falls called the “Stunter’s Section”.
If you’re still looking for fun stuff to see in Niagara Falls that isn’t on the ‘typical tourists list’, you’ll want to take a drive down Ontario Ave and see what is one of the most interestingly decorated homes in the state. And, if you need a soundtrack for your drive, you’ll want to be sure to add this to your iPod. Or, not.
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens