Itinerary: Niagara Falls, NY, in the Off-Season

Maid of the Mist, "Free Niagara", Frederick Law Olmstead & Robert Moses, Cave of the Winds, Moss Islands, light shows

This week, we have an itinerary for visiting one of the country’s natural wonders during the pandemic and/or the off-season. But first—

Happy April Fool’s Day! A good day to appreciate the sunny, open, welcoming energy of The Fool, below, which has serious Hiker Trash vibes. (Wonderfully expressed in the cover art for Carrot Quinn’s book, Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart.)

Per Wikipedia, historians disagree about the exact origins of the name “Niagara,” attributing it to at least three different Indigenous groups. One says it is named after the Niagagarega people; another from the Iroquois town Onguiaahra, or “point of land cut in two”; yet another says it is from the Mohawk word for “neck,” pronounced “O-ne-au-ga-rah.” (Thinking back to middle school, when using Wikipedia as a source would have been frowned upon, I checked our musty copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica; the entries for Niagara Falls do not even attempt to explain the origin of the name, or mention any direct knowledge of the Falls prior to “Father Louis Hennepin, a Jesuit missionary who saw them in 1678.”)

But human habitation in and around Niagara Falls dates back some 13,000 years ago. When the first Europeans arrived in the 17th century, there were several Indigenous peoples living in the region, including the Chonnonton and the Onguiaahra, who were part of a group known as the Neutral Nation; the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois (which included the Seneca Nation) and Anishinaabek peoples later displaced them.

The Falls held a special significance for many of the Indigenous groups who lived nearby. But this reverence was twisted and misrepresented when a European colonizer, Robert Cavelier de La Salle, fabricated and spread a story in which he claimed to have witnessed the sacrifice of beautiful young maidens, sent to their deaths over the Falls to appease their angry gods. In La Salle’s story, the chief’s daughter was about to plunge to her death when the chief felt sudden remorse and went after her, only to follow her over the Falls to his death. La Salle’s wife later said the story was fake, told to make the Haudenosaunee people out to be ignorant and cruel, and to make it easier to take their land. A recording of the false story was played on the namesake “Maid of the Mist” tour boats until 1996.

A version of the real legend, which Oneida tribe member and writer Bruce King has described as being about “community spirit, moral behavior... and the tragedy of suicide,” can be found here, as told by Corbett Sundown in 1981.

Itinerary: Off-season in Niagara Falls, NY

The following two-day itinerary is geared towards visits while the Canadian border is still closed, so it doesn’t include any Canadian-side attractions or activities.

Day 1: Niagara Falls State Park

Niagara Falls State Park is the oldest state park in the country, largely because of Frederick Law Olmstead (better known as the architect of Central Park) and others in the “Free Niagara” movement. It is also easily walkable in a day or less.

Prospect Point is reportedly the best place to “get that first glimpse of the Falls” and “the best place for that selfie that will make all your friends and family wish they were there with you.” The viewing platform is right next to the rushing American Falls and just across from Bridal Veil Falls, and you can see a partially-obscured Horseshoe Falls in the distance. Afterwards, head up to the Observation Tower for a panoramic view of both the American and Horseshoe Falls.

Next, take the pedestrian bridge over to Goat Island and to the iconic attraction, Cave of the Winds. At one point the Cave of the Winds was a real cave, but the overhang collapsed in the 20th century. Now it’s the name of the attraction that brings tourists down an elevator to a series of walkways and viewing platforms at the base of Bridal Veil Falls. This is where they make you put on those plastic ponchos you always see in Niagara Falls photos. The walkways used to be removed seasonally, but it appears that now at least some of them are open year-round.

The attraction is currently open daily from 10am - 3pm, and admission is $5, but both of those are subject to change in April. Tickets aren’t available online, and they often sell-out, so visit the ticket booth as soon as you can to secure tickets for the desired time/day.

Walk over to Luna Island, between the American Falls and the Bridal Veil Falls, either before or after you go see the Cave of the Winds.

Continuing on around Goat Island, stop by Terrapin Point for a close-up of the Horseshoe Falls. (Everyone who has ever survived going over Niagara Falls, whether as a stunt or on accident, went over these falls, not the American Falls. But I still wouldn’t try it—the number of fatalities is far, far higher.)

Continue on to the Three Sisters Islands, off the south edge of Goat Island. These four islands (yes, there are apparently four) were previously called the Moss Islands because the rocky surfaces were all covered in moss.

Loop around the back end of Goat Island to see the International Control Dam, which diverts up to 380,000 gallons of water per second for hydropower; between 50 and 75 percent of the Niagara River's flow is diverted before it reaches the Falls. The US has a treaty with Canada that mandates the minimum number of cubic feet per second that must travel over the falls, to maintain an “unbroken curtain of water”; that number is lower in winter and at night, when the power companies are allowed to divert more water than in summer or during daylight hours.

After dinner, make your way back to Prospect Point to see the nightly light show that plays across the falls every hour on the half hour (a schedule that is likely subject to change).

See: This map of Niagara Falls State Park attractions.

Day 2: Niagara Gorge Trails

With one notable exception (duh), “wilderness” and “nature” are in short supply in Niagara Falls, NY. Trails here are wide, even, and usually paved. However, there is a trail system downstream from the falls that many fairweather tourists will never bother to explore. So, if you have another day, choose your own adventure by stringing together a number of shorter trails in the Niagara Gorge Trail System, which pass through Whirlpool State Park, Deveaux Woods State Park, Devil’s Hole State Park, and Artpark State Park. This could include the Great Gorge Railway Trail, which follows an old railway route.

Trails that descend down into the gorge may be closed in winter months; in that case you could just walk the 6.2 mile (one-way) Niagara Gorge Rim Trail, or the 3.2 mile (one-way) paved Robert Moses Recreation Trail. (There’s apparently no getting away from Moses in New York State! The hydroelectric power plant near Niagara Falls was named after the then-head of the New York Power Authority.)

See: This trail map.

Another time

Other attractions to check out in the warmer months or after Covid restrictions lift include roaming the ruins of the former Schoellkopf Power Plant and the Maid of the Mist boat ride, as well as everything on the Canadian side of the border.