Niagara Falls

Stop 105: Navigating Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls State Park

We headed west from Syracuse and traveled to an RV park located on Grand Island, just minutes from Niagara Falls… and as soon as the travel trailer was unhooked, we hopped back into the truck for a visit to Niagara Falls State Park and our first views of these impressive falls.

Call us silly or uniformed, but we never knew that Niagara Falls is actually a group of THREE waterfalls in the Niagara Gorge of the Niagara River: Horseshoe (Canadian) Falls, American Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls. The Niagara River drains Lake Erie (and in reality, water from all the other Great Lakes) into Lake Ontario (and then to the St. Lawrence River and ending with the Atlantic Ocean). Niagara Falls, which has the highest rate of flow of any waterfalls in the North America (about 600,000 gallons of water travel down every second), is certainly one of the most visited — and photographed — of any waterfalls around the world. While there, you’ll witness one-fifth of the world’s fresh water passing next to you!

We parked on Goat Island, which was the perfect location to visit all three falls, as well as observing both the Canadian Rapids and American Rapids. Terrapin Point in the northwest corner of the island offers a great view of Horseshoe Falls and the northeast side of the island offers a perspective of Bridal Veil and American Falls… although for the best overall view of all three falls — on U.S. soil — you need to head over to the observation tower located near Prospect Point on the mainland, which is also where the park’s visitor center is located. (The middle picture in the collage is from the observation tower.) A pedestrian bridge connects Goat Island with the mainland.

While at the park, we also visited Three Sisters Islands, located off the southwest corner of Goat Island. At the visitor center, we bought a magnet and considered the film (a bit pricey). We also considered taking a trip on the Maid of the Mist, a boat tour that ventures quite close to Horseshoe Falls (and briefly into Canada), and which touts that travelers will hear the thunder of the falls — and most certainly get drenched from the mighty spray of the falls. We decided we would rather experience the falls in other ways — and at mostly higher angles for better photographs (and for keeping our phones and cameras as dry as possible)… including crossing over to Canada later in our stay.

Whirlpool State Park

Folks had strongly recommended the 109-acre Whirlpool State Park, located just a short distance north of the falls. As the name implies, the park overlooks the Niagara Whirlpool on the Niagara River, as well as the lower Niagara Gorge. It’s estimated that the whirlpool, a natural phenomenon, was created about 4,200 years ago. At its deepest point, it is about 125-feet deep.

The park has two levels to experience. From the top (street level), and along the Rim Trail, one can experience seeing the grandeur and power of the whirlpool and rapids. Also at street level, the park has bathrooms, picnic facilities, a playground, and a small gorge history center (which includes cool pictures of the train that used to run at the BASE of the gorge, right along the river… crazy).

Speaking of crazy, if you hike about half a mile north of the park’s main overlook area, along the Rim Trail, you will encounter stone steps that lead down to the banks along the bottom of the gorge where you can experience the river, whirlpool, and rapids up close… but be prepared, as there are about 325 (old and crooked stone) steps down… and up. We hiked most of the Whirlpool Rapids Trail, where we discovered the Whirlpool Aero Car traveling high above us — and knew we would have to take that ride (which we did when we crossed into Canada… keep reading). Along the hike, you can still see a few traces of the old Niagara Gorge Railway, which ran from the late 1800s until 1935, when a giant rock slide covered a large section of the tracks; today, hikers scramble over and around some of these massive slides while hiking the trail.

When we finished the hike, we returned via the same steps we came down on, but for those seeking a longer hike, you can continue northward at river level along the Devil’s Hole Trail and take the staircase to the top of the gorge at Devil’s Hole State Park… and then hike back to Whirlpool State Park via the Rim Trail… for about a 5-mile loop hike. We drove to Devil’s Hole State Park and spent a few minutes there, but the overlooks were a bit overgrown and did not nearly offer the same views as from Whirlpool State Park.

Niagara Falls, Canada

The next day, we crossed the Rainbow Bridge into Canada to see the view of the falls that everyone says is more spectacular than from the views one gets at Niagara Falls State Park.

Parking in Canada is a bit pricey, but the good news is that there are some big parking areas, including where we parked, which is right at the Niagara Parks Table Rock Visitor Center. The Canadians also offer a cruising tour into the falls — the Hornblower Niagara Cruises — so another opportunity to get drenched that we skipped… but we did end up getting a bit wet anyway when we decided to start with Journey Behind the Falls — a very cool experience in which you travel down more than 100 feet in an elevator, leading you to 130-year-old tunnels carved deeply into the gorge next to and behind Horseshoe Falls. There are two viewing portals and lots of cool information about the falls in the tunnels, but the highlight is walking out onto the Observation Deck right next to the falls… with the sounds and spray in your face. It’s definitely here that you’re happy to have been given that “souvenir” yellow poncho!

Afterwards, we walked along the sidewalk that runs right along the river — and right next to Horseshoe Falls, offering great vistas of all three falls. It also offers great opportunities to get wet again… in fact, at times the mist was so strong it seemed as if it was raining!

Side note: For those who love light shows, every night of the year beginning at dusk, hundreds of LED lights that are housed in three locations across the Niagara Gorge on the Canadian side are illuminated. We were told that these lights create a breathtaking view not to be missed. (We loved Niagara Falls in the daytime and saw no need to see them artificially illuminated.)

Whirlpool Aero Car

From Table Rock, we headed north to the Whirlpool Aero Car, which has a large (and free) parking area.

As we mentioned, we saw this neat cable car traveling over the Niagara Whirlpool and knew we had to ride it — especially when we discovered it has been in operation since 1916! The original system was designed by Spanish engineer Leonardo Torres Quevedo; it has been upgraded several times in the 100+ years of operation.

The single Aero Car holds about 35 passengers (standing only) — and we rotate positions when we reach the other side of the gorge — so that everyone gets complete views of the experience. We enjoyed all the vistas — and had fun seeing where we had hiked the day before.

The Aero Car is suspended on six interlocking steel cables and travels back and forth at about 4 miles per hour. The Aero Car operates from 10 to 5 from the second week of March to the first week of November.

Chateau Des Charmes

Because the Ontario Wine Region has more than 175 wineries, with more than 650 varieties of wines, we also decided that while we were in Canada that we should do a little wine-tasting. We then discovered that about 25 vineyards are located just 15 to 20 minutes outside Niagara Falls, in the nearby and charming
Niagara-on-the-Lake . Interestingly, the entire Niagara Wine Region along the shores of Lake Ontario is home to more than 50 wineries. 

Our goal was to find a Niagara winery that offered something different, like a fun tour of the winery — concluding with a tasting… and the answer was Chateau Des Charmes. This estate winery was founded in 1978 by Paul Bosc, a fifth-generation French winegrower. Paul and his family arrived in Niagara in the 1960s with the idea that growing their own grapes was the best way to make fine wine — and that the Niagara region would be a fertile area for a vineyard. From the beginning, the winery has been committed to using sustainable practices — and today are charter members of Sustainable Winegrowing Ontario.

The winery owns 255 acres of vineyards in four locations all within Niagara-on-the-Lake. Two vineyards are in the St. David’s Bench sub-appellation and the other two are in the Four Mile Creek sub-appellation. They grow a wide variety of grapes, including: Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Savagnin, and Sauvignon Blanc.

Chateau Des Charmes

In 1994, Chateau Des Charmes opened its rather impressive and state-of-the-art winery and visitor center… everything is under one (massive) roof… it was also the first winery in the area that designed their building using a winery tourism business model… which then inspired many other wineries to follow.

One can visit and do a tasting flight for $10 — or take the Winegrowing Discovery Tour for $15, which is what we did. (Both options also come with a $5 wine-purchase credit that can be used with a same day.) The tour starts out in the vineyard, where we noticed the many beautiful roses and the vines full of juicy grapes; the harvest has been delayed this year because of the cold, wet spring. We then moved inside to the harvest room, where the grapes arrive and are crushed. Next up was the geothermal cellar, where we examined their massive steel tanks and very massive oak barrels (made exclusively for the winery). The tour then moved to the bottling and labeling line… before ending back outside, with a tasting of one white, one rose, and two reds — two estate wines and two single-vineyard wines.

We thoroughly enjoyed the tour and our guide Sue was simply wonderful — funny and informative. We liked all the thoughtfulness the winery put into the facility, into the vineyard, and into the wines. And as you can see, we left three bottles of their estate wines: a 2017 Cabernet-Merlot, a 2017 atelier, and a 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon.

We thought about another tasting in Canada, but the one at Chateau Des Charmes was so perfect, we decided to head back to the states and our nice little campground on Grand Island.

Lockport, NY

The next day it was time for more exploring of the Erie Canal, as well as learning about the New York State Barge Canal — all with a trip to Lockport, about 20 miles east of Niagara Falls. The town is county seat of Niagara County and named for the set of locks along the Erie Canal.

In fact, the canal drops 60 feet along the Niagara Escarpment, which required a series of five locks — named the Flight of Five — and completed in 1825… Locks 67-71. (Fun fact: the Niagara Escarpment is a 450-million-year-old geological feature that runs from New York to Wisconsin, where the land rises sharply over a rocky ridge.) They actually built twin sets of locks for both eastbound and westbound boat traffic. (Interesting fact: the floor of each of the Flight of Five locks was constructed with a combination of old growth white oak, pine, and hemlock; they are now preserved by remaining underwater and unexposed to air.)

The old five locks were replaced in 1847 with two “super” locks — E34 and E35 — on the east side of the old canal. The northern original Flight of Five locks remain as part of history and as a spillway for the canal. In 1905, the Erie Canal was supplanted by the larger New York State Barge Canal

We loved watching one of the canal cruise boats pass through the locks, as shown in the photo collage. We also visited the Lockport Erie Canal Museum. Also nearby is the Canal Discovery Center.

Flight of Five Winery

While we love the Erie Canal and all the canal history in New York, we had also had other motives… several wineries are located in the area — including the Flight of Five Winery, located just above the canal.

The building in which the winery is housed is the Benjamin C. Moore Mill (which diverted water from the Erie Canal to power a grist mill), as well as Lockport’s former city hall.

The winery does not have a vineyard, but instead sources its grapes from local Niagara vineyards as well as those in the Finger Lakes. They produce a variety of wines, from dry to sweet, and offer flights of tastings. We both did the Dry Flight, which included two whites, a rose, and two reds — served in the coolest way as shown in the lower left picture in the collage. We also added a cheese-pairing to the wine-tasting… the wines were nice, but we actually left with several of the cheeses, including a Batty Vignoles Champagne Cheddar and a Locktender Strawberry Chardonnay.

We also knew we had to taste some truly local wines — from grapes produced in the Niagara Wine Trail, USA… a relatively new and up-and-coming wine-producing region. Interestingly, there are records of a winery in this region that was open during the 19th century, and one of the current member wineries produces fruit on vineyards that are more one hundred years old. The region is the second best growing climate for grapes; varieties grown here include Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Vidal Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc. (Interesting note: the climate in some areas of the area compares to that of northeastern France, on the borders with Germany and Switzerland.)

Arrowhead Springs Vineyards

We only had time to taste at one of these wineries, so we moved on to Arrowhead Springs Vineyards, which produces wines from their vineyard on the Niagara Escarpment, and is located just 4 miles northwest of Lockport. We partly chose this winery because they practice sustainable farming, respecting the Earth and soil.

Arrowhead Springs produces wines from estate-grown Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Vidal Blanc — as well as grapes purchased from local vineyards.

We almost did not bother with this winery as a busload of people had just been dropped off ahead of us — and the tasting room was crowded and loud — but a smart server spotted us and had us sit at the table at the end of the tasting bar… which was wonderful. Once we were seated, we decided to do a split tasting — we started with a tasting of their red wines (Pinot Noir, Arrowhead Red, Cool Terroir, and Meritage Reserve) before moving on to their Library Selection Flight (including pours of a 2010 Merlot, 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2011 Cabernet Franc, and 2015 Syrah). The Pinot Noir won us from the start, and we left with a bottle of it.

Before leaving the area, we also visited and supported several farmers at the North Tonawanda City Market, which has existed since 1908! It is open
Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday — from 7:00 am to 1:00 pm, at the corner of Payne Avenue and Robinson Street. (We bought some amazing tomatoes, green beans, onions, and sweet corn.)

And that was our truly fun adventure in the Niagara Falls region. If we had one more day, we would have done more wine-tasting in the area… but the nature was so amazing that we had to spend as much time outdoors as we could.

Next up, we finally get a closer look at the last of the Great Lakes on our list — Lake Ontario — with a stay in Oswego, New York.

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