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Beyond the brink: Five new views in and around Niagara Falls

When most local people visit Niagara Falls, they do some basic things: They stand at the brink of the Horseshoe Falls at Terrapin Point on Goat Island; they stand at the brink of the American Falls at Prospect Point on the mainland; they ride the Maid of the Mist and they might climb the walkways of the Cave of the Winds.

But then, thinking they have seen all there is to see, they leave.

They could not be more wrong.

Yes, the view at the brink of the American and Horseshoe Falls is mesmerizing. But if you live here, you owe it to yourself to go beyond the brink and experience the gorge, the rapids and the cataracts from many angles.

Here, then, for those who want to experience the subtle and unexpected wonders of the river and the falls, is a guide to five places you must see this summer at Niagara. Some, far from the roar and the pressing crowds, offer moments of peace and wonder at what is truly an awe-inspiring sight. And you can enjoy all of these often-ignored vistas without driving across a single bridge.

1. Start at the corner of Whirlpool and Ontario streets in the city, well down river from the cataracts. Pull into the parking lot on your left as you travel north on Whirlpool, away from downtown. Under the supports for the Robert Moses Parkway, the lot doesn’t look like much, although you should pause to appreciate the high stone pier that supported the Railway Cantilever Bridge from 1883 to 1924. But walk toward the river, then look down and to the left, and you will see a wonderful view of the falls, above, the dark, rocky profile of Goat Island separating the American from the Horseshoe, all framed by the graceful arches of the Rainbow Bridge. Directly below your vantage point, the deep green water of the Niagara, recovered from its tumultuous descent, moves by almost languidly on its way to the Whirlpool Rapids, where it will be again whipped into froth in the narrow, rock-filled channel. If you have the time and are fit enough, descend the 230-some stone steps, interspersed with well-maintained gravel ramps, down to the water level and walk the path along the water. It’s verdant and quiet until you walk downstream far enough to hear the purr of the rapids. Overhead is the rusty International Railway Bridge, next to it is the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge, each an engineering marvel.

2. Next drive to Goat Island. Park at Lot 3, on the far end of the island from the cataracts. One payment of $10 gets you admission to any state park lot all day. Walk toward the water to a sign commemorating the “Parting of the Waters,” where the upper Niagara River water is divided by the island into two currents, 10 percent headed for the American Falls and 90 percent headed for the Horseshoe. As you look toward the American shore, just a few structures built by humans intrude on the lush landscape, including the Grand Island Bridge in the distance and a few cars zipping by on the parkway. Across the river the International Niagara Control Works dam, which controls the volume of water over the falls, protrudes some 2,000 feet into the rapids.

3. Your next stop, which you can arrive at by car, on foot or by trolley ($2 for adults; $1 for children 6 to 12) is the newly renovated Three Sisters Islands. There are about 30 free parking spots along the road. Descend a short flight of steps to the entrance to the islands, named Angeline, Asenath and Celinda-Eliza after the three daughters of Gen. Parkhurst Whitney, with the inaccessible Little Brother Island named after his son, Solon. The island path and overlooks have just been renovated and many invasive species removed. Some of the new plantings are still patchy but will no doubt fill in as time passes. For now, step off the path to your left and descend a few stairs to get a good look at the arched, rustic stone bridge, built in the late 1890s to connect the mainland with First Sister Island. Then walk to the end of the trail to see the star of the show – the rampaging rapids above the Horseshoe Falls. While many of the large boulders at the water’s edge have been fenced off, you can still find a seat to experience the sight, sound and spray from the rapids, which is intoxicating.

4. For your final two stops, take the trolley, walk or drive to Lot 1 at Prospect Point. On the side of the lot closest to the Rainbow Bridge, you will see signs for the pedestrian route to Canada. Make sure that you have a passport or enhanced driver’s license for this trip, which will take you out of the country. Follow the signs past the Customs and Immigration building and through a tall revolving pedestrian turnstile onto the bridge. The wide walkway on the falls side of the bridge provides an unparalleled vista that you can only glimpse when you’re in a moving car. You can study both Maid of the Mist docks and the crowds lined up at the railings at Table Rock on the Canadian side. The lazily turning Ferris wheel across the river and the many high-rises provide a contrast to the more relaxing, natural vistas of the American side. Walk to the middle, stop at the sign that says “International Boundary Line” and get your photo taken with one foot in each country and the falls in the background. There is no toll if you don’t enter Canada; if you do walk into Canada, you will pay 50 cents per person. When you’ve seen your fill, walk back the way you came and into the Customs building. While the incoming vehicle traffic was heavy and backed up on the Sunday before Canada Day, we saw just three or four other pedestrians. But the cordial agent who processed us back into the country said that sometimes there’s a line of people out the door, so plan accordingly.

5. The Observation Tower is not everybody’s favorite structure, imposing its monolithic 1960s-era half-a-bridge appearance on the rugged natural landscape of Prospect Point. But when you’re on it, the view is astonishing. Pay just $1 a person at the ticket booths and walk out to the end. The tower’s elevation and projection into the gorge provides the park’s best view of both cataracts, with the American Falls as misty counterpoint to the broad Horseshoe. But you’re not done yet. Get in the elevator line and travel down to the base of the tower, then turn left and climb the textured concrete stairs to the Crow’s Nest, seen at left. There are 100 or so steps, but they are, for some reason, an easy climb. The stairs wind through a fascinating landscape – sharp-edged tumbled rock softened by brilliant green moss – and are punctuated by several large boulders where you can pause, sit, look around and take photos. On a sunny day, you will be ringed in rainbows. At the top platform, where the rope-reinforced handrails curve around more rocks, you can look straight up at the thick layer of green water tumbling over the rock precipice like a solid thing, or look below as the stream hits rocks, exploding into churning foam and a cloud of mist. It is, as the Victorians often said, sublime.

Other options:

The newly renovated Luna Island, which separates Bridal Veil Falls from the American Falls at the edge of Goat Island, is a short walk down from the brink near the Cave of the Winds.

The Top of the Falls Restaurant, which looks out over Terrapin Point, offers an exceptional view.

The Pedestrian Bridge to Goat Island is currently covered with a metal truss Bailey bridge until it can be renovated. While the rapids can be seen from this spot, there are better vistas.