The popular bumper sticker may read “Ithaca is Gorges,” but Niagara is also worthy of the slogan.
Nearly 10 million people visit the Falls each year, but only a small percentage venture downstream to explore the trails along the Lower Niagara River.
Many locals also have never experienced the rapids up close and without guardrails. The trail system has seen many improvements over the last several years. On a recent visit, Barry Virgilio, environmental educator with the Niagara Region Interpretative Programs Office, detailed some of what’s new:
• A trailhead and new staircase to the river was installed in 2012 at the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge. This area is now home to the new Niagara Falls Amtrak station and the soon-to-be opened Underground Railroad Heritage Center. Visitors can begin their hike at the spot where Harriet Tubman led escaped slaves to freedom in Canada via the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge.
• Handicapped access now exists to the ruins of the Schoellkopf Power Plant site. A free elevator at the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center began delivering visitors this year to the site of the 1956 plant collapse. It’s now the winter storage site for the Maid of the Mist fleet, and a self-guided walking tour details the industrial history of the area.
• Rehabilitated stone stairs at Whirlpool State Park provide safe access upstream to the “Flats” area. Here, a series of flat rocks alongside a thunderous section of rapids makes for a spectacular picnic spot. From November through March, 25 percent more water is diverted into the hydro power stations on the U.S. and Canadian sides of the river, creating even more exposed areas to explore.
• A reopened trail from the stairway at Devil’s Hole State Park leads to the N.Y. Power Authority road and fishing platform. Hikers visiting in the fall season likely will encounter anglers fishing for salmon and trout.
Plenty to explore
The Niagara Gorge Trail system features eight trails totaling more than 16 miles. The Robert Moses Recreation Trail and Gorge Rim trail offer easy walks high above the water.
The Great Gorge Railway Trail is a well-graded route that provides stunning views of the Rainbow Bridge and American Falls.
The recently reopened American Falls Gorge Trail travels above a quiet section of blue-green river, ending at the Schoellkopf plant ruins.
The Whirlpool Rapids Trail allows access right to the water’s edge, providing a dramatic view of the rapids. New York State Parks announced: “Please be aware that due to a necessary rock slope stabilization project under the Whirlpool Bridge, The Great Gorge Trail will be closed from the existing gate below the Whirlpool Bridge to the north where the trail ends. The trail will be closed through the end of October. The stairs to the top of the gorge will remain open and available to the public. For any additional information, please call 716- 299-0809.
The Devil’s Hole Trail connects two sets of stairs, creating a challenging loop frequented by trail runners, tourists, anglers, dog walkers, and residents of the DeVaux neighborhood of the City of Niagara Falls. The trail passes a two-story “Giant Rock” that looks out of place after falling from the gorge wall untold years ago.
Further north at Artpark State Park, two more gorge trails travel underneath the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge. It is possible to connect all of these trails to travel from Artpark to the brink of the Falls at Goat Island.
The little-known DeVeaux Woods State Park on Lewiston Road is the first state park in New York established primarily to protect an old-growth forest. The 10-acre oak grove is the last remnant of the oak forest that once lined the banks of the gorge. Some giant oaks have been confirmed to be over 275 years old. An easy trail loops through the grove and is also accessible via a crosswalk from Whirlpool State Park. The oaks at DeVeaux are hardly the oldest trees in the area, though. Some slow-growing northern white cedars that cling to the gorge cliff walls are believed to be over 800 years old.
A seasonal state parks crew, funded by the New York Power Authority, maintains the trails-clearing rock debris each spring and is engaging in larger projects to extend sections where rock slides have covered the trail.
Volunteer groups have worked on various sections, including a large Boy Scout project in 2011 to clear abandoned cars and other big debris from the American Falls Gorge trail.
The Niagara Region Interpretative Programs office of the N.Y. State Parks offers a series of guided hikes throughout the year, including the popular “Gorge at Low Water” and “Length of the Gorge” hikes.
A recent hike down the Whirlpool stairs on a brisk and clear Sunday morning was a peaceful escape from the commotion above, save for the din of helicopters on sightseeing tours. Several languages were heard, along with couples chatting about the week ahead, anglers pondering fish behavior and a family clad in Bills gear hoping for the best from their team that afternoon.
Autumn and its dramatic burst of color might be the best season for a walk in the Niagara Gorge – whatever brings you there. Gazing back at the swift-moving water while taking a break before heading back up, it’s easy to see why.