Niagara Reservation State Park
In the mid-1800s the land surrounding Niagara Falls was privately owned and cluttered with factories and shacks. Visitors wishing to see the waterfalls had to pay owners a fee just to peek through a hole in a fence. Even so, the falls was a notorious tourist trap. Reported one traveler of the day, “I know of no place where one is so constantly pestered, where hackmen so incessantly worry you when you want to be at peace, where you are so dogged over every inch of ground you tread.”
Enter artist Frederick Church, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, and the “Free Niagara” movement, established around 1870. For 15 long years, the movement’s proponents lobbied heavily to establish a park at the falls. The political opposition was enormous, but finally, in 1885, Gov. David Hill signed an appropriations bill that marked the beginning not only of Niagara Park but also of the entire New York State Park System.
Today, Niagara Reservation State Park (off Robert Moses Pkwy., 716/278-1770, www.niagarafallsstatepark.com, parking $8–10) is the oldest state park in the country. Designed by Olmsted, it receives about 12 million visitors a year.
There are two main entrances to the park. One is at Prospect Point, the other at Goat Island.
The best place to view the falls on the New York side is Prospect Point. The point sits at the edge of the American Falls’ 1,000-foot brink, where you can look straight down into the foamy, turbulent waters. Rainbows often form in the cataract’s mist.
Behind Prospect Point presides the Visitor Center (716/278-1796, 8 a.m.–6 p.m. daily, with extended hours in summer, free admission), which offers a good introduction to the falls, the park’s attractions, and the entire surrounding area. Departing from behind the center are Viewmobiles (adults $2, children 6–12 $1), which travel throughout the park April–October, weather permitting, stopping at all points of interest. Beyond the center stands the Observation Tower ($1 per person), featuring dramatic views from glass-enclosed elevators that rise 200 feet.
The tower’s elevators also travel down to the foot of the Falls, where the Maid of the Mist boats dock (716/284-8897, www.maidofthemist.com, 9 a.m.–6 p.m. daily May–Oct., adults $13.50, children 6–12 $7.85). Visitors are provided with voluminous yellow slickers before being herded onto sturdy wooden vessels. The boats head straight into the bases of the falls, passing almost close enough to touch. Spray stings, the boats rock, and water thunders all around. A tourist attraction since 1846, the Maid of the Mist is still the best way to experience the falls and a must-do experience for those sticking to the New York side to really get a full appreciation and make the trip worthwhile. Yes, it’s cheesy. But yes, it’s cool and you did, after all, decide to come to Niagara. Fans of The Office might even tear up remembering the infamous Jim and Pam elopement scene.
Upstream from Prospect Point, above the waterfalls, sits quiet Goat Island, a wooded flatland often overlooked by visitors. With the Bridal Veil and American Falls on one side and the Horseshoe Falls on the other, the island provides a very different view of the cataracts.
From Goat Island’s western end descends the Cave of the Winds Trip (716/278-1730, daily May–Oct., weather permitting, adults $8, children 6–12 $7), another excursion involving voluminous yellow slickers. This time, guides lead groups of visitors along soggy wooden walkways down to the base of Bridal Veil Falls.
Goat Island is flanked by several smaller islands, including the Three Sisters Islands, surrounded on all sides by swift, whitecapped waters. Step out onto these specks of land, and you’ll feel as if you’re part of the river itself and about to be swept over the curved edge of the falls.
Niagara Gorge Discovery Center
Perched on the edge of Niagara Gorge, at the northern end of the park, is a museum (716/278-1780, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. daily, with extended hours in summer, adults $3, children 6–12 $1.50) dedicated to the geological history of the falls. Highlights include a multimedia show on the gorge’s formation, and fossil and mineral exhibits. A footpath leads from the museum down deep into the gorge; explore on your own or take one of the guided walking tours (716/745-7848), of varying length and difficulty, led by the park’s naturalists.
© Avalon Travel and Sascha Zuger from Moon New York State, 5th Edition