NIAGARA FALLS — Long stereotyped as the destination spot of newlyweds and seniors, Niagara Falls also makes for the perfect family vacation.
Located in northwest New York, near Buffalo, Niagara Falls State Park — the nation’s oldest state park — is an easy drive from Toledo. It’s also quite affordable for a weekend getaway, with a day’s worth of fun and adventure — even for those without passports necessary to visit the Canadian side — and terrific photo opportunities sure to impress Facebook friends.
We left Toledo for Niagara Falls State Park on a Saturday morning and followed a GPS-guided route along I-90 East, through Erie, Pa., and the rolling hills and vineyards of western New York, to our hotel in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst. Including a few stops along the way, we completed the approximately 360-mile trek in just over six hours.
We chose to stay in Amherst, about 15 minutes southeast of the falls, rather than one of many hotels within walking distance of the state park, a tourist trap of overpriced lodging, restaurants, and gift shops.
We arrived at Niagara Falls in time to catch the second-to-last Maid of the Mist boat ride for the day.
Docked at the base of the Observation tower at Prospect Point on the mainland, Maid of the Mist is a 168-year-old tour that takes passengers on a 20-minute excursion along the bottom of the falls: first the American Falls and then the larger Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side, with Goat Island as a land buffer between them.
Maid of the Mist is named for the foglike spray of water that envelopes the boat and soaks passengers — especially those riding on the top of the craft — even with the protection of free blue rain ponchos. Staring up at these grand works of nature, which are nearly 170-feet high and deposit a combined 750,000 gallons of water per second into the cyan-colored Niagara River below, triggers an appreciation of Mother Nature’s awesome ability. Maid of the Mist is literally like nothing else on Earth, a unique experience that’s not to be missed.
As with many of the park’s attractions, Maid of the Mist operates seasonally, roughly mid-May through late October, while the park itself is open year-round.
Tickets for the boat adventure are $17 for adults and $9.90 for children; however, we purchased the Discovery Pass, which also includes access to the park’s four other attractions — Niagara Adventure Theater, Aquarium of Niagara, Cave of the Winds, and Niagara Gorge Discovery Center, as well as one day of unlimited trolley rides across the more than 400-acre park.
Priced at $36 for adults and $29 for children ages 6 through 12, the Discovery Pass is a bargain that nearly pays for itself after only two premiere attractions: Maid of the Mist and Cave of the Winds, which runs $12 for adults and $9 for children ages 6 through 12. Plus, the trolleys — $2 for adults and $1 for ages 6 through 9 — are lifesavers to tired legs and feet later in the day.
With late evening upon us, we left the park and headed to local eatery legend Duff’s Famous Wings, 3651 Sheridan Dr. in Amherst, its original location.
Buffalo’s Anchor Bar is credited with creating the Buffalo wing, but more than one local told us Duff’s “perfected it.” A mixed order of medium and medium hot (described in the menu as “hot” and “very hot,” respectively) wings and the Ranch-like creamy bleu-cheese dipping sauce exceeded our lofty expectations. As with the nearby falls, Duff's is a must-visit area attraction.
With overcast skies and a temperature still on the chilly side, we started Sunday, our only full day at Niagara Falls State Park, with Niagara Adventure Theater and its 40-minute film exploring the history of the falls. The movie includes a dramatic re-enactment of a lucky 7-year-old boy who became the first person to survive a plunge over the falls without any protection, other than a lifejacket.
The theater is inside the state park’s visitors center on the mainland. The center also features a small but thorough exhibit chronicling the creation and fascinating history of Niagara Falls. The free exhibit is downstairs, across from the theater, and worth the 10-minute walkthrough.
For lunch, we rode the trolley back to Goat Island and the Top of the Falls Restaurant, a two-story building about a hundred feet from Terrapin Point, a popular tourist spot that overlooks Horseshoe Falls. We expected mediocre food and high prices, but were delighted to discover a menu of above-average sandwiches, wraps, salads, and fish and chips priced between $11 and $16.
Our next stop was the nearby Cave of the Winds, a 175-foot elevator ride down to a wooden deck and stairs — torn down and rebuilt annually — that straddle the bottom and side of Bridal Veil Falls, a smaller waterfall separated yet part of the American Falls.
The attraction provides a pair of souvenir water sandals to wear on the soaked deck, a personal bag to keep the other shoes and belongings dry, and a yellow rain poncho. Despite the protection, Cave of the Winds is like taking a shower in clothes.
Now late afternoon, we took the trolley to the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center, which by then was closed, and the Aquarium of Niagara, which is across the street and accessed via a long walking bridge. The aquarium was small, included a brief sea lion attraction, and should be the last item on the itinerary. From the looks of the smallish Gorge Discovery Center, we didn’t miss much, either.
For our final outing, we rode the trolley northwest across the park to Three Sisters Islands. Located off Goat Island, about a half-mile upriver from Horseshoe Falls, the three small islands offer striking scenery of a different sort: roaring rapids, a stone bridge over a lazy creek, a canopy of green, and myriad colorful water fowl.
Monday morning, just before our return trip to Toledo, we stopped for a splendid late breakfast at Lake Effect Diner, 3165 Main St. in Buffalo.
The popular restaurant is in a refurbished metal diner from the 1950s, and its divine House Cured and Smoked Ham, served with “Red Eye Gravy,” eggs, home fries, and toast, was deservedly featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.
Exhilarated by our quick but memorable family vacation, we understood the park’s legendary appeal to newlyweds. Niagara Falls State Park is an easy place to love.
Contact Kirk Baird at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.
If you go:
NIAGARA FALLS: In northwest New York, approximately 20 minutes northwest of Buffalo. From Toledo, an approximately 360-mile drive in just over six hours, with stops, along I-90 East, through Erie, Pa., and into New York.
MAIN ATTRACTIONS: Maid of the Mist and Cave of the Winds. Times for the seasonal attractions vary. Tickets for the boat adventure are $17 for adults and $9.90 for children, and Cave of the Winds is $12 for adults and $9 for children ages 6 through 12.
The Discovery Pass, which also includes access to the park’s four other attractions — Niagara Adventure Theater, Aquarium of Niagara, and Niagara Gorge Discovery Center, as well as one day of unlimited trolley rides across the more than 400-acre park — are $36 for adults and $29 for children ages 6 through 12. Niagarafallsstatepark.com or call 716-278-1796.
LODGING AND AREA ATTRACTIONS: niagara-usa.com or call 716-282-8992.
DINING: In-park: Top of the Falls restaurant. Open daily from May through September, hours vary. Visit http://bit.ly/1mNJriG or call 716-278-0340 for reservations and availability.
Duff’s Famous Wings, 3651 Sheridan Dr. in Amherst, a Buffalo suburb. Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.- midnight, Friday and Saturday, noon to 10 p.m. Sunday. Duffswings.com or call 716-834-6234.
Lake Effect Diner, 3165 Main St. in Buffalo. Hours: 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday. Visit http://bit.ly/1l1EEux or call 716-833-1952.