It’s one of the great American rides – a scenic 15-mile stretch of highway that packs more punch than roads ten times as long. Skirting the edge of the Niagara River as it rushes from the Falls to its rendezvous with Lake Ontario, the Niagara Scenic Parkway makes for a delightful diversion of a couple hours or several days of exploration. If you’d like to leave the driving to someone else, climb aboard the new Discover Niagara Shuttle; it’s a free, hop on, hop off bus that stops at 17 sites along the Parkway.
Niagara Gorge Discovery Center. This is the perfect spot to get oriented and learn about the geology, ecology and history of the Falls and the surrounding region. It also serves as the trailhead for an easy hike on the Great Gorge Railway Trail that follows the route of a trolley line that once ran along the bottom of the gorge from Niagara Falls to Lewiston. Today, it’s the easiest way to descend into the canyon cut by the Niagara River over the last 10,000 years.
Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center. Through multimedia displays, a recreation of the Cataract House Hotel dining room, historic artifacts, beautiful illustrations and a short film, the Heritage Center tells the true stories of the heroic Americans who fought for freedom and justice on the bluffs overlooking the Niagara Gorge.
Whirlpool State Park. A spectacular view of Devil’s Hole – a deep, bowl-shaped basin hundreds of feet below — is the appetizer here. The main course is the hike that takes you to the bottom of the gorge and along the class five rapids of the Niagara River. This is one of the region’s hiding-in-plain-sight gems, a chance to sit down alongside the roaring cataract and enjoy the natural Niagara that most visitors to the Falls overlook. A warning: this is a hike for the hale and hearty.
Devil’s Hole State Park. Devil’s Hole is adjacent to Whirlpool State Park and shares many of the same trails and views. If you’re up for a longer, more challenging hike along the roaring Niagara River descend to the gorge floor at Devil’s Hole, climb back up via the Whirlpool State Park stairs and return to your car along the gorge rim to complete the loop. Allow two hours.
Niagara Power Vista. Science can be fun. Education can be engaging. These are the lessons you’ll drive away with after a stop at the recently renovated Niagara Power Vista. Operated by the New York Power Authority, the Power Vista is an interactive experience that tells the story of the harnessing of hydroelectricity – a story that’s more dramatic than you might think – in a family-friendly way. Parking and admission are FREE!
Lewiston. Stop at this charming village dating from 1818 for lunch, dinner or a snack. For lunch, try Water Street Landing. On a fine summer day, there’s no better place to take in the views of the lower Niagara River. (The Freedom Crossing Monument is nearby and worth a small detour). At dinnertime, try Carmelo’s, an upscale Italian restaurant that’s long been considered one of the region’s finest. For a treat, the go-to stop is Hibbard’s, a classic roadside stand that’s been serving to-die-for frozen custard since 1939.
Artpark. This is a great place for a picnic, surrounded by stunning views and playful public art. But if your timing is right, the best reason to stop at this New York State Park devoted to the arts is a concert, performance or festival. Artpark hosts dozens of special events each season, ranging from the fantastically whimsical Fairy House Festival to more mainstream concerts by the likes of Vampire Weekend, Trombone Shorty and the B-52s.
Stella Niagara Preserve. With 29 acres and more than a quarter mile of shoreline, the Stella Niagara Preserve is a place of natural serenity and the largest privately-owned, undeveloped tract of land along the Niagara River. Acquired by the Western New York Land Conservancy in 2015, the property is being returned to its natural condition and provides walking trails, fishing access and a place to put a kayak into the slower moving waters of the lower Niagara River.
Fort Niagara State Park. Located at the confluence of the Niagara River and Lake Ontario, Fort Niagara State Park preserves and interprets the history that happened here and helped determine the fate of the North American continent. You’ll find living history exhibits, reenactors, musket demonstrations, and the historic quarters where French, British and American soldiers lived and worked from the 18th to the 20th centuries. The French and Indian War Encampment held every July is one of the highlights of the Fort’s annual calendar.
– Ed Healy