I stand with my arms open, chin to the sky, as another gust coats me with sweet mist in my eyes. The cloud of white is a rush of relief leaving droplets behind poised on the strands of my hair. I cheer after each thunderous wave as I would on the crest of a roller coaster’s descent. It seems as if nothing could take away my childlike joy at this moment. Niagara Falls was the first and last stop of the Jager Road Trip through Ontario, Canada. In just a day’s time, we sifted through the plethora of tourist attractions tackling our mutual discomfort with large crowds to immerse ourselves in the natural beauty of the Niagara Parks.
The adventure began with a rocky start as we happily drove into the peak of tourist traffic that was tripled by crowds gathered for a Bollywood festival just before sunset. My poor timing with logistics resulted in over an hour of stop-and-go congestion on empty stomachs after a seven-hour trip from the states. The Niagara Falls panorama swept past our peripheral vision unnoticed in our distress to appreciate its presence. We aborted the mission and escaped just in time to sit through another forty minutes of border crossing traffic on Rainbow Bridge over the Niagara River to our hotel in Niagara Falls, New York. Desperately needing a do-over, we rose before the sun and crossed the Canadian border in less than fifteen minutes the following morning at 5:30 am. Unfortunately, the tourist town didn’t officially open until 8:00 am so we passed the time searching for affordable parking and strolling the sleepy streets.
Our early-bird mentality allowed us to take advantage of shorter lines and a morning tour of the Journey Behind the Falls descending 125 feet through tunnels built over 130 years ago in the bedrock of Horseshoe Falls. We huddled together to read signs describing the once wooden walkways in 1903 leading visitors in oilcloth jackets and boots to the lookout behind the Falls before following in their footsteps toward the roar of Horseshoe’s 154 million liters of water rushing every minute over the edge. Roughly 500 waterfalls are higher than Niagara, but none compare to its sheer volume connecting the Great Lakes of Erie to Ontario on the Niagara River.
We also read several stories about daredevils attempting to ride down the Falls dating as far back as 1901 when Annie Taylor climbed inside an airtight barrel. The only person to unintentionally go over the Falls and survive was 7-year old, Roger Woodward, who fell overboard during a boating accident on July 9, 1960, and was swept over the Falls wearing only his life jacket and survived the drop to be plucked up by a Maid of the Mist tour boat.
The Niagara Parks Commission allowed professional tightrope walker, Nik Wallenda, to cross the Niagara Gorge on a wire on June 15, 2012. As a way to pay tribute to the history of stunting, a professional stunt can be performed once a generation or approximately every twenty years. The “Journey Behind the Falls” brought us close enough to the Horseshoe Falls to feel its power and share the stories of its history.
There is more to see than what first meets the eye in Niagara Falls. Tourists can purchase a day pass for the WEGO Bus System Green Line dedicated to a continuous loop of the Niagara Parks attractions along the river. We were able to hop on the WEGO and save our legs the round trip 19-kilometer trek (11.8 miles) to the Niagara Parks School of Horticulture.
Ninety-nine acres of pathways, ponds, plants, flowers, vegetables, herbs, and trees serve an outdoor classroom for residential students at the School of Horticulture. The Botanical Garden is open year round with free admission to the public. The gardens are a stunning display with each species identified and maintained by the horticulture students. Our highlights were the Rose Garden, Arboretum, and Vegetable Garden. There was even a living sculpture on the residence hall where students had trained the vines to grow in the shape of a tree. I found refuge in the shade of giant reeds for few moments of rest.
After a full day of exploring, we decided to revisit the Niagara Parks along the route of the return trip on our last day. It was well worth a second look because we had the opportunity to take a morning hike in the Niagara Glen. The Glen has a unique story to share from over 430 million years of natural history when the land was once covered by a warm sea and the continent hovered near the equator. The Niagara River is a result of the melting “Wisconsin Glacier” that eroded the escarpment to produce the famous Niagara Falls that border two countries known as the Canadian Horseshoe Falls and the American Bridal Veil Falls. The erosion of an island that once separated the waterfalls collapsed into the gorge leaving large boulders and a Carolinian forest behind in the Niagara Glen. While it’s just a few miles from the touristy chaos that is Niagara Falls, it’s a world apart.
The Niagara Glen staff are trained in various naturalist positions, with many of them working seasonally as current university students who are pursuing careers in Conservation Science, Geology, and Botany, just to name a few. After discussing the trail features with a park guide, we decided to join her for a guided hike that was leaving soon. Our guide, who is studying Archeology, was excited to point out a boundary monument (Photo on Right) that is used to define the International Boundary with reference points on land as the river changes over time. The International Boundary between Canada and the United States runs over water for more than 1,300 miles from New York to the Great Lakes.
The Niagara Parks maintains a “Leave No Trace” policy where visitors take only photographs and leave only footprints. As part of the guided hike experience, we were encouraged to participate in the photography scavenger hunt by documenting specific plants on the list to earn points for the trading exchange program. We took on the challenge and photographed the features our guide pointed out on the hike, committing the name of each one to memory. We climbed the metal staircase down into the Glen and hiked the Cliffside Trail to Limestone Outcrop where we saw rock climbers bouldering.
Photo on Right: Looking through the “Mammoth Pothole,” a result of bedrock erosion by rotary water currents
Photos on Left: The Emerald ash borer is an invasive species that took over this Ash tree. The evidence is in the insect patterns in the bark.
Photo: The above arrows show the route of our hike on the Niagara Glen trail system
The air cooled as we entered the forest and we took a few moments to learn more about the Carolinian trees that surrounded us. The Eddy Trail ended at Cripps Eddy, known for its dangerous undercurrent that forms a whirlpool beneath the water’s surface. We witnessed the powerful rapids of Niagara while hiking along the River Trail and then faced a gradual incline on the Terrace trail through larger-than-life boulders. At the intersection of Cobblestone Trail, we returned on the Cliffside Trail to the Nature Center at the top of the staircase.
Following the hike, we visited the Nature Exchange Trading Center where we traded in our knowledge of the native plants in our scavenger hunt photos to score points for selecting natural items for us to keep from their collection. We went through each photo and identified rock formations and plants such as staghorn sumacs, poison ivy, and Virginia creepers. There are approximately 490 species of plants and animals in Niagara Glen with many listed as “at risk” or “rare” in the province. We also agreed to help a graduate student with her research by completing a survey about our experience in the Glen and were given free Niagara Parks canteens for participating.
Below on Left: One of the items we purchased with our knowledge points using examples of our photos shown on the right
From the waterfalls and tunnels to botanical gardens and ancient boulders, our visit to Niagara Falls was everything we were looking for. We didn’t need to tap into all of the tourist sights to get a well-rounded experience. The Journey Behind the Falls was the most intensive exposure of the wrath behind Horseshoe Falls and it was fascinating to learn so much about the native plants and rock formations in the Niagara Glen and School of Horticulture. It was refreshing to bookend our vacation with excursions in nature where we feel so energized and in awe of this big, beautiful world.