Biking to Niagara Falls
Mr. Spoked tried not to grimace when he heard me say “trail.” Never mind that it was preceded by the phrase “Niagara Falls,” it was still a trail, and that meant it would be uninteresting (to him). But he quickly put on a brave face and agreed to bicycle Niagara Falls as the second cycling stop on our grand Velo Vacay.
Niagara Falls is one of North America’s great dichotomies–a geological marvel and, yet, a tacky tourist trap. Honeymooners have spooned at the falls for more than a century, while daredevils have dropped over it in barrels or walked across its gorge on tightropes. It’s been immortalized in skillful romantic paintings and on sloppy t-shirts. Ah, the agony and the ecstasy, the schlock and the glory! I’ve wanted to see it ever since I was a kid.
It wasn’t exactly easy to figure out how to cycle to the falls, though, or even if a safe route was possible. After studying the Niagara River Recreation Trail website and a few other less helpful sites, I decided the Canadian side was our best bet. We’d planned to bring along our passports anyway. It would be only a slight detour and appeared considerably safer than riding on U.S. soil.
So it happened that, on a sunny Sunday in mid-July, we steered our car off the New York State Thruway and west onto 190 in Buffalo, then followed the signs to Canada. We crossed into Ontario on the Peace Bridge and asked the border guard for directions to the Niagara Parkway. He gave us precise instructions, and we promptly forgot them. Luckily, the first right-hand turn dumped us almost immediately onto a street that intersected the Parkway, and from them on it was a breeze.
The Niagara Parkway is a two-lane paved road winding between the Niagara River on the east and residential homes (many of them mansions) on the west. We knew from Google maps that the distance between the Peace Bridge and the falls was less than 20 miles, but we had no idea where to park the car and begin our ride. So we drove north along the Parkway for a few miles while admiring the river–broad, fast and a vivid bluish-green. We noticed frequent pull-offs with small parking areas where people were picnicking and sunbathing. After about five miles, we pulled the car into one of these spots. It was time to get serious about a ride.
Many trails are poorly marked, but not so the Niagara River Recreation Trail. We knew exactly where to pick it up because it was visible from our parking spot. Running along the west side of the Parkway, the trail is a patchwork of asphalt paths, service roads and driveways. Occasionally it crosses streets, where caution signs warn cyclists of traffic. We slowly cycled north on the trail, weaving through what appeared to be some families’ front lawns, not knowing exactly how far the falls would be.
The trail twisted and turned with the river. We stopped at the occasional historical markers, a little local historical museum and a battlefield from the War of 1812. The markers identified abandoned hydroelectric plants from the turn of the 20th century, Navy Island, a rusted scow that had nearly gone over the falls, and other local landmarks. Soon a large cloud of mist came into view in front of high-rise hotels in the distance. We decided it had to mark the location of the falls.
Niagara Falls is actually made up of three distinct falls–Horseshoe, American and Bridal Veil. Horseshoe is the largest of the three, and located on the Canadian side. As we got closer to the large cloud of mist, we noticed that the river began to flow very fast. The trail became a sidewalk, crossing parking lots and roadways and even short bridges over canals and creeks feeding into the river. Pedestrians appeared on the sidewalk in greater numbers until, finally, we had to dismount and walk our bikes to keep moving forward. The cloud of mist was very close and there was a distinct roaring sound. We walked our bikes only a short distance further until, suddenly, the river dropped away into the precipice. What spectacle!
In my mind, riding our bikes downstream (north, with the current) to the falls was the perfect way to experience the grandeur of Niagara. Our anticipation built along with the speed of the river. I would have hated driving there, paying a fortune to park my car, then elbowing through a sea of tourists for a chance to have my picture taken with a Canadian Mountie. Instead, I got to ride leisurely along a meandering little bicycle trail until Mother Nature shouted, “Hey, look at me!” It was a great vacation moment.
Other posts in the Velo Vacay series:
- Erie Canal (Bike New York)
- Covered Bridges in Vermont (Bike Vermont)
- Champlain Islands (Bike Vermont)
- Montreal (Bike Quebec)
- On the Burlington Bike Path (Bike Vermont)
- Great Allegheny Passage (Pennsylvania Bike Trails)