Hiking the Niagara Gorge
Niagara Falls is one of the best known tourist destinations in North America. But just a few miles downriver from the thundering falls is a natural hiking trail about as different from the falls as one can imagine.
The Canadian side of Niagara Falls is the side that gets all the press. It has the Horseshoe Falls, Clifton Hill, and a beautiful parkway that runs 30 miles to Lake Ontario. However the American side has a lot going for it as well, especially if one is inclined to do some serious hiking. The Niagara Gorge hiking trails emanate from Whirlpool State Park. The whirlpool is downstream from the falls and visitors can get an amazing overhead view from the Rim Trail. That trail, 6.2 miles long one way, starts at Niagara Falls and follows the river from the top of the gorge, through Whirlpool State Park and ends up at the Robert Morris Power Plant. While the Rim Trail is a nice, flat hike, the real excitement is down by the water.
From the parking area at Whirlpool State Park follow the Rim Trail north (to the right, if you are looking at the river) for about a quarter mile to reach the trail head for the Whirlpool Rapids Trail. This two mile round trip trail starts with 400 stone steps descending from the rim to the river. This is rated as a difficult trail and it is. Along with the steps there is much uneven ground and a fair bit of boulder hopping. At the bottom of the stairs the hiker can stay on this trail or turn right to follow the Devil's Hole Trail. In fact, most of the eight trails in the area are connected, although often it's by a strenuous series of stairs.
Down at the water level the hiker can really appreciate the power of the Niagara River. The river bed is filled with rapids. The noise approaches what one hears at the falls. As the trail approaches the whirlpool it splits into a loop. The high side features some scrambling and brings hikers to a large rock ledge that is inches from the rushing river. At this point the trail markers become bright orange arrows and dots spray painted on the rocks. This is a good thing, because as the loop heads back toward the start the trail run through a boulder field. One would be sure they were off-route if it wasn't for the orange painted dots showing the way. This is also the part of the trail that makes one appreciate wearing proper hiking footwear.
To finish the trail it is necessary to climb up those 400 steps at the trail head. It may be a little slower going back up, but it is one of those trails that really gives a hiker a sense of satisfaction that they've completed it. Plus, the view from the bottom of Niagara Gorge is awesome.