Of all the crown jewels in America's natural tiara - Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite - none is as dog-friendly as Niagara Falls. Save for special guided tours, your dog can walk anywhere you walk to view the world-famous falls in both New York's Niagara Falls State Park and Ontario's Queen Victoria Park.
It is hard to imagine these days but Niagara Falls, one of the world's most visited tourist destinations, was originally looked upon as a key military post and industrial site. One of the first Europeans to see the falls was 51-year old French priest Father Louis Hennepin in 1678. Hennepin is reported to have dropped to his knees in prayer and muttered, "the universe does not afford its parallel." The French military, while perhaps appreciating the romantic sentiment, was more interested in building a fort to defend the natural trade route between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.
Travelers did not begin to arrive in western New York in great numbers until the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 and the coming of the railroads in the 1830s. Many enjoyed the same reaction as Father Hennepin. The tradition of honeymooners coming to Niagara where "the love of those who honeymoon here will last as long as the falls themselves" dates to the early 1800s when members of the French ruling Bonapart family came on wedding trips. By the middle of the century the area around the Falls was a confused hodgepodge of water-powered mills and private resorts.
Following the Civil War, a small group of visionaries began to look for a way to heal the scars to Niagara's natural beauty. The "Free Niagara"crusade led to the creation of the Niagara Reservation, America's first state park in 1885. Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York City's Central Park and one of the leaders of the movement, laid out the park's network of wooded footpaths along the banks of the Niagara River. Olmsted's belief in retaining natural beauty while providing public access - for human and dog - endures at Niagara Falls to this day.
Niagara Falls reigns as one of the world's premier sightseeing destinations and your dog is welcome along. Due to the crush of visitors around the edge of the Falls it is best to begin your explorations of Niagara Falls State Park with the dog in the early morning hours when it is easier to maneuver around to the various vantage points. Even in the busiest times there are grass fields and shady promenades for the dog to romp.
Begin your tour on the paved paths of Goat Island in the middle of the Niagara River, flanked by ferocious rapids on all sides. Pedestrian bridges lead to the Three Sisters Islands and Green Island for close-up looks of the wild river as it approaches the Falls. Descend a flight of stairs to Luna Island, nestled in between the American Falls and the Bridal Veil Falls, before crossing back across Goat Island to the precipice of the Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side. You and the dog can stand at the edge of all three falls and drink in the spray of water before the droplets fall 18 stories over the crest into the gorge. Forty million gallons of water spill over Niagara Falls every minute.
From these vantage points you can stand and contemplate the first recorded person to jump into the Falls. That was Sam Patch in October 1829, who leaped twice from a platform 110 feet high. He survived both jumps. The first person to successfully ride over the falls in a barrel was a woman, Annie Taylor, who survived the stunt on October 24, 1901. Of the 16 known attempts to ride the falls in a barrel or similar capsule - a stunt that is now illegal - 10 survived.
And dogs going over Niagara Falls? Sadly, there is one recorded account of just such an event. In December of 1874 some local hotel owners purchased an old Great Lakes schooner and planned to send it over the Falls to lure visitors to Niagara. To add drama to the spectacle the organizers loaded the ship with a buffalo, three bears, two foxes, a raccoon, a dog, a cat and four geese and cut their "Reverse Noah's Ark" loose in the rapids. The animals were observed scampering around the deck as the schooner slipped over the edge of the falls and smashed into hundreds of pieces on the rocks below. Only two geese were believed to survive the stunt.
For panoramic views of all three falls you will need to cross the gorge into Canada where you can take the dog for a stroll among the flower gardens of Queen Victoria Park. The park, managed by the Niagara Parks Commission, actually predates Niagara Falls State Park. Landscaping of the area with the sublime views of the rushing cataracts began in 1837 and it became a park in 1882. Both parks are free to visit, as are the nightly light shows illuminating the falls.
Niagara Falls has plenty in store for the serious canine hiker as well. The thrills of the Niagara River are not completely spent when the water crashes 170 feet down the falls into the gorge. The river, one of the shortest in the world, rumbles another turbulent 7 miles before disgorging its contents into Lake Ontario. The rapids in the river are among the wildest and fiercest in the world, rated a 6 on the navigable scale of 1-6. The dangerous Niagara River has historically had as strong a hold on daredevils as the falls themselves. Matthew Webb, the first man to swim the English Channel, perished in attempt to swim across the Niagara River here in 1883. Today, whirlpool jet boats ply the tamer of the rapids for thrill-seeking tourists.
The flat, paved Niagara Gorge Rim Trail runs six miles from the American Falls at Prospect Point along the canyon, linking a necklace of New York state parks along the way. Several sets of 300+ steps descend into the gorge in the parks to reach connecting trails along the river's edge. Much of the trail below the rim follows the roadbed of the historic Great Gorge Railway. The railway operated until September 17, 1935 when 5000 tons of rock slid down the gorge and buried the tracks. Part of the trail crosses this rubble and involves considerable rock-hopping for an athletic dog.
These periodic rock falls - seldom of this magnitude - are more common in the winter and early spring and hiking in the gorge is recommended only between mid-May and November 1. The trail leads to the edge of the waves where the 35-foot deep river can reach speeds of 22 miles per hour. While the views of the water churning through Devil's Hole Rapids and Whirlpool Rapids can be mesmerizing, don't forget to look up now and then and perhaps spot the occasional bald eagle circling about, no doubt looking for an easy meal of dazed and battered fish.
The northern-most park along the Niagara Gorge is the Earl W. Brydges Artpark in Lewiston, where the cocktail was invented by a local tavern owner. She mixed gin and herb wine in a tankard and stirred her concoction with the tail feather of a handy stuffed cock pheasant. More traditional artists and craftsfolk display their creations on the grounds of the 200-acre park. The river has calmed down enough by this point to permit a cautious swim for the dog.
The cliffs of the gorge at Lewiston are where Niagara Falls began some 12,000 years ago at the end of the Ice Age. Torrents of water from melting glacial ice poured over the edge of the Niagara Escarpment, as the cliff is known. The sheer force of the water has slowly worn away the rock and moved the falls to their present position seven miles upstream. Today, the falls are eroding at the rate of an inch per year. You can trace the travels of the falls in the rocks that line the gorge.
The Niagara Gorge Trail System ends at the imposing concrete dam of the Robert Moses Power Plant, completing a journey from the beauty of Niagara Falls to the hard reality of its practicality. Hydroelectricity is the most important product of the Falls. Power plants on the American and Canadian sides of the Falls use water diverted from the Falls to generate enough electricity to light 2,500,000 100-watt light bulbs. It is one of the largest such operations in the world with transmissions lines streaming in both directions from the gorge. As impressive as the Falls are today, they are only a fraction as mighty as our ancestors saw - as much as half of the Niagara River's flow is diverted for hydroelectric production.
Some day in the next 3000 years Niagara Falls will wear away entirely and the power will dry up as water flows placidly between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. Until that day, however, there is ample opportunity to take the dog an marvel at the power of Niagara.
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