Travel New York: 5 Things to Do in Niagara Falls in Winter
Contrary to what the calendar and silly weathermen might be telling you, winter isn’t completely over yet (is it ever in Western NY?! I’m kidding, Buffalo. I love you …). Unfortunately, unless we’re talking about Aspen or you enjoy mild hypothermia, winter is rarely the ideal time to visit anywhere.
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Which is why you might not think of Niagara Falls when it comes to winter travel. But it turns out that the combination of almost nonexistent crowds and pristine natural beauty in Western New York in winter make it one of the best times of year to visit.
So hike up that double layer of socks and throw on an extra pair of underwear or three because visiting Niagara Falls in winter is way cooler than you’d expect! Here’s why …
Officially, Fort Niagara is “the oldest continuously occupied military site in North America.” Though the fort was constructed in 1726, the “old” moniker refers, not to its age, but rather to differentiate it from “New Fort Niagara” — the post-Civil War era structure built outside the walls of the original “Old” Fort.
The fort was initially built as a French embattlement to protect their land interests in North America. It would go on to change hands numerous times throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Countless Native American, French, British, and American soldiers have passed through its walls and there are still mountains of original artifacts to attest to that.
Today it’s officially the Fort Niagara State Park and Museum where visitors can explore much of the fort as it was so many years ago. Guided tours educate visitors on Civil War-era life and the fort hosts numerous special events throughout the year, including battle reenactments and musket & artillery firing demonstrations. And you can check out the remnants of an original War of 1812 flag.
As an added bonus, the site is believed to be haunted by a French soldier who lost his head in a swordfight. Reports claim that he wanders the fort walls in search of his head. (Is it nitpicking to think that one would need one’s head to find one’s own head? But I digress …)
#2: Visit the Hydroelectric Power Plant
Fifty years ago, the United States and Canada collectively got the idea to divert a sizable portion (up to 375,000 gallons of water per second) of the Niagara River to provide hydroelectric power to much of western New York. The result was one of the most ambitious public works projects in America’s history. Today the Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant on the U.S. side alone “uses 13 generators at an installed capacity of 2,525 megawatts (3,386,000 hp).” I have no idea how to put that in layman’s terms but it sounds like a lot of power.
A visitor center at a power plant probably isn’t high on the bucketlist for most travelers. But the Niagara Power Project Visitors Center is actually way more fascinating than even we expected. The facility uses a variety of modern exhibits and installations to educate visitors on the geeky inner workings of hydroelectric power, as well as the history behind the completely insane idea to built the plant to begin with. It’s an almost absurd task with today’s construction equipment and it was infinitely more so in the mid-1950s.
When the weather is cooperating, you can even step out onto the Observation Deck to see the plant operating first-hand. About the only time it closes is during inclimate weather (i.e. if the platform is covered in too much ice or snow).
It’s no secret that I’m borderline obsessed with tall buildings. And no building on the U.S. side of Niagara Falls provides a better panoramic view of the area than the observation floor at The Giacomo Hotel. This former United Office Building built in 1929 is now a boutique hotel and historic landmark. Built in the Art Deco style so popular in the early twentieth century, it’s a uniquely New York building.
Grab a cocktail in the hotel’s first floor lounge and head to the top floor for stunning views of the falls, especially at night. The observation floor isn’t anything fancy or over the top. It’s a simply appointed lounge area where we had the good fortune to relax all by ourselves (again: winter is an amazing time to visit!).
Oh … and The Giacomo Hotel is also a pretty sweet place to crash if you’re staying in Niagara Falls!
#4: … and Visit the (Almost) Frozen Falls
You don’t need me to tell you to visit Niagara Falls. It’s one of the world’s most stunning natural wonders. But what you may not know is that visiting in winter is a unique and more amazing experience than most visitors see.
The actual Falls almost never freeze (although it has happened a few times throughout history), but every year, the water and greenery around the three waterfalls become heavily layered in snow and ice. This provides a unique winter view that few visitors ever get to see.
As an added bonus, the maddening crowds that are so heavy in the late spring and summer are virtually nonexistent. Our winter tour guide assured us that it’s often difficult to actually see the water through the throngs of warm weather tourists. Bully for us, we were two of only four people on the (almost private) tour.
#5: Jet Boat Ride Down the Niagara River Gorge
It’s one thing to just see the falls but another matter entirely to ride through the river gorge. And that’s exactly what you can do with Niagara Jet Adventures. Their boats are purpose-built for skimming across the treacherous whitewater rapids of the Niagara River and performing 360-degree hairpin turns inside the gorge.
While it was filmed during peak season, this video (complete with ominous disaster movie soundtrack) gives you the gist:
Niagara Jet Adventures runs in all four seasons. But, again, a winter visit means thinner crowds and a truly unique experience. Because the boat’s interior is climate-controlled, you don’t have to worry about freezing to death. As long as the water is cooperating and hasn’t iced over, the folks at NJA will be riding the gorge.