When I told a colleague of my plan for a winter visit to Niagara Falls, his eyes opened wide. With practically chattering teeth, he re-c-c-c-called his own New Year's weekend visit to the f-f-f-falls years ago. "That was the coldest I've ever been in my life." Would he ever consider doing such a silly thing again? "Absolutely."
Niagara Falls in winter is an ice spectacular. During the coldest months of winter, the falls get transformed. Sheets of ice form on Lake Erie that then break up and flow toward the falls and crash over the precipice. Ice turns rocks in the river into strange and mystical shapes. “Sometimes they rise almost to the top of the American falls,” says Paul Gromosiak, a Niagara Falls historian who has written nine books on the falls. “They look like huge masses of marshmallow.”
Mist rising from the cascading water freezes on nearby rock walls, trees and railings, creating fanciful designs. The falls never stop, but everything around them is transformed. It's a world glazed by ice. “It’s something out of Dr. Zhivago,” said Allen James, director of marketing and special events for Niagara Falls State Park. “It’s a natural winter palace of sorts.”
Would I come here again? Absolutely.
The season of the deep freeze has been a local favorite for centuries. In the cold-weather equivalent of going over the falls in a barrel, winter visitors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries used to take daredevil walks across the ice bridge that would form in the Niagara River below the falls.
"There were certain years when the ice stretched from shore to shore in a wild, rumpled mass," wrote historian Pierre Berton in "Niagara, A History of the Falls." "When the bridge was pronounced solid, when all the small chunks of ice hurled over the Falls had congealed into a craggy expanse of hummocks and clefts -- men and women risked their lives in a race to be the first to cross."
One of the most massive ice bridges formed in 1899, when blocks of ice wedged together and created a solid overpass across the river. Hundreds of people made the slippery walk from the United States to Canada, and vendors set up shop on the ice. No one is allowed to cross the ice bridges anymore, but the ice spectaculars are still available for view from bridges and overlooks.
It's not only safer to visit the frozen falls these days, it's warmer, thanks to a nearly universal feature of hotel rooms here -- the hot tub. This is, after all, the honeymoon capital of the world. (Well, one of them, anyway.) After a day in the cold environs of the falls, a plunge into an in-room Jacuzzi is like a warm embrace, whether you're a newlywed or a solo tourist.
Even better if your Jacuzzi has a view -- and with winter specials you can afford one. I lucked into a plum high-rise room -- an executive suite on a Saturday night! -- with a panoramic 28th-floor view of Horseshoe Falls, at half the regular price. There’s also a heated trolley that runs through the park.
In the morning, I took the "Journey Behind the Falls" tour, bypassing the empty maze of gates used to tame summer throngs and walking directly up to the ticket window. Time elapsed: 30 seconds. Summer visitors can wait up to two hours.
Without the irritations of crowds and lines, there is ample time to explore, in peace and from all sides, this awesome natural wonder. Niagara Falls is not one place or one thing. It is two towns in two countries. It is also three separate falls created from the waters of four Great Lakes pouring into the fifth, Lake Ontario.
And it is a place of startling yin and yang. The falls are unequivocally magnificent. Yet a good portion of the Niagara River is lined with bright lights, ticky-tacky hotels and souvenir shops. The sheer brute power and beauty of the falls incite reflection and awe. Yet the man-made surroundings assault the senses. It is like sampling fine wines and cleansing the palate with lime Jell-O.
Still, this massive geological marvel is worth pushing past the distractions. When even a trickle of a waterfall captivates people, the breadth of Niagara Falls is hard to conceive. Fifty other waterfalls are taller, but only Victoria Falls in Africa is wider.
I began my visit on the American side. The city of Niagara Falls, N.Y., felt rather desolate, but it certainly is convenient to the falls. It took just a few minutes to walk from downtown to Niagara Reservation State Park, the nation's oldest state park -- designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also masterminded Central Park.
Stepping onto a small bridge over the Niagara River, I looked down at the fast-moving current. White water was roiling and rolling so rapidly it made me woozy. Ahead I could see mist rising where the river tumbles over the edge. It was thick, like smoke from a fire, to the point where it obscured the sun, turning it into a grayish orb I could gaze straight into without squinting.
It felt like one of those old Westerns where some hapless, unaware adventurer in a canoe suddenly hears the roar of a waterfall too late. The current is too strong to paddle backward, and in no time, he's over the brink. Here the poor guy would plunge headlong down 176 feet, the height of a 17-story building.
On the other side of the bridge is Goat Island, a pretty piece of land above the falls in the middle of the river, with walking paths, exhibits and a 1 1/2-mile loop walk. The park rangers have to do battle with ice on these paths all winter long. They usually win, except at Terrapin Point, the overlook to Horseshoe Falls. Some years, ice builds up to 10 feet high on that walk. Visitors must view the falls from a walkway further up.
At Bridal Veil Falls, I stood at the railing, feeling almost able to reach out and touch the rainbow arching over them. The falls were a spitting distance away. Since I basically had the place to myself, no one was hogging the optical viewers. I popped in a quarter and focused on a spot just before the brink. I felt like a sea gull aloft. But my thoughts were very human. It felt dangerous there, like I could be swept away in a flash. I moved the viewer around and my gaze settled on the casino and Planet Hollywood across the way, on the Canadian side. Yin dissolved into yang.
I asked a ranger what the differences were between the American and Canadian sides. It turns out, not surprisingly, that New York State park rangers promote the American side only. But he did say that he's found people love either one side or the other: "No one's ever 50-50."
On Saturday, I visited Whirlpool State Park, Devil's Hole State Park -- both spots downriver from the falls -- and the New York State Power Authority's fun little museum on electricity and harnessing the power of the falls. Then I headed over to Niagara-on-the-Lake, a quaint town of small shops with a British feel.
It was dark when I drove back to Niagara Falls, Ontario, for my stay on the Canadian side. I drove slowly down a Vegas-like strip of a main street, aflame with neon, wax museums and haunted houses. I passed block after block of flashing lights, marquees and signs until I reached a slightly calmer section of town and booked a room.
In the morning, with the neon dimmed, the thundering water of the falls still mesmerized. Up close, Horseshoe Falls looked like a steaming, bubbling caldron. A distinct rainbow graced the scene. Upstream, white water came rushing over the rocks toward the falls. Downstream, the water calmed and the Niagara looked like any other river -- only colder.
First published in The Washington Post. All rights reserved.