WINTER ROAD TRIPS
Frozen Niagara or the Niagara Frozen?
Story by Matt Bayman
Niagara Falls photos courtesy of Niagara Falls State Park
Niagara Falls, New York is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States, except when it’s cold and snowy out. As my family and I learned several years ago, if you visit the falls in the dead of winter, you pretty much have the entire place to yourself, plus you get to see the falls in a way that many people never will…nearly frozen!
Throw in the colorful lights that rotate across the falls on mist- and snow-covered winter nights, and the gigantic pillars of ice that form at the base of the falls, not to mention luxury hotels at low rates and plenty of indoor entertainment and dining to enjoy, and a winter road trip to Niagara Falls can be a fun and affordable getaway, especially when cabin fever sets in.
Niagara Falls contains a number of casinos, but even if you’re not interested in gambling this is a good thing. With many of the casino hotels offering lavish accommodations and amenities, the family oriented hotels in the downtown have had to keep up. This includes the Sheraton Niagara Falls, which is located just a few blocks from the falls and connected to a Rain Forest Café, Hershey’s Sweet Treats, Starbucks and The Corner Deli, as well as the Arcade at the Falls. It also has a very interesting indoor swimming area. Along with a large swimming pool and two huge hot tubs, swimmers share the room with a giant tubular fish tank that contains real sharks. From certain angles, it looks like the tank connects to the pool. On the wall of the swimming area is a tidal pool filled with starfish and other exotic sea life.
This wildlife theme at the pool ties in with the Rainforest Café, which contains animatronic safari animals that occasionally come to life and make noises during dinner. In the summer and fall, rooms at this hotel go for $225 per night. In the winter, they cost about $85 per night, or less.
With restaurants, swimming pools and games all located under one roof, the winter weather only comes into play when visiting the falls. Otherwise, the hotel, and many others like it in the area, is like a vacation unto itself.
As long as you pack accordingly, which means the equivalent of bringing all of your sledding and snow gear, several hours can be spent exploring the falls area and hiking trails that surround it. They can be visited during the day to see the amazing ice formations, and then returned to at night for a completely different experience with the colorful lights and towers of mist pouring into the air, sometimes as you’re the only one watching!
According to Michael Barnes, general manager of Niagara Falls State Park, the Niagara River dumps about 212,000 cubic feet of water per second over the falls, meaning there is a ton of mist in the air that can freeze everything in sight, including rocks, trees, manmade objects and anything that gets close to the falls.
“This creates a crystallized winter wonderland,” Barnes said via e-mail.
Niagara Falls does not freeze over (some portions of it have in the past, but not the falls as a whole), nor will the river below. But it does have what is known as an ice bridge, which is an attraction that Barnes said is found only during the winter months at Niagara Falls, but that is “breathtaking.” It forms at the base of the falls when ice from the frozen surface of Lake Erie flows over the falls in volume and begins to collect. “The ice freezes to the edges of the gorge and builds upon itself until the river is covered in this giant layer of ice,” he said. “This layer has grown to 80 feet thick in the past and currently, 40 feet is not uncommon. It’s really something to see.”
Barnes said the ice bridge is typically visible from late December to the end of February.
This frozen wonderland is made even more spectacular each evening during the illumination of the falls.
“This is something that a lot of people don’t know about,” Barnes said of the light display.
Illumination displays feature color palettes and movements inspired by nature, including sunrise, aurora borealis, rainbow and sunset. A five-minute lighting display plays through three times on the half-hour beginning at 7:30 p.m. each evening, with additional displays and light shows at 8:30, 9:30, 10:30 and 11:30 p.m. Additionally, a set of lights remain on the falls until 1 a.m. in the winter and 2 a.m. in the warmer months.
While many tourist attractions and shops in the downtown are closed during the winter, there are still a number of fun attractions to enjoy. This includes a wax museum, the Cave of the Winds Pavilion, the Aquarium of Niagara, Old Fort Niagara and the Fashion Outlets, among many others.
Located about 425 miles from most of the Miami Valley (about six hours by car), Niagara Falls is a nearby world-famous attraction that can be experienced in a very unique and affordable way in the winter. Whether on a solo adventure, a couple’s getaway or a family vacation, it’s a close-to-home experience that can add a colorful splash to the post-holiday season and wintertime blues.
To learn more about the lights and attractions in Niagara Falls, and to see a video of the display, visit niagaraparks.com.
Frozen Niagara in Kentucky
Another inexpensive, nearby and often-overlooked winter road trip is Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky.
One of the park’s most popular tours and geological features is the Frozen Niagara Tour, which passes a giant flowstone formation that looks like a frozen waterfall. It can be seen on several different tours, but the Frozen Niagara Tour is the most popular because it is shorter than other tours and it contains fewer steps to climb.
The cave system remains at a steady 54 degrees at all times, so even if it’s freezing above-ground, it’s always jacket-weather in the cave. And, there are plenty of different tours to keep you underground. This includes the self-guided Extended Historic Tour, which enters the cave at the mammoth entrance and passes some of the most popular features in the cave, as well as the Mammoth Passage Tour and the Broadway Tour. The Mammoth Passage Tour contains artifacts left behind by historic and prehistoric people and visits some of the largest rooms in the cave. The Broadway Tour is an extension of the self-guided tour and visits additional attractions within the cave system.
The self-guided option for the Extended Historic Tour was created in response to the virus and is a rare chance for guests to take the tour at their own pace, away from crowds, while still being able to ask questions to rangers that are stationed at key points along the way.
Mammoth Cave National Park is located 270 miles (4-and-a-half hours) from the Miami Valley and is open year-round. The National Park Service is advising that visitors book their cave tours in advance, as space is limited.
Just like the hotels in Niagara Falls, New York, winter travelers to Mammoth Cave National Park can find interesting lodging options for half the normal price. This includes cabins with hot tubs in the woods, lodges next to lakes, AirBnBs of all sizes and spacious bed and breakfasts. Popular cabins include Hickory Cabins and Pine Paradise, while the Serenity Hill Bed & Breakfast is a favorite of travelers. Plus, near Mammoth Cave National Park on Interstate 65 are a number of nice hotels that are very close to other points of interest in the area, as well as many dining options.
Other activities at Mammoth Cave National Park include hiking, snow tubing, horseback riding, stargazing, shopping and mountain biking, all of which can add some excitement to an otherwise quiet time of year.
(Below photos by Matt Bayman)