It is without question that Niagara Falls State Park is one of the most beautiful places our state and country has to offer, drawing an average of nine million tourists every year. People come from all over the world to experience the power and wonder that is Niagara Falls. Designated as a national historic site and the nation’s very first state park, it comes as no surprise the amount of attention it receives.
However, something most people miss out on is the endless beauty of Niagara Falls in the winter. Watching the cascading water crash through the pure white snow and ice creates a unique and memorable experience only attainable during the winter. Visiting the Falls in the wintertime offers tourists stunning views and the beauty of freezing mist covering the landscape.
The newly constructed Cave of the Winds pre-show attraction is now open year-round and offers audiences interactive and virtual exhibits as well as an escape from the chilly temperatures.
Although the Park has received some attention recently pertaining to the beautiful winter wonderland, some articles have mentioned the falls being “iced over” or “freezing over”. It is important to note that the only documented incident of the Falls being frozen completely came in March of 1848 when the Buffalo ExpressNewspaper stated the cause to be ice damming at the mouth of Lake Erie. The installation of an ice boom at the mouth of the Niagara River has made the likelihood of this event recurring very low if not impossible. Even during the infamous Polar Vortex of 2014 the Falls continued to flow.
This does not mean that it has not come very close to freezing since then. During the early 1900’s tourists would often walk out onto “ice bridges” forming across the top of the Falls. This activity proved to be very dangerous and was forbidden after February 1914.
All photos provided by State Parks Naturalist Nicole Czarnecki were taken during the Winter Wonder Photography hike. Look for other events at Niagara Falls and surrounding parks this winter on their Facebook page.
Did you know that Niagara Falls State Park is the oldest state park in the United States? Established in 1885 as Niagara Reservation, the breath-taking waterfalls at this park are considered some of America’s greatest natural wonders. Did you also know that the American Falls at Niagara Falls State Park, at around 100 feet tall, is not the tallest waterfall in New York? To find this peak waterfall, we must actually go to another New York State Park! From high plunges to rocky cascades, waterfalls are all over New York State Parks. In fact, there are 15 parks that have sizeable waterfalls. Few can deny the mesmerizing power and beauty of a waterfall, so why not try to add some of these destinations to a road trip this summer?
Niagara Falls State Park
Easily the most well-known of New York’s waterfalls, Niagara Falls is actually composed of three distinct waterfalls. The smallest is Bridal Veil Falls (the middle falls in the picture), which measures around 50 feet wide and 80 feet down to the rocky cascade below. Luna Island separates Bridal Veil Falls from the American Falls, both of which are on the American side of the Niagara River. American Falls (located on the far left of the picture) is around 100 feet tall (measured from the top to the rocky piles below) and around 830 feet wide. Horseshoe Falls (on the right in the picture), which runs between New York and Canada, averages 188 feet tall and 2,200 feet wide.
Letchworth State Park
Considered the “Grand Canyon of the East,” Letchworth State Park southwest of Rochester has three major cascading waterfalls – Upper, Middle, and Lower Falls – which range from 70 to 100 feet tall. There are also numerous smaller waterfalls as the Genesee River cuts through the gorge.
3. Stony Brook State Park
Stony Brook State Park, near Dansville, contains a large, rocky gorge common in the Finger Lakes. Visitors can hike along the Gorge Trail to see two of Stony Brooks’ three main waterfalls, as well as several smaller ones in between. Lower Falls, the largest of the three, cascades about 40 feet down to Stony Brook below.
4. Buttermilk Falls State Park
Buttermilk Falls State Park, near Ithaca in the Finger Lakes, contains a large cascading waterfall, 165 ft, right near the entrance to the park. If you hike up the Gorge Trail, you will find several other minor falls along Buttermilk Creek. There is even a natural swimming area at the base of these falls.
5. Watkins Glen State Park
At Watkins Glen State Park, located at the southern tip of Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes, you can walk through the gorge along the scenic Glen Creek. Within the two-mile glen there are 19 waterfalls that you are able to walk past, two of which you can even walk behind! Central Cascade is the park’s largest waterfall, plunging more than 60 feet.
6. Robert H. Treman State Park
Home to ten smaller and two major waterfalls, Robert H. Treman State Park is located in Ithaca in the Finger Lakes. In the Upper Gorge you can hike to Lucifer Falls, a 115-foot cascading waterfall. Another park highlight is the stream-fed pool right at the base of the cascading Lower Falls.
7. Taughannock Falls State Park
Taughannock Falls State Park, located in the Finger Lakes north of Ithaca, is home to the highest vertical single-drop waterfall in the eastern United States. Carved into 400-foot cliffs, water from Taughannock Creek plunges 215 feet over Taughannock Falls. Two smaller waterfalls, Upper and Lower Falls, can also be found at this park.
8. Fillmore Glen State Park
Another classic gorge of the Finger Lakes, Fillmore Glen State Park (about 20 miles northeast of Ithaca) is home to five waterfalls. These range from 5 feet in height to the largest in the park, Dalibarda Falls, which is around 85 feet tall. Dry Creek, which runs the length of the park, helps create a stream-fed swimming pool in the Lower Park area.
9. Chittenango Falls State Park
Chittenango Falls, a beautiful 167-foot staircase cascade, is the highlight of Chittenango Falls State Park, located in Central New York southeast of Syracuse. Enjoy the view from the picnic area above or from a wooden bridge over Chittenango Creek below. Chittenango Falls is also home to the world’s only population of the federally threatened Chittenango ovate amber snail!
10. Pixley Falls State Park
Pixley Falls State Park is named after its main attraction, the 50-foot waterfall on the Lansing Kill. There are also a few smaller falls in nearby streams. This park is in Central New York, about 20 miles north of Utica.
11. Mine Kill State Park
Located southwest of Albany, Mine Kill State Park features an 80-foot cascading waterfall that cuts through a narrow gorge. Hike down to the base or check out the separate parking area (1/4 mile south of the park’s main entrance) that provides access to the overlook viewing platform.
12. John Boyd Thacher State Park
John Boyd Thacher State Park, just west of Albany, contains numerous waterfalls which range from 5 feet to over 100 feet. Indian Ladder Falls (also called Minelot Falls) and Outlet Falls are two of the larger falls at this park, each plunging around 100 feet.
Peebles Island State Park is just north of Albany, located at the merging of the Mohawk River into the Hudson River. There is a waterfall here, about 15 feet high, in the Mohawk River near the southern end of the park.
14. Taconic State Park
Taconic State Park shares borders with Massachusetts and Connecticut. Many people flock to this park to see Bash Bish Falls, which is actually just a short hike across the New York border into Massachusetts. After a long cascade and a 60-foot drop, it is Massachusetts’ tallest single-drop waterfall.
15. Minnewaska State Park Preserve
Minnewaska State Park Preserve, located in the Hudson Valley near New Paltz, contains many waterfalls. Near the gate house, the Peters Kill plunges around 70 feet at Awosting Falls. Stony Kill is another plunging waterfall, reaching about 90 feet in height. Some other well-known falls include Rainbow Falls, Bogerman Falls, Peterskill Falls, Sheldon Falls, and Verkeerderkill Falls near the Sam’s Point Preserve area.
Please remember that waterfall conditions are dynamic, changing with weather and seasons. Stay on the trail and be cautious of your surroundings, like slippery or rocky terrain, fast moving water, or steep drops.
For more information, check out some of these great waterfall resources:
Visible downstream at the lowest level of the gorge, is the oldest visible rock layer within the gorge wall. This layer was deposited along a coastal area of a warm shallow sea in the late Ordovician Period, alternating between below and above sea level. The periodic exposure of the iron rich sediments resulted in the coloration visible in the sedimentary rock of the Queenston Shale. As you travel upstream the tilt of this layer causes it to disappear below visible levels.
The rocks seen in the walls of the Niagara Gorge are sedimentary; they are made from sediments deposited in a shallow sea that covered much of the eastern U.S. and adjacent Canada around 440 to 410 million years ago (middle part of the Silurian Period). Rocks, such as limestone, shale, sandstone and dolostone, are seen as distinct layers. Some of these layers, for instance the soft, easily eroded Rochester Shale below the caprock of Niagara Falls, contain a great diversity of marine fossils, such as brachiopods, trilobites, corals and crinoids.
These rocks are layered, from oldest at the bottom to youngest at the top along a long ridge known as the Niagara Escarpment. The Niagara Escarpment is a prominent cliff-forming cuesta that extends from western New York into southern Ontario, northward to the upper peninsula of Michigan, and then bends downward into eastern Wisconsin and Illinois. The escarpment is capped by relatively hard, resistant rocks of the Silurian-age Lockport Group (chiefly dolostones and limestones), which are underlain by less resistant rocks (shales and sandstones, such as the Rochester Shale).
Near the end of the last ice age, around 12,300 years ago, the Niagara River began to flow over the Niagara Escarpment, located at what is now Lewiston, New York. Through the process of erosion the falls have receded to their present location. In the past, the falls receded on average 3-6 feet per year. However, the rate has been greatly reduced due to flow control and diversion for hydropower generation, to a mere 3-6 inches per year. 50,000 years from now, at the present rate of erosion, the remaining 20 miles south to Lake Erie will have been undermined. There won’t be a falls anymore, but rather a series of steep rapids!
While visiting Niagara Falls, or hiking in the Niagara Gorge, take some time to marvel in the events and processes that took place over time. From continental collisions to ice-age glaciers and the present day Great Lakes drainage basin, we are fortunate enough to witness the interactions of nature.
Most everyone has seen a gray, and glimpsed or at least heard of a red, but have you ever seen a black squirrel?!
Chances are if you have ever visited Niagara Falls State Park or any of the neighboring parks in the region you’ve seen what at first glance appears to be the shadow of a gray squirrel. That is, until it moves and starts chattering. Of the many types of squirrels in New York State, the black squirrel is not mentioned in most field guides but it most closely resembles the size and shape of the gray squirrel. It also eats the same diet of seeds and nuts with some fruits, fungi, and the occasional insect mixed in.
There is a good reason for the similarities in appearance and habits as they are, in fact, the same species. The black squirrel is a color phase of the Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), also known as a melanistic variant. Unlike species that change color seasonally, like the long-tailed weasel, these rodents retain the dark coloration their entire lives. The black fur is caused by a genetic mutation that is passed from generation to generation.
During winters in Western New York the ground is normally covered in a layer of snow and ice that would make the darker black squirrel easier prey for predators such as coyote, owl and domestic cats. However, a darker coat means more absorption of heat energy from the sun and so less energy used by the animal itself. In the end, the two seem to cancel each other out and gray and black squirrels hold equal dominance around the Falls.
As to when the variation first appeared in the area around the falls, it is largely unknown. Though there are historic records of black squirrels in the new world, there are none specifically referencing our area. And so, we are left with the urban legends. So the story goes, as the locals tell it, there were no black squirrels in Niagara Falls USA in the early 1800s, but there were across the river in Canada. When the first suspension bridge was built across the Niagara River, with the help of a young boy and his kite, the avenue was open and the black squirrels crossed the river to the USA. Whether the story is true, or whether it was simply over time that the genetic variation showed up in Niagara Falls too, we may never know. But when next you visit, make sure to keep an eye out for this not so common creature.
Post by Angelina Weibel, OPRHP, Environmental Educator, Niagara Region