Monday, October 21, 2013

First-timers visit to Niagara Falls

October 13-16, 2013
Grand Island, New York
KOA of Grand Island Campground

Our travels from Canton, Ohio to Niagara started with a challenge. Vic could not get the Jeep out of neutral when we were leaving Canton.  I looked on-line for troubleshooting strategies and came up with several options to try: 1) turn the car on and off and the gears will slip back into alignment; 2) rock the vehicle back and forth; 3) check all the fuses (not sure why); 4) note the error message on the dash and call a service center.  We tried all of the above and more—there was no error message. We just decided to drive on to the Niagara area and see if it was still stuck in neutral when we arrived.  Our plans were to stay at an inexpensive Passport America park in nearby Grand Island. With the car stuck in neutral we would need to have a pull-through and this PA park, Cinderella Motel and RV, did not have any. They suggested that we go to the KOA about a mile down the road. Not our first choice as the least expensive sites available were $56 and, not worth it. Add to this scenario, that it was already growing dark and starting to rain pretty hard. Not fun. ( Note: We never plan to arrive in the dark, but there were two long delays on the freeway due to major accidents on our way here.) We headed to the KOA where we had to find our own site in the dark. Most of the ones marked available on their bulletin board were double sites where our slides would almost be touching the slides of the RV next to us. We did laugh a little as we circled the park four times before choosing a slightly more expensive private site considering we were going to need to call a tow truck in the morning. 

In spite of this ominous beginning, we remained upbeat about finally making it to the Niagara area. Our plan all along was to leave our motorhome and car on the U.S. side and do most of our sightseeing here from the Canadian side, so not having a car to use was not that big of a deal.

We found a dealership, Northtown Chrysler Jeep and Dodge in Tonawanda, about nine miles away and called their service center as soon as they opened at 7:30 a.m. Vic then called Coach Net as they provide towing for both our motorhome and toad, and they arranged for someone to come within two hours.  A little more than two hours later, Coach Net called to make sure the tow truck had come. They had not, so they called them and they arrived about ten minutes later. We were happy to see they had a flat bed as they were able to scoop up the Jeep, without having to push it into a towing position, and away she went. (Also, we discovered this morning that the battery was dead and the 4 wheel drive service light had come on—more $?)  We let the service center know we would not be able to pick up the car until the next day—in case, by some miracle, it would be ready sooner. They said they would call us as soon as they discovered the problem and get our approval for the repair and then send a courtesy car to pick us up when it was ready.

The weather was our next issue as rain was forecast for most of the days we planned to be here. I was no too excited about playing tourist in the rain, but it looked like there might be some sun breaks later in the day.  With this hopeful sign, we decided to book an afternoon tour that would pick us up right at the campground and take us to most of the major sights on our list: the Maid of the Mist boat ride, the Journey Behind the Falls viewing spot, the Whirlpool Rapids viewed from Niagara Glen Nature Reserve, the Floral Clock, and the Robert Moses Niagara Hydroelectric Power Station on the U.S side.

We are seldom the paid tour types, but we had such a fantastic experience with this choice in Yellowstone that we had high hopes for a similar informative experience. We also discovered we loved the freedom of not having to figure out where to go or where to park, and in this case, negotiate customs, etc.  Well, it was pretty clear right from the start this tour guide was no match for the one we had in Yellowstone, but he was a character and we enjoyed his laid-back style. Another bonus was meeting the three other couples traveling with us, four of whom were also RVers. One couple had just completed their first year as full-timers and they were probably close to 80 years old. Their story of selling their beloved South Dakota home which he designed himself was moving as they realized it had become more of a burden than a joy. Both their sons and grandchildren live in Texas where they now spend their winters.

Our tour day happened to be a holiday in Niagara—Canadian Thanksgiving Monday and Columbus Day for the U.S. Consequently, there were more tourists out and about than a usual fall weekday. It sure was great to have Jim, our tour driver, wheel that bus into the shorter lines, walk us right through customs, then by- pass the lines for attractions that required special tickets.  (I am not good with lines.)  Also, we were lucky with the weather as the sun broke through creating an absolutely perfect fall day with temps in the low 70s—apparently unseasonably warm for this time of year.

Having never been to Niagara Falls before, Vic and I were both surprised by how touristy the area is—especially the Canadian side. The whole city is built around the tourist industry with large hotels, a space needle, casinos, bars, souvenir shops, etc. I guess I imagined more of a natural setting for viewing the falls. The boat ride fit in with the tourist trap concept, but I must admit it was thrilling to be on the boat up close to the roar and the spray of the falls. 

We did not even realize there were three falls: the American Falls and Bridal Veil on the U.S. side, and the most impressive falls, Horseshoe, on the Canadian side. Nor did we know how common it is to see rainbows on a sunny day because of all the water droplets in the air.  The best viewing is from the Canadian side as you get a good view of all three falls.

The American Falls

The Bridal Veil Falls (on the right)

The Horseshoe Falls

After going on the boat ride, our next tourist destination was seeing the falls from the ground level. To do this, you take an elevator down 150 feet through bedrock to large tunnels with portholes which provide a view of the Horseshoe falls about 1/3 of the way down. Here is where you really feel the amazing velocity of the water--2,800 cubic meters of water traveling 65 kilometers per hour!

From the tunnel we traveled north along the Niagara River on the Canadian side where they have built a phenomenal system of parks.  This is an area that I definitely would like to spend more time as there are hiking trails, an amazing Buddhist Temple, and a Botanical Garden with a Butterfly Conservatory.  The tour took us to several points along the river where Jim explained the geology of the falls which moved down the river over the past 10,000 years.  As a result, the world’s largest whirlpool formed when the horseshoe falls turned a corner around an old riverbed.  They also have an aero cable car that crosses the river here, but it didn’t seem to be running.

It was a brief and violent encounter: a geological moment lasting only weeks, maybe even only days. In this moment, the falls of the youthful Niagara River intersected an old riverbed, one that had been buried and sealed during the last Ice Age. The falls turned into this buried gorge, tore out the glacial debris that filled it, and scoured the old river bottom clean. It was probably not a falls at all now but a huge, churning rapids. When it was all over, it left behind a 90-degree turn in the river we know today as the Whirlpool, and North America's largest series of standing waves we know today as the Whirlpool Rapids.--

We were also impressed with massive size of the Robert Moses hydroelectric plant on the American side which required enough concrete to pave a 900 mile two-lane highway. This plant is the fourth largest in the world, even beating out the amount of electricity generated by Hoover Dam.  Like most power plants, the building included much controversy, especially since most of the land was “expropriated” from the Tuscarora Indians. Not exactly an attractive site, but I do like the relative safety and clean output of hydroelectric power and this plant produces an astounding 2500 megawatts per second.  I hadn’t thought about the historic race to harness the power of this powerful force of nature, but it seems like the U.S and Canada have found a good balance in generating both tourism monies and power from this world wonder.

Our last stop of the day was to see the famous Niagara Floral Clock. It was interesting to learn that its hour and minute hands are crutches as it was built in the 1950s and the crutches were meant to serve as a memorial to those with polio.

By the time our tour ended, it was growing dark already. We had gotten word by now from the dealer that the Jeep needed a new motor for the electronic transfer case and a new battery. It was a bit of an ouch but less than needing a new transfer case! (I really do look for the silver lining.)  The Jeep would not be ready until late the next day—a bit of a bummer but I had already figured out a day of adventure for us that did not require a car. You guessed it—back to the parks along the river.

We discovered a bus station right across the street from the KOA with busses passing by every 20 minutes. The bus took us right to the Rainbow Bridge where pedestrians can walk across to the Canadian side.

The view of Niagara Falls, Canada while walking over the Rainbow bridge (on a much cloudier day).

From here we could take the Canadian WeGo bus to the parks along the river. This plan went really well until we were told at the tourist info center to pick up the River Road bus in front of the Bird Aviary.

Turned out that bus only ran south. I looked at our map and saw another stop just a short way up the road at the Bed and Breakfast area.  The maps are not drawn to scale, so we ended up enjoying about a two-mile uphill walk to the next stop. Thankfully it was a lovely day and the autumn views along the river were quite pleasant. 

Once we reached the stop and the bus came along, we had our second challenge of the day. The bus driver said we could only ride these buses with a pass and you could not buy a pass on the bus. We were told we would have to walk back to the station in town. Our first destination, the Butterfly Conservatory, was about three more miles up the road.  Thankfully, our situation was solved by two friendly Brits on the bus who handed us their two-day Adventure Passes which they said they no longer needed. The bus driver was happy to have our problem solved. The Brits said they were a gift from England. Cheerio! 

The Butterfly Conservatory was amazing.  Neither of us had ever been to such a place. Aside from the plants being gorgeous themselves, it seemed like a magical fairyland inside with over 2000 butterflies flitting about. One downside of this experience was discovering my camera zoom was not working. I was a bad girl at the falls where I am sure the camera suffered some water damage.  Vic and I both resorted to taking photos with our Samsung phones. We just couldn’t leave so many unusual butterflies behind without trying to capture their beauty in a photo.

butterfly collage

The conservatory is part of the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens and Horticultural School.  We learned from Jim that the school’s three year master’s program only admits 12 students per year. These students earn part of their tuition by working on the grounds—and they are stunning.  One of the other highlights of walking around these grounds are the somewhat famous black squirrels. We saw several scurrying about but I never did get a photo of one of them.  I have to rely on an internet photo. They looked perfect for the Halloween season.

We did not get to visit the Buddhist Temple I wanted to see as it was closed for the season. Instead we enjoyed lunch on an outdoor patio with live music at the Hard Rock Café before walking back across the Rainbow Bridge and catching our bus back to the campground. With plans to leave the area the next morning, we were anxious to get our car back. The service center stayed open until 9 p.m. so we knew there was a possibility it could be rather late before we were able to pick up the Jeep.  Around 6:30, we got the call that it was ready and they sent a courtesy car to pick up Vic. Around 7:30, I got a call from Vic saying that he was being towed back to the Jeep Dealer!  Hard to believe, but the water pump went out on his way back to the campground.  (Are you kidding me???)  We may be naïve, but we ruled out our suspicion that the service center was taking advantage of us.  They seemed to be reputable and fortunately had the pump replaced by around 10 a.m. the next morning giving us plenty of time for a leisurely drive to do some wine tasting in the Finger Lakes Region which sounded especially good given the circumstances.


  1. Oh heavens. We are so sorry to read of all your car issues. Mr. Murphy's Law at work again...if it can go wrong, it will. Glad you have your wheels again and are on your own.

    I actually rode on that cable car many, many years ago. I was scared then and wouldn't even think of doing it now.

    Seeing the butterfly migration taking place down here, I can appreciate the beauty of the ones that you saw.

    Hope tomorrow brings the sun shinning, and you two enjoying your adventure.

  2. you saw it all there and yes it is very touristy... we loved our visit there but will likely never return...

  3. When it rains, it pours!! Why do things all come apart in groups! Good you were in an area that had bus service and tours. Coincidence!? Sounds like it all worked out and you had a beautiful trip to the falls. You deserved a reward:)

    I love the butterflies! I am so glad that cell phones now have such wonderful cameras. I've had to turn to mine when something failed with the camera, too. The pictures are excellent.

    Hopefully you have meet with your quota of repairs for the season and now will sail smoothly into the winter!

  4. So sorry to hear about all your car problems. I hope that is all behind you. On the positive side, at least you were in an area where you didn't need one! What a beautiful area and your pictures are great. That's another area we want to visit.

  5. Really great informative post. I seriously admire not only your look on the bright side attitude but your resourcefulness in dealing with all the crap that could have so negatively impacted your time there. I'm not a crowds or tourist person and have never thought I'd want to do Niagara Falls but the way you did it is making me reconsider. Wish we'd been able to do it with you. What fun! For my own planning, I assume you would have been able to do everything without a car from Cinderella too and that the bus you took would stop there?
    Love your pictures. It looks like a great visit despite the heavy drain on your wallet. And what great weather you had. I would have been chicken to try up near Canada in mid October. Hope by now everything is working fine and you are camped in some inexpensive COE or somewhere. Thanks for all the information.

  6. I loved our time at Niagara Falls!

    So sorry to hear about your car problems...hope all is ok now! And yes, wine tastings in the Finger Lakes Region is definitely in order. Enjoy!

  7. Niagara Falls is a hoot. We wished we'd brought soap when we visited, all that water went to waste with out soap. ;c)

  8. LOVE the butterflies!

    Isn't it funny how sometimes these vehicle issues come in bunches? Hopefully you'll get it all fixed up and you'll be good for several months!


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