By Nicole Pane
The Niagara Gorge Trail System stretches from the top of the Niagara escarpment at Artpark in Lewiston to Goat Island right at the American Falls. Many people are familiar with the falls itself and a few of the more popular trails, but all of the gorge trails are actually all connected into one extensive trail system. This hike, if done round trip, is about 20 miles and includes going up and down the gorge several times, a difficult day hike to say the least. You could certainly shuttle a vehicle to the start and end, but this will likely involve using paid parking in the more crowded, tourist section of Niagara Falls State Park. So, I recommend breaking this hike up into two hikes: one from Lewiston to Whirlpool State Park and one from Whirlpool to Goat Island.
Lewiston to Whirlpool State Park
I suggest starting the hike in Lewiston. Lewiston is great little town with a beautiful waterfront and many good restaurants that you could elect to visit after your hike. Enter Artpark State Park via the Portage Road entrance. You can either park in Lot B and walk down the red brick road to the trailhead, or drive down the gravel road to your left as you enter the parking lot and park in the small gravel lot. You’ll want to take the Artpark Gorge Trail which will be the trail to your left.
This 1.3-mile trail contains some of the most scenic views of the Lower Niagara River and its picturesque blue green water. The trail here is gravel/dirt and easy to follow.
Walk under the Lewiston-Queenston bridge and you’ll see evidence of rock slides here (you’ll see this in the Devil’s Hole Trail as well). The end of the trail climbs upward for a short time and provides a superb view of the gorge, river, bridge, and the Canadian water intakes.
At the top of the trail, you’ll see a sign pointing to Niagara Gorge Rim Trail; it doesn’t look like much of a trail, but is an approximately one-mile sidewalk that leads to Devil’s Hole State Park over the water intakes and power vista. This walk is shady in the morning, but uncovered and sunny by afternoon. Keep walking until you come to Devil’s Hole and then make an immediate right to access the stairs which are located next to the building with bathrooms.
As a child my father used to take me to Devil’s Hole to hike and I was always intrigued by its name; it seemed scary and forbidden to me, and I always got a little nervous when I found out we were going there. I quick Google search will give you a little more info about the name and the events that took place here. The Devil’s Hole stairs have just recently reopened after a lengthy renovation and lead down to the bottom of the gorge. They are much better shape than they were previously, but keep in mind, they are still stairs and there are a lot of them. This is a 1.25-mile one-way trail that starts out flat passing over quite a few raised tree roots. There’s a cave here (which I was deftly afraid of as a child).
Once you get down the stairs, this is a good place to go down to (not into) the water to see birds and catch your first glimpse of the running river water. The trail goes up and down a bit and eventually you’ll come to Giant Rock, a large rock formation stuck in the trail at the edge of the gorge. Shortly thereafter you’ll see some stairs going back up; these stairs lead back up the gorge to Whirlpool State Park; continue walking past them for now.
You’ll now be heading to one of the most beautiful sections in the entire gorge, and you’ll likely notice increased foot traffic here. This area is absolutely gorgeous in the fall and definitely the top hiking spot in the area for leaf peeping in my opinion.
This trail again starts out flat but quickly becomes rocky. The water follow suit, starting off calm and eventually picking up speed as you near the Whirlpool. After getting your first view of the Whirlpool itself, the trail splits into upper and lower portions.
The lower trail section involves climbing up and over some large boulders. The upper section of the trail is the easier of the two; you’ll be able to see a section of large flat rocks below jutting out into the river; you will want to take one of the small branch trails down to them. This area, known as the flats, puts you about as close as you can get to the Niagara Rivers class six rapids. The area is quite large and it’s a great place to take a break, grab a snack, even sunbathe, or just take in the amazing views.
You can continue along the Whirlpool trail until it dead-ends (do not go past the end of trails signs, lots of loose rocks to step on there), or retrace your steps and head back to the Whirlpools stairs which will take you back to the top of the gorge. Like the Devil’s Hole steps, these steps were renovated within the past couple years and are now in good shape (if you climbed down these prior, you may remember having to hold onto a piece of chain-link fence for safety). Make a right onto the Niagara Gorge Rim Trail and you’ll reach Whirlpool State Park in about half a mile. You can view the Whirlpool from the viewing point at the top here and there is a shady picnic area as well. Head back in the direction that you came up the Rim trail past Devil’s Hole (unless you really want to do those stairs again). You’ll walk along a dirt/gravel path through a shade treed area with railing along the gorge and several outstanding viewpoints along the way. Retrace your steps back to the parking lot at Artpark.
Whirlpool State Park to Goat Island
For the second hike, I would recommend starting at Whirlpool State Park. It’s free to park here and less crowded than the Niagara Falls State Park or Goat Island. If the lot does fill up, you can also park at Deveaux Woods State Park and take a short walk to Whirlpool. Head down to the Whirlpool scenic viewing point and then head south on the trail. Walk along the upper edge of the gorge for a bit until you can’t go any further and make a left to head up onto the paved section of the former Niagara Scenic Parkway. The parkway is in the process of being removed to make way for more greenspace and easier access to the gorge and river. The blacktop path you’ll see looks to be the new bike path. Follow the path to your right until you reach Whirlpool Street and continue south. Here you’ll be walking on an actual sidewalk past US Customs and the Whirlpool bridge. Once you pass the second span of the Bridge, you’ll see a trailhead on your right leading to the Great Gorge Railway Trail (Note that there is construction going directly in front of the trailhead at present time; it will look like you’re walking through a large section of dirt).
The Great Gorge Railway Trail was once the site of an actual railroad in the early 1900s (seems crazy when you see where this trail is located). I was excited to see that this trail is now completely open, as parts of it have been closed in the past several years. You’ll immediately take a set of stairs down into the gorge. When you reach the bottom of the stairs, turn right to go to a view point of the rapids (this comes to a dead end) or left to continue on the trail. You can see the rocky gorge walls really well on this trail as well as a number of different wildflowers.
There are generally far fewer people here than at the Whirlpool and Devil’s hole trails. The water is calmer here are there is a nice view of the Rainbow bridge, Horseshoe falls, and Niagara Falls, Canada.
About half way down the trail you’ll see another trail to the right, the American Falls Gorge Trail. This trail is bit more technically challenging and heads down to the water and ends at a large concrete platform where the Maid of the Mist boats are taken in and out of the water for the season. This is great place to see foliage in the fall. You’ll have to either take the trail back up to rejoin the railway trail or, when it reopens, take the large stone elevator up to the Schoellkopf site (the elevator is currently closed to the public). The elevator was once part of the Schoellkopf hydroelectric power and was never open to the public until it was restored a few years back and was free to ride.
The Railway trail then climbs gently back up to the Rim Trail, onto which you’ll make a right. It’s short walk (unfortunately through an under-construction area at the moment) to the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center and Gorge Trail Center (both of which currently remain closed). When it reopens, the Gorge Trail Center has maps, information about various interpretive programs that they host, as well as a gorge trail patch for sale.
From here the trail becomes paved and heads past a picnic area to Niagara Falls State Park. Stop by Prospect Point to see the falls, the Maid of the Mist boats and possibly a rainbow.
Take the footbridge over to Goat Island. If you are so inclined, I highly recommend taking the mile and half loop around the Island. There are several nice views of the falls and the river; the Luna Island and Three Sisters Island viewpoints are definitely worth checking out.
From here you’ll be retracing your steps back to Whirlpool State Park. Note that rather than taking the Great Gorge Railway Trail back, you could elect to take the Rim trail instead, but currently there is a large section that is under construction. There is some blacktop bike path that has been put in, but mostly you will be walking on dirt that has been plowed over by construction vehicles. Keep in mind that on weekdays there may actually be construction going on as well. So, I recommend tackling those stairs and taking the Railway trail back.
I hope this article helps you if you decide to check this area out. There aren’t a lot of really long hikes in Niagara County, and this one is truly gorgeous, with an odd mix of urban landscape mixed it. Happy Hiking!