Hiking the Whirlpool Flats in Whirlpool State Park
Whirlpool State Park
Whirlpool State Park is located just outside of downtown Niagara Falls, not 5 minutes by car from the Falls itself. The main parking lot for the park features an information building and restroom facilities. Information includes historic events at the gorge and falls, as well as geological and biological information about the natural surroundings. The park surrounding the building features well maintained lawns and plenty of shade coverage with picnic tables throughout, and makes for a great picnic spot that is very accessible for children and handicapped alike. You can see great views of the gorge from this top location without ever hiking down the stairs to the bottom of the gorge.
To the Trailhead!
From the top parking lot, it is about a 1.5 mile hike to the stairs leading down to the trailheads for both the Whirlpool flats trail hike and the Devil's Hole hike. The path to these stairs is known as the Gorge Rim trail and is mostly paved, and if not, is at least well maintained. Along the rim trail there are many outlook points. Some of the better outlooks are blocked by railings and it is advisable to stay behind them. If you do decide to venture beyond the railing, (be careful and don't trip because it would be a very quick 300ft fall to the gorge bottom) there are many great views, such as the one found in my picture to the right.
Down those stairs
The stairs to the gorge bottom are maintained but still require some attention. Many of them are very lopsided and the height between one and another can vary. A combination of stairs and sloped cutback-trails switchback over and over again until you finally come down and reach the bottom of the gorge. It isn't a bad idea for anybody with knee problems to bring some form of walking stick or trekking poles, because the uneven ground and elevation changes can really tax the knees. Also, it is often very wet and slick on the stairs so take your time as slipping would not be a very enjoyable experience. Near the bottom of the stairs before you finally come out to the rivers edge, there are a couple of large stone picnic tables that look as if cavemen made them. After these picnic spots you come to one last small section of stairs that leads down to the main path along the river.
Some supplies you may want to bring
- Good pair of hiking footwear, whether boots or shoes
- trekking poles or walking stick if you have bad knees
- lunch or snack to eat once you reach the flats
- sweater or jacket depending on season (temperature drops a bit at the bottom of the gorge)
To the Flats
At the bottom of the stairs you have two options in which to hike. Turn right, and you are hiking the Devil's hole section of the gorge, and turn left and you are heading to the whirlpool flats. If you are fishing you could just go straight and continue down the slope further to the rivers edge.
The beginning section of the Whirlpool flats hike is a relatively flat trail that follows along the rivers edge. On your right is a slope down to the river (of varying degrees of steepness, vegetation overgrowth and rockiness) and on your left is the slope up to the gorge wall. There are some very cool outlooks that can be found on your right as you make your way along the rivers edge and on your left there are many interesting little vantage points that the adventurous can climb their way too.
Farther along the trail begins to get more and more difficult. Flat sections begin to rise and fall and roots and rocks will start to become more and more common along the trail. Some sections are very narrow with rock-fields on your left, resulting from the all to frequent rock-slides in the gorge, to very steep drop offs on your right leading to the river. None of this is unmanageable, but could become a bit difficult for those that are not exactly athletically inclined. That said, rest assured, that in my many hikes along this trail I have often witnessed both the old, out of shape and young children alike, along this trail, so as I said before, it is very manageable.
Eventually you will begin to see the whirlpool off in the distance. As you approach this large opening in the gorge with its vortex of water in the center, you have again have two choices of direction to go. There is a high road and a low road, literally. The high road takes you up a slight rock scramble and over-top of some large boulders and farther away from the waters edge. The low road takes you directly to a bit more difficult and lengthy rock scramble. This section is not advisable for some. If there is any section of this hike that i would consider hard, this would be the section. The high road is manageable by most, but the low road, while not a long section, does have this decently tricky section that is begging for sprained ankles if you are not used to scrambling along rocky sections. The reward for the low road is a good one. This path takes you right along the edge of the whirlpool and spits you out right at the point where the flats begin and the raging rapids dump into the pool. You can still get to this section from the high road mind you, but the low road takes you immediately there.
The whirlpool flats is the end destination for this hike. The forest vegetation opens up as you come out onto the flats from either the high road or low road and you find yourself on-top of million year old river bedrock. The waters of the Niagara once coursed over this old river floor at a rate that can hold up with any other river in the world and because of this there are some very cool geological formations caused by the water erosion. Pot holes, swirls, and a smoothness to the rock that only comes by gallons and gallons of water powering over them. The flats are pretty expansive and from them you can see the torrent of water that is being poured into the whirlpool. Water crashes against water and the swells can be mesmerizing to witness. You will often find other hikers and sightseers squatted down here to eat lunch or just stop and take in the rivers majesty. I know, majesty, really? Listen, nothing else can quite describe the power of the water that is in front of you, inches away if you want, begging to whisk you away to the whirlpool, and then to the bottom of the river.
Depending on the water level there are actually some small inlets that you can put your feet in without worry of getting swept away. This is pretty cool as only feet away from where you are soaking your feet is certain death. Really, don't fall in, it would be bad. I don't care if you are Aquaman, you aren't making it out of that misstep. Farther along from the flats you can see the river turn another bend towards the falls, and there are rapids of varying degrees of intensity the whole way. After taking in the scenery and eating or resting you can either go back or keep on hiking. It is possible to go farther along down the trail and keep following the river towards the gorge discovery trail if one desires a longer hike. If not you follow the trail back the way you came and hike your way back to the stairs where the real difficult part appears. "shoot, I have to go back up there". Take your time on the stairs and you will be fine, or, impress the locals with your endless stamina as you run to the top, throw your arms over your head and yell like Rocky. I highly recommend this hike to anybody from the casual hiker to the person trying to get in shape for their next triathlon (just keep going up and down the stairs and tell me its not a good training plan), it has a little something for everybody and every time I go down there I seem to find some new nook or cranny that I haven't explored. Just don't slip!
My view of the rapids up close
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