Thursday, February 23, 2012

Niagara Gorge and Whirlpool Rapids

A 10-hour day of driving this week took me across the Niagara Gorge, so I figured it would be nice to stop, stretch the legs, and check out the sights. Since the falls are a zoo, I opted for a run starting at Whirlpool State Park, a few miles to the north. The route took me down into the gorge to the Whirlpool and Whirlpool Rapids, some of the most impressive whitewater in North America.

Aerial shot of a section of the Whirlpool Rapids (from

The weather could not have been more atrocious, a wind driven snow/sleet/rain mix that left a thick rime of slushy ice on the windward side of my car by the time I returned from the run. I started running north along the rim of the gorge with the blue-green Niagara River far below on my left. Soon I came to a stone stairway built by the CCC that descended a break in the cliff band that forms the top of the gorge. The trail then made its way down to the river, passing giant boulders broken off from the cliffs above.

I followed the trail upriver toward the Whirlpool and rapids. The setting was fantastic, with constant views of the river and steep slopes of the Canadian side of the gorge and a surprisingly wild feel for such a heavily developed area. The running was also great, alternating between cruising on flat, packed trail and scrambling through boulder fields- a nice mix.

Eventually, I approached the show I'd come here to see: the Whirlpool Rapids. Here, all the water draining from the entire Great Lakes basin gets funneled through a chute less than 100 m wide, resulting in a series of incredibly powerful rapids and huge standing waves. The trail provided amazing access to this spectacle- no fences, no guard rails, just flat bedrock, interspersed with boulders, right down to the water's edge. I stood practically at water level, a few feet away from the rushing, heaving current. The waves in the center of the river, enormous masses of exploding water, were actually above eye level. Watching the movement of the water was mesmerizing- and scary.

I could have spent hours walking along the riverbank and looking at the rapids, and I can think of no better place to sit and eat a packed lunch on a nice day. But it was anything but a nice day, I was getting cold and soaked, and I had several hours of driving to do, so I returned to the trail and ran back to my car, still feeling a contact buzz from being so close to something so powerful.

This place doesn't seem to get a lot of attention, but I think it's arguably one of the most unique and spectacular places in eastern North America. Not bad for a quick break and stretch of the legs.

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