Editor’s note: This story is part of the Road Trips special section.
New York State is one of few places where you don’t necessarily travel north to get to Canada.
A chunk of Southern Ontario actually lies south and west of the Empire State, making the nickname “True North” more of a quip.
And if you make it to Niagara Falls, you can find yourself in two places at once — a phrase that may seem like an oxymoron, but something that is, in fact, possible.
Niagara Falls is a collective name for three waterfalls that intersect the International Boundary Line in New York State and Ontario, Canada.
It’s also the name of the cities where the falls lie.
Walk the the Niagara Falls International Rainbow Bridge — colloquially known as the “Rainbow Bridge.”
It’s a 1,450-foot arch that crosses the Niagara River from Niagara Falls, New York to Niagara Falls, Ontario.
You’ll need a passport and to check-in with Border Patrol, but once at the middle of the bridge, there is a horizontal crack in the concrete.
If you put one foot west of the line and the other on the east of it, you will find yourself in both New York State and Ontario near a sign that introduces visitors to the international border.
If you lift up your head from looking at the sign that says “International Boundary Line,” you’ll get a view of the falls — the American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls on the U.S. side to the south, and the Canadian Horseshoe Falls to the southwest.
It’s an area that from State College is 216.8 miles — or an estimated 4-hour and 12-minute drive, according to Google maps.
And according to Julie Gilbert, it’s a “must-visit” place for anyone from around the world.
The director of marketing and communications for Niagara Tourism and Convention Corporation said the family-friendly destination location includes must-see tourist shops, restaurants and activities, but also includes nature hikes and landmarks that focus on education of Niagara Falls’ impact on the environment and how it affects local’s daily lives.
“You have this natural wonder that attracts so many people, and puts into perspective our place in this world,” Gilbert said. “It can really take your breath away.”
Clifton Hill, a road named for the hill it’s on, is the centerpiece attraction to Niagara Falls, Ontario.
There are views — close up and further away of the falls — but the street is home to activity centers such as the Movieland Wax Museum of the Stars, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum, Guinness World Records museum, the Fun Factory, a Wild West 6D roller coaster ride, a haunted house tour, three mini golf areas, a bowling center, other themed attractions, and the Niagara SkyWheel Ferris wheel that can take patrons up to a 175-foot view of the waterfalls.
According to Niagara Falls Tourism located in Canada, if you go a little farther off the beaten path — about 2 and a half miles from the center of Clifton Hill — the falls’ side of Ontario is also home to Marineland that includes performances of marine life such as dolphins, sea lions, walruses and whales.
But to get a better look at the actual falls from beyond behind the guard rails, boat rides are offered through Hornblower Niagara Cruises — the Canadian version of Maid of the Mist that gives people tours of the falls from the Niagara River gorge.
Don’t want to do that? Just walk back to the New York Side and try the similar boat ride though Maid of the Mist — and prepare to get drenched.
This year, the boat tours kicked off on April 2, about a month earlier than normal, Gilbert said.
“You’re on those boats and see it from a whole new perspective,” Gilbert said.
If you find yourself without a passport to get into Canada, or just want to tour the New York part of Niagara, Gilbert said, “expect something a little different than what Canada offers.”
Attractions in New York are more nature and educational based.
“We’re not the glitz and glamor here,” she said. “We’re the green and fresh.”
She said the Niagara region of New York, spearheaded by Niagara Tourism and Convention Corporation, is going through a rebranding that will be launched “sometime in the future.”
“We don’t want to be like Canada where it’s developed and built up,” Gilbert said. “The state park design is intended to be more close to nature instead. The Canada and U.S. sides are very different, but complement each other.”
Niagara Falls State Park is undergoing renovations, which should be complete next year, that Gilbert said will give guests a more interactive nature opportunity.
But she added that the falls are for more than just looks.
The Niagara Power Project Power Vista, located 355 feet above the Niagara Gorge in Lewiston, a town just north of the falls, underwent renovations that completed in May.
It’s a hydro power facility operated by the New York Power Authority that manages energy coming from the falls.
Gilbert said with many Discovery-style elements of the design, it aims to show kids and their families the science behind the falls.
“The facility teaches you about the initial water from the gorge and how to create electricity, and just a lot of that is hands-on science,” Gilbert said. “The education behind it is really intriguing, and teaches kids you can have this natural beauty and still get energy from it.”
To help get tourists from point-to-point, the Niagara Scenic Trolley system was created last year that runs from the Niagara Power Project to downtown Niagara Falls, the state park and Old Fort Niagara, Gilbert said.
“You can really get out and experience nature and adventure as family in Niagara, USA,” Gilbert said. “The falls has become more touristy all year with things like the changing colors (fall foliage), and tailoring hikes and visits around the seasons, but it’s so much more than just a waterfall.”
According to the City of Niagara Falls, Ontario, the Canadian side sees more than 12 million visitors annually, while Gilbert said the New York State side gets about 6.6 million visitors.
That number, Gilbert said, was last recorded in 2014 through a variety of different research methods.
“There are tourists all year — there’s no doubt about it,” Gilbert said.
But the peak times are in July and August.
“We get a lot in the summer because of people’s schedules, but we’re seeing more in the spring and fall and expanding our marketing efforts domestically and internationally, and working closely with Visit Buffalo (Niagara) to keep those numbers up. There is a lot of investment coming in from Niagara.”
Off the beaten path
Julie Gilbert, director of marketing and communications for Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp., said the Niagara region of New York also offers a farm trail that includes wine tastings and berry picking at up to 16 locations in Niagara County. She said this is the perfect daylong activity for people visiting Niagara Falls who want to check out things off the beaten path. She also said the area is conducive for “some of the best fishing in the world that lasts all year,” as Niagara borders Lake Ontario, the Niagara River, and dozens of tributaries and creeks. She said standard fishing, fly-fishing and ice fishing are the most common types of fishing in the area.
Itinerary for families: Niagara Falls, N.Y., was named the Best Kid-Friendly Destination in 2015 by USA Today 10 Best Readers’ Choice travel award contest. NTCC has a planned vacation for families headed to the area. You can find that by visiting www.niagara-usa.com/plan/itineraries/family.
At the border: You can’t get over either side of the border without a passport. NTCC provides a detailed list of must-have identification forms before planning at trip to the Niagara Falls area. That can be found at www.niagara-usa.com/plan/border.