The Niagara River Gorge in the northwestern corner of New York is well known for the popular Niagara Falls State Park. However, there is a lot more beauty to discover here beyond the main waterfalls such as at spots like Whirlpool State Park.
Whirlpool State Park is located approximately three miles downriver (north) of Niagara Falls. This 109-acre park gets far fewer visitors than the waterfalls, despite being totally free to visit. And, while that’s understandable, this is definitely a great secondary location to visit while you’re in the area.
As the name implies, the focal point of Whirlpool State Park is a natural whirlpool in the Niagara River.
It is estimated that, approximately 4,200 years ago, the whirlpool was created when the retreating Niagara Falls met with a buried gorge that was filled in with sediment during the last ice age.
Over time, this gorge was eroded by the river, causes a circular bulb to form on the Canadian side of the Niagara River as the river made a nearly 90-degree turn.
Now, when the water flows into this area at speeds as fast as 30 feet per second, the waters of the Niagara River swirl in a counter-clockwise direction through the whirlpool on their way to Lake Ontario.
Wanting to see this sight for myself, I drove through Niagara County to Whirlpool State Park.
The park features a large parking area, but it was instantly clear to me that my visit here will be much more peaceful than any visit I’ve had to Niagara Falls.
That’s not just because there are few people at the park, but also because it lacks the attractions and amenities you’ll find at Niagara Falls. Instead, all that you’ll find here is a small ranger station, a picnic area with a playground, and trails leading to both an overlook and down to the river.
I decided to start my visit by checking out the overlook.
According to the park’s information, the trails leading to this spot are handicapped accessible, so just about anyone can make it to this great viewing area.
This overlook offers an incredible view over the Niagara Whirlpool from roughly 300 feet above the river. From this point, you can see all the way upstream to the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge and watch as the water comes racing into the whirlpool.
The incredible aqua-colored waters of the Niagara River are mesmerizing to watch as they swirl through the whirlpool far below.
If you get lucky, you might be able to see Niagara River Jet Boats in the river below (Something I had a chance to do years ago on the Canadian side and was a TON of fun) or the Whirlpool Aerocar cross above the river. Unfortunately, the Aerocar is only on the Canadian side of the gorge.
To be honest, the views from this overlook at the top of the gorge are really the best you’ll find of the Niagara Whirlpool. However, if you want a closer look, there is a trail that heads down to the river.
To access this trail, follow the Niagara Gorge Rim Trail downstream away from the overlook. After walking along this rugged trail for about half a mile, you’ll find a marked stone staircase heading down into the gorge.
This trail is somewhat miraculously carved into the hillside and curves its way down to the bottom on a mixture of old stone steps and well-worn dirt paths. The trail quickly descends 300 feet to the base of the gorge and heading down is a lot more fun than the trip back up.
Once at the base, don’t miss the small little cave that’s along the left side of the trail. If you need a spot to cool off on a hot day, this is a perfect place.
The trail at the base of the steps goes in two directions.
If you head right, it will take you to Devil’s Hole State Park, which can make a nice 3-mile loop. However, I’ve never done this part of the trail, so I can’t comment on what it’s like.
Instead, I headed left towards the Niagara Whirlpool.
The trail at the base of the gorge is wide and flat, though it does have a fair number of rocks and roots to walk over or around. The views of the river from here are quite beautiful, though, in my opinion, not quite as nice as the views from the trail on the rim.
After about a half-mile of hiking, the trail reaches a large flat rocky area along the whirlpool.
While this is a large area, make sure to use extreme caution if you get close to the water. The Niagara Whirlpool is said to be 125-feet deep and the odds of rescue should you slip are slim.
In my opinion, while it’s neat to see the raging Niagara River up close, the best views, once again, are from the Niagara Gorge Rim Trail because you can really see the swirling waters best from above.
Once you are done enjoying the river, simply retrace your steps back up the winding stone staircase and then back along the trail to your car for a total hiking distance of roughly 2.5 miles.
Overall, Whirlpool State Park is a hidden gem of the Great Niagara region. While nearby Niagara Falls State Park draws a ton of visitors (as it should), this spot is far off the radar and, even on a summer day, I had much of the place to myself.
To be honest, I’m not sure that I’d hike down into the gorge again though, as the views from the rim trail are better than what you’ll see from the bottom. That being said, the old stone staircase is quite neat to see, and I’d almost consider the hike down to the base of the gorge worth it just for that.
Ultimately, though, whether you just go to the overlook or spend hours hiking through the Niagara Gorge, Whirlpool State Park is a must-visit spot when exploring Niagara Falls, New York.
Whirlpool State Park can be found at the following coordinates along the Niagara Scenic Parkway: 43.120299, -79.065056.
[Click here for information on how to use the coordinates in this article to find your destination.]