New York’s second-largest city, Buffalo owes its prominence – and its remarkable collection of early 20th-century architecture – to the Erie Canal, which turned it into a shipping powerhouse, and Niagara Falls, which made it one of the world’s first electrified cities. Today, the same water features that built Buffalo are now facilitating a varied slate of outdoor adventures, all within easy reach of anywhere in the city. Here are a few of the ways to get outdoors in Buffalo.
Kayaking among the silos
Sleek marvels of industrial design, Buffalo’s massive concrete grain silos and oxidized metal grain elevators have only recently started to be repurposed. You can get a sense of Buffalo’s past and present by kayaking the so-called ‘Elevator Alley’ on the Buffalo River, which runs between them. It’s possible to launch your own kayak from various spots, including Mutual Riverfront Park, but Explore Buffalo’s guided tour gives welcome historical context to the varied buildings on the waterfront through an approximately 3-mile round-trip paddle down the Buffalo River toward Lake Erie. The mild current and short distance makes this trip suitable for kayakers of all experience levels, although the occasional strong winds might have you putting some elbow grease into your paddling.
Old sits alongside new here: a repurposed set of silos painted to resemble Labatt beer cans, site of Buffalo RiverWorks (more on this later) is pretty much next door to the still operating General Mills plant (sniff the air for the scent of Cheerios). On the other side of the river, luxury apartments reused timber and iron work from the freight house that was once there. Be sure to keep an eye out for the bright red EM Cotter, the country’s oldest operating fireboat, and water birds like cormorants and Canada geese.
Soaring across an urban zip line
If you thought zip lines were only found in tropical locales, think again. At Buffalo RiverWorks, you can launch yourself out of an 110ft grain silo, above a concrete patio, buoyed (or buffeted, depending) by the wind off Lake Erie. In other words, it’s a pure adrenaline hit. Climb more than 100 stairs to the top of a grain silo for the first of four runs that zig and zag between silos and towers for a gradual descent. You’ll be accompanied by two experienced guides, whose evident ease and acrobatic antics on the line might be enough to convince you to drop your white-knuckled grip on the harness and enjoy yourself. There’s a 65ft Indiana Jones-style rope bridge between the second and third zip lines, to challenge your trembling legs, and the final zipline is a tandem that allows you to race your partner to the finish.
Buffalo RiverWorks also has a rock-climbing wall, a ropes course, kayak rentals and a roller skate rink, which is used by the Queen City Roller Girls, Buffalo’s beloved roller derby team.
Biking Buffalo’s Outer Harbor
For a greener outdoor adventure, head to the Outer Harbor, a narrow strip of land between the Buffalo River and Lake Erie that serves as the city’s Central Park. The best way to see this 400-acre space is by bicycle. Rent one on the Outer Harbor itself, bring your own or grab one from the stands at Canalside and take the Bike Ferry (just $1 each way) to and from the Outer Harbor. The terrain here is flat, making it easy to cruise along at a moderate pace and enjoy the views of Lake Erie – on a clear day, you can see Canada to the northwest. The heart of the space is Wilkeson Pointe, which features man-made rises to watch the sunset as well as a small beach. Once you’ve worked up a sweat, the Pointe Beer Garden serves up suds and other refreshments alongside lawn games like cornhole. At the other end of the Outer Harbor is Buffalo Harbor State Park, which includes a marina and restaurant, as well as a nautical-themed playground for kids. Birders shouldn’t miss the park’s 264-acre Tifft Nature Preserve, with 5 miles of trails through marsh and wetlands.
Hiking Niagara Gorge
Sure, the famous falls are beautiful – but have you seen Niagara Gorge? Framed by dramatic, tree-lined limestone cliffs, the vivid aqua waters of the Niagara River churn along here with impressive force. Contemplate their power by hiking alongside them. The Devil’s Hole Trail gets you closest to the action, with spectacular views, and even on a summer Sunday morning, you’ll have this beautiful piece of nature mostly to yourself.
Start at the Devil’s Hole State Park parking area and follow the signs to the staircase that will take you down the cliffs to the gorge. It’s a somewhat difficult descent, with no railings, and several of the 300-ish steps are beginning to crumble. However, it’s also the trickiest part of the trail (at least until you have to climb up again). Once you’re down, the well-trodden trail (which formerly held an electric rail car) is framed by the cliffs on the left and the river on the right. After about a mile, you’ll see the Whirlpool Stairs on your left. These mark the end of the Devil’s Hole Trail, but continue for another 3/4 mile on the connected Whirlpool Rapids Trail to see the whirlpool itself, which spins at up to 30ft per second. Keep an eye out for the Whirlpool Jet Boats taking visitors through the treacherous waters, as well as the Whirlpool Aero Car, which runs over the top of the whirlpool on the Canadian side of the river.
From the whirlpool, you can either retrace your steps and return via the gorge trails, or ascend the Whirlpool Steps and take the Rim Trail back. The Rim Trail – which is 6.2 miles long and extends all the way to Niagara Falls – offers overlook views of the whirlpool and gorge, and is loosely paved, making it accessible to strollers and wheelchairs.
Only 30 minutes away from downtown Buffalo, all three trails are open year-round. Wear sneakers or hiking boots and tread with caution on the gorge trails if the ground is wet, as there are some steep drop-offs alongside. Whirlpool State Park Visitor Center has water fountains and restrooms.
More ways to enjoy the outdoors in Western New York
Farther outside of Buffalo lie even more opportunities for adventure.
- SUP Erie Adventures – Kevin Cullan and Christian Edie teach stand-up paddling, kite-boarding and even surfing at four different points along Lake Erie, between 15 and 40 minutes south of Buffalo. Land excursions like hikes and rock-climbing are also available.
- Letchworth State Park – One hour east, this stunning state park is a popular weekend excursion for Buffalo locals. The gorge carved by the Genesee River has created three waterfalls and conditions that allow whitewater rafting. There are also more than 60 miles of trails to wander.
- Fort Niagara State Park – If you want to check two Great Lakes off on one trip, take the 40-minute drive north to this park on Lake Ontario, which offers swimming, hikes and a history lesson thanks to Old Fort Niagara, a military defense site built by the French nearly 300 years ago.
Make it happen
Buffalo Niagara International airport is an easy rideshare from the city center. Canada’s Toronto Pearson Airport is about 90 miles away. For a truly local experience, InnBuffalo in the Elmwood neighborhood is highly recommended.
Trisha Ping traveled to Buffalo with support from Visit Buffalo Niagara. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.