It's East of Here, Right?
July 24, 2006 9:23 PM   Subscribe

Starting point: Chicago. Destination: Niagara Falls. Transportation: Honda Civic. Question: Am I nuts?

The SO, kids and I will be taking 4-5 days to drive from Chicago to the Falls. We want to do a large chunk of the driving in Canada because, well, Canada is prettier. The current plan (and by "plan" I of course mean flipping through our atlas) is to cross the border at Detroit/Windsor, meander over to the falls and come back by some slightly different, but still Canadian, route.

So, mefites, 1) is there a better crossing point (I'd like to skip metropolitan areas as much as possible, but 4 days doesn't give too much room for wanderlust)? 2) Anything we need to see along the way (especially national parks to take a day hike and/or fish, bearing in mind we'll have a 7 and 5 year-old with us)? 3) Any obvious problems with my "plans" that I'm not seeing?

4) What's the best rye to bring back with me < $30?/small>
posted by Terminal Verbosity to Travel & Transportation around Niagara Falls, NY (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
No, you're not nuts. You would not be nuts even if you planned to get up in the morning and be in Niagara that night; it can't be more than a 12-hour drive.

is there a better crossing point

Port Huron / Sarnia. Rural, and it's probably quicker than going through Windsor (you spend less time in the lower speed limit land of Ontario). Going this way is also faster than staying in the US.

I would not bank on being excited on the way. The drive from Sarnia through to Guelph or wherever 401 splits from the road to Hamilton is just deadly dull. Like, Indiana levels of dull, almost. And then you hit Hamilton, which is from all appearances an depressingly ex-industrial town. This is not Unspoiled Wilderness Canada. This is the densely-populated part of Canada that's been an integral part of the industrial core of the planet for a very long time, interspersed with old-line farmland.

Niagara Falls itself is very cheesy, but fun.

You could always stop at Cedar Island on the way back. I'd suggest taking one direction up through Wisconsin, Sault Ste. Marie, and then down Lake Huron, but I doubt you have time for that. I have not been that way myself.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:54 PM on July 24, 2006

If you get on I-69 where it meets I-94 near Battle Creek, MI, you can cross the border at Port Huron, MI and Sarnia, Ontario. This would allow you to skip all of Metro Detroit, plus the congestion at this crossing point is generally much lower. Continue on the 402 and you'll meet the 401 in London, Ontario, at the same spot you would reach had you decided to travel through Detroit/Windsor.

At a quick glance, the two routes appear to be roughly equal in length, although traffic and ease of driving certainly favor I-69.

On the downside, this does mean you would lose some distance in traveling through Canada, spending probably an extra half hour in the US, but it all evens out in the end.

Whatever way you end up going, have fun!
posted by brad! at 9:57 PM on July 24, 2006

My neighbors just did that trip 2 weeks ago! (We live in NW Indiana.) 3 kids, ages 14, 12, and 2. They took a rental SUV... I just suggest you make sure you have plenty of room in the car, or else rent one.

They rode the Maid of the Mist, and the verdict was that it was very cold, so you might want to pack sweaters to wear under your ponchos. (They provide free ponchos.)

Any other questions, feel free to e-mail me (profile) and I'll ask them!
posted by IndigoRain at 10:30 PM on July 24, 2006

I make this exact same route every few months myself, so you aren't nuts at all. I find the Port Huron/Sarnia crossing the easiest and the most fastest way to get through. The drive shouldn't take you more than 7/8 hours. I have usually left the Falls around lunch time and reached the suburbs of Chicago comfortably for a late dinner.

For hiking, outdoorsy stuff, I highly recommend hiking the Niagara Glen trails, and you can even go fishing by the Whirlpool!

I am a native of Niagara Falls (Canada) and dole out touristy advice for a living (to a certain extent), if you have any questions, email me. The city gets a lot of flack for it's cheesiness, but if you give it a chance, it can really amaze you with some fantastic hidden gems.
posted by wannabehippie at 10:47 PM on July 24, 2006

If you're coming back around Lake Erie, don't cross the border at Niagara Falls. Cross at Fort Erie/Buffalo (the end of the QEW). It was very quick going both ways in my experience, whereas you could see the traffic backing up at Niagara Falls.
posted by oaf at 10:47 PM on July 24, 2006

...meander over to the falls and come back by some slightly different, but still Canadian, route.

Yes, do that. When you get to Niagara Falls, stay out of the US. It's much nicer on the Canadian side. The city of Niagara Falls, US, is pretty much a post-industrial slum and not worth the potential delay and trouble at the border.
posted by pracowity at 2:41 AM on July 25, 2006

I was there just last year. The Canadian side of Niagara is an eyesore, but if the kids are into the Marvel museum or Ripley’s Moving Theater it might be worth a look.

I really loved the butterfly house at the botanical gardens. If you go late in the day they release all of the new butterflies that have just emerged from their cocoons. They are usually disoriented and will sit on visitors until they get their bearings.
posted by Alison at 4:06 AM on July 25, 2006

A second for the butterfly house - it was the best part of my (very quick) visit to Niagara ten or so year ago.

If you do explore the US side, be careful of the tots on the little island between Horseshoe & American Falls. You can walk right up to the water (or could then). I watched a young boy come really close to going over the falls sans barrel before his parents caught up with him.
posted by jaimystery at 5:46 AM on July 25, 2006

Do you mean that you'll take 4-5 days to get to the falls, or just that the whole trip will be 4-5 days? If it's the former, I think you'd be hard-pressed to find enough things to do -- as someone indicated, from Chicago it's about an 8 hour drive, meaning you'd only average two hours a day.

I also second ROU_Xenophobe -- don't be misled into thinking that the Canadian trip will be exciting. 401 is just dull, flat, and straight. Exits are few and far between until you get to Hamilton (with the exception of London).

And I agree that the Blue Water Bridge (Port Huron/Sarnia) crossing is preferable to the Ambassador Bridge (Detroit/Windsor). However, if you took the latter, you could take an easy detour to Point Pelee National Park.
posted by pardonyou? at 7:05 AM on July 25, 2006

If you cross at Detroit (regardless of whether you take the bridge or the tunnel) take care on the road between Windsor and London. About 5 years ago the Detroit paper did an article about how that stretch of road has a higher accident rate than might be expected. Although the problem may already be found and fixed, vigilance will not hurt anybody.

And be sure to ponder the fact that Detroit is in fact North of Canada.
posted by ilsa at 8:03 AM on July 25, 2006

My memory's a bit fuzzy (I was twelve when my family made a Chicago-Niagara trip along much the same route) but I'm pretty sure we did it in two days--much of it the flat, gray, monotonous driving that Xenophobe and pardonyou? are describing. If you're going to budget four or five days for the trip, why not go east to Pennsylvania and curve northward through New England? The scenery would be a hell of lot prettier.
posted by Iridic at 8:05 AM on July 25, 2006

If you go east to Pennsylvania, you don't get anywhere near New England to go to Niagara Falls, you go straight up through PA and a very small portion of New York.

Unless you're taking the most circuitous, gas-wasting, mind-boggling route known to man, that is.
posted by Dreama at 8:11 AM on July 25, 2006

Good point, Dreama. I was describing the route my family took back from Niagara Falls, forgetting that we made a dogleg over to Connecticut to visit some relatives. Still, IMO, Pennsylvania and New York are more geographically interesting than the stretch of Canada in question.
posted by Iridic at 8:39 AM on July 25, 2006

If you're sticking close to the Lake Erie coast, I recommend:
  • The Queen Elizabeth II Sunken Gardens in Jackson Park in Windsor.
  • Fort Malden
  • Point Pelee National Park (seconding pardonyou?'s recommendation), but at the Point heed the warnings about the undertow--don't swim or even wade there.
  • If you do want to swim in Lake Erie, I recommend Long Point Provincial Park, which has IMO the best beach on Lake Erie--very fine sand and very few rocks.

posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:23 AM on July 25, 2006

You could head back through the US and catch some activities at Chautauqua and ride some roller coasters at Cedar Point.
posted by billtron at 10:15 AM on July 25, 2006

By the way, if you're into plays (particularly Shakespeare), you might be interested in the Stratford Festival, which would be another easy detour.
posted by pardonyou? at 10:57 AM on July 25, 2006

The drive between Detroit and Niagara on the Canadian side really is as boring (all highway, truck stop etc, few trees) as everyone has said. It's good you're planning ahead, since you will not be able to count on just running into nice natural areas in this corridor. (If you really want green space and nature, consider heading for Pennsylvania, Kentucky, or Minnesota instead; about the same distance but look at the difference in greenth on the Google satellite pictures.) That said, Niagara is great, awesome for kids, and there are definitely things to do on the way with some preparation.

If you go thru Detroit, a stop in Ann Arbor on the way there would be fun. College town, good place to get lunch and walk around. Zingerman's Deli is awesome, they make their own ice cream among other gourmet treats. There's a fun art/paper shop if you will have any creative types in the car. They have a hands-on science museum, the University of Michigan has lots of affiliated museums (art, botanic garden, natural history), and there's tons of ethnic food, events, etc.

Here's a zoomable map of Ontario Provincial Parks, which shows about 10 along Lake Erie on your route (if you came thru Detroit). You can click on the park listings for more info on each.

Here's a list of things to do with kids in London ON, which will be a natural place to stop. Look on that same page for events, and you'll see they have a hot air balloon festival and a ribs festival coming up. Wikipedia also has a good listing of attractions and events on its London ON page.

If you have time to kill around Niagara, Buffalo NY has one of the best minor league baseball teams; a great night or afternoon for kids.

Finally, for road trips in Canada with a carload of possibly cranky people, you can't beat a box of Tim Horton's donut holes (TimBits). Not healthy, but they do soothe.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:09 PM on July 25, 2006

I did it in an old Chevy stationwagon. You're not crazy at all...
posted by evariste at 6:37 PM on July 25, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for the input everyone. A few remarks...

I have been to the Falls before, and am aware of the cheesiness factor of the Canadian side, and the slum factor of the U.S. side. But I figured my tough-to-impress kids maybe--just maybe--could be awed by this geologic behemoth.

Looking at the map, the Windsor-Niagara stretch looked bloated with humans, so thanks for confirming that. Niagara was really just a turnaround point for us; it's the meandering in-between that we were looking forward to. If the in-between is boring, then we need a new turnaround point. So, we're actually thinking now of skipping Niagara and going up the eastern coast of Lake Michigan. Has anyone had any experiences with any of the state parks along the coast there (specifically Sleeping Bear Dunes)? Oh, and one thing I should have mentioned before: cheap is good. Is renting a very basic cabin for ~$100 a night unrealistic in this area?

I swear I won't change my destination on you again. Thanks everyone.
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 7:47 AM on July 26, 2006

I second Fort Maldon, Zingerman's and the Maid of the Mist. I was in Jackson Park a couple weeks ago, however, and all those beautiful, old, heirloom roses are gone.
posted by QIbHom at 2:42 PM on July 27, 2006

hmm, now you're going around lake michigan, which means that you should keep going through the upper peninsula and into wisconsin. Some of the best camping east of the mississippi river can be found in the UP, especially in the Porcupine Mountains and Sylvania Wilderness Area (canoe camping almost as great as the Boundary Waters). Plus, touring the mines at Iron Mountain is one of my favorite childhood memories.

Which means a trip to Macinac Island.

The Sleeping Bear Dunes should keep kids of all ages entertained for at least one afternoon. Traverse City has lots of activities too and would make a good turn-around point if you decide not to go to the coolest upper peninsula in the US.

Ludington State Park is also fun.

Interlochen and Blue Lake arts camps have loads of summer concerts with youth orchestras, bands, theater groups, etc.
posted by billtron at 11:46 PM on July 29, 2006

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