When Hurricane Katrina  descended upon southern Louisiana, near my hometown of New Orleans, back in late August of 2005, I definitely fared better than some native New Orleanians. At the time, my husband, Dan, and I were actually near Los Angeles, far from the path of the destructive storm, and luckily, all of my immediate family members (Mom, Dad, Maw-Maw Deanne, Aunt Judy, and Paw-Paw Al), who still lived in and around New Orleans, survived the hurricane's aftermath. True, most of our possessions were utterly destroyed by the subsequent flooding, but as I've already noted, I was definitely luckier than some.
In a serendipitous twist of fate (if, of course, you believe in that sort of thing), I had visited my family in October of 2004, at which time I'd removed a carload of precious items from my old bedroom at Mom's house – namely, my high school yearbooks, a box of old letters, and a slew of photographs from my childhood and teenage years. So, although I did lose plenty of memorabilia in the flood that invaded my old Lakeview neighborhood 10 months later, I feel fortunate to have spared my photos from Katrina's wrath. Even my mom, for instance, lost all photographic evidence of her childhood – which, depending on how sentimental a person is, can be a very devastating experience.
Like most people, I've always loved to sift through old snapshots – whether they're images of crawfish boils with my family or crazy parties with my college roommates – and like many fellow travelers, I particularly enjoy gazing at pictures of past adventures, from road trips with Mom to European adventures with the hubby. So, my recent conversation with Smokies expert Katy Koontz  inspired me to unearth my old travel photos, particularly those that chronicle my past road trips with Mom. Katy's reference to all the waterfall hikes available in Great Smoky Mountains National Park made me remember my own waterfall experiences over the years, not just in the Smokies but all across America. Of course, one of the most memorable experiences was our visit to Niagara Falls , the remarkable waterfalls (American Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, and Horseshoe Falls) that straddle the international border between the Canadian province of Ontario and the American state of New York. Discovered in 1678 by French explorer Father Louis Hennepin, Niagara Falls became one of America's first true icons, luring countless visitors, explorers, and, yes, daredevils over the ensuing years. Today, more than 8 million tourists come to experience these thundering cascades. As I mentioned in a previous post about my favorite movie locales , I was just 11 years old (yes, that's me in the photo above!) when I first encountered this tremendous sight, and despite the unabashed commercialism that prevails in the region, the falls themselves continue to be one of the country's most beloved natural wonders, an awesome landmark that must be seen in person to be truly appreciated.
Beyond its reputation as a honeymoon retreat, the area around Niagara Falls is also, not surprisingly, a popular place for family vacations. Parents, teenagers, and young children will all find appropriate amusements there, whether they choose to stay in Niagara Falls, New York, or Niagara Falls, Ontario.
Of course, most families tend to visit during the summer months. Mom and I, for instance, first ventured there in August of 1988. Still, there are plenty of things to do in the fall.
First and foremost, you should visit Niagara Falls State Park , located on the New York side and open 365 days each year. Established in 1885, designed by celebrated landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, and encompassing more than 400 acres of land, not to mention the famous American and Bridal Veil Falls, this popular locale is actually the oldest state park in the nation. Year-round highlights include the Niagara Falls Visitor Center (free), set amid acres of floral gardens, and the Observation Tower ($1 adults, children under 6 free), which offers a panoramic view of all three Niagara Falls, while seasonal attractions include the Niagara Scenic Trolley (May-Dec., $2 adults, $1 children 6-12, children under 6 free), the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center (May-Oct., $3 adults, $2 children 6-12, children under 6 free), the Niagara Adventure Theater (May-Dec., $11 adults, $7.50 children 6-12, children under 6 free), the Cave of the Winds Tour (May-Oct., $11 adults, $8 children 6-12, children under 6 free), and the famous Maid of the Mist boat ride  (warmer months, $15.50 adults, $9 children 6-12, children under 6 free), for which raincoats are definitely required. Outdoor enthusiasts will also appreciate the Niagara Gorge trail system, which offers over 15 miles of challenging hiking trails throughout the scenic terrain. With so much to do, it's no wonder that roughly eight million people visit the park every year. Just remember that purchasing a Niagara Falls USA Discovery Pass ($33 adults, $26 children 6-12) will save you a bit of money when visiting all of the above attractions.
Actually, the Discovery Pass also covers admission to the nearby Aquarium of Niagara  (701 Whirlpool St., Niagara Falls, New York, daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m., $10 adults, $8 seniors, $6 children 3-12, children under 3 free), which has been luring marine enthusiasts since its founding in 1965. Kids (and, for that matter, adults) are especially fond of the live animal activities, such as penguin and shark feedings, seal presentations, and California sea lion shows.
While outdoor attractions abound in the Niagara Falls region, some visitors might also appreciate the area's cultural diversions, such as the Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University , which contains more than 5,700 works of art, including pieces from Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, and other famous artists. Other curiosities include the Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima  and the Native American Museum of Art . Happily, all three of these attractions are free to visit and open year-round.
History buffs might also relish a visit to Old Fort Niagara , which has overseen the entrance to the Niagara River since 1726. Today, visitors come to tour its fascinating historical exhibits, witness living history events and programs, and peruse its amazing collection of military architecture and fortifications from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Other popular diversions near Niagara Falls include year-round wine tours, seasonal golf courses, and oodles of shopping and dining opportunities. Needless to say, boredom is just not an option up there. It certainly wasn't for me and Mom all those years ago, and there's even more to do there nowadays. Of course, my favorite activity was – and probably always will be – Maid of the Mist, so be sure to visit at least once in season, when the boats are running.
For more information about Niagara Falls, consult Sascha Zuger's Moon New York State  guidebook. You'll also find helpful websites like Niagara USA  and, the Canadian counterpart, Niagara Falls .
So, have you sifted through some old travel photos lately? If so, which ones brought back the best memories?
As always, I’m open to ideas for future posts. If you have any suggestions, burning questions, or destinations that you’d like me to explore in greater detail, please comment below, contact me via laura [at] wanderingsoles [dot] com, or connect with me on Facebook  and Twitter .
Disclosure: While I occasionally accept free or discounted travel assistance when it coincides with my editorial goals, my opinion is never for sale, which means that everything written in my American Nomad blog and Moon travel guides is my unbiased reflection of the things that I see, do, and experience while traveling across the United States.
Photo of 11-year-old Laura Martone near Niagara Falls courtesy of Laura's mom, Gale Raitman / Text © 2012 Laura Martone