As we reawaken to spring and remember all the things we can do outside while wearing lighter clothes -- and maybe even sunglasses -- one activity still feels a couple of months away:
A day trip to our own international tourist attraction.
Niagara Falls State Park can be a treat to visit any time of year. The colored leaves linger long into the fall, warmed by waters flowing through the Niagara Gorge. Freezing mist puts the park trees in a sparkling coat in the winter. And summer brings throngs from across the globe at a time when you can get closer to the falls themselves than during any other season.
But spring, especially the next few weeks, magnifies the natural power of the waterfalls themselves, and allows visitors to take them in when the crowds are thinner -- and the experience less costly.
"This time of the year, there's more of the 'natural' in the natural wonder. You have less going on to distract you," says Paul Gromosiak, a local historian who has written nine books and many articles about Niagara Falls.
The abundance of water flowing over the American Falls is never so apparent than springtime, when leafless trees give way to the full sweep of the Upper Niagara River Rapids between Goat Island and Prospect Point.
From several vantage points, you can see the winter ice pack -- looking like a thick layer of vanilla fudge ice cream -- in front of the American and Bridal Veil falls.
If you decide to visit the state park on a day trip soon, here are some of the things worth knowing.
*The city: Niagara Falls, N.Y., still has a lot of work to do when it comes to welcoming visitors throughout the year, but those who stop in town in the next few weeks will see that some progress has been made during the last couple of years.
A new visitor center is open at First Street and Rainbow Boulevard; construction will start soon on a new culinary center in the vacant Rainbow Centre mall; and the state and city have combined to clear an inviting -- if still largely empty -- path along Old Falls Street between the state park and the Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel.
The view into the city up Old Falls Street gives you the sense that things may, finally, be looking up. In the coming weeks, vendors will begin to line the street, and, if plans materialize, some will stay through the Christmas holiday.
*Parking: Finding a parking spot in the Falls during the summer months can be an exercise in frustration, not to mention the first kick to your wallet.
The state park charges motorists $10 to park in its lots during the summer tourist season, and the fee already is in place for the lot near the Rainbow Bridge. The parking attendants for the One Niagara lot, right across Prospect Street from the state park lot, will gladly let you know it, too. On a recent weekend, they were charging $5 for a spot in their lot and doing their best to flag in drivers, including those trying to make a split-second choice between the One Niagara and state park lots.
But here's what you should know. The state park's lot attendant works from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. through April and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday through Thursday until June 22; come in before or after those times, and parking is free.
Parking in the lot on Goat Island is free every day until May 22, and weekdays through June 19, as well as before 9 a.m. or after 4 p.m. through the summer. If you plan to go there anyway -- and you should -- park on Goat Island instead.
There also are free spaces in the city streets leading to the park, particularly on Main Street, near Buffalo Avenue, behind the old Turtle attraction and Red Coach Inn. It's easier to get a spot there during the week than on weekends. Parking in the Seneca Niagara Casino garage also is free, if you don't mind walking a few blocks to see the falls.
*Goat Island: Terrapin Point, the Cave of the Winds and the Top of the Falls restaurants won't open to visitors for a few more weeks, but the gift shops are open (and offering discounts), and the island offers great vantage points of the falls themselves.
The power of the upper rapids is best displayed this time of year, as the winter runoff from four Great Lakes spills toward Lake Ontario.
The best vantage point of the American and Bridal Veil falls this time of year is behind the Cave of the Winds entrance, at the fence above Luna Island. You can see the ice pack in front of the falls from the most interesting angle.
Three Sisters Islands, at the southeast corner of Goat Island, also is a nice place to watch the upper rapids, although it's easier and safer to meander these islands in summer.
*The north side of the park: Near Prospect Point, the Orin Lehman Visitor Center welcomes visitors from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., sort of. A movie about the falls is playing, and the gift shop and bathrooms are open, but not the snack shops.
Behind the visitor center, it costs $1 during the summer tourist season (except from 8 to 11 p.m.) to walk onto the green-painted steel Observation Tower above the Niagara Gorge and the Maid of the Mist. This time of year, it's free.
Bring a jacket even it's a warmer day, as a cool breeze drifts off the nearby upper rapids.
*As Memorial Day nears: As we close in on the traditional tourist season, visits to the Falls can stretch even longer.
The Cave of the Winds is scheduled to open May 14 this year, depending on the weather, but before that you can take a limited journey toward the base of the American and Bridal Veil falls.
Visitors now can travel 175 feet down an elevator into the gorge, where they can view the falls from a permanent observation deck. Admission through April 30, and from Oct. 25 to Nov. 1, is $6 for adults and $4 for children, and trips run daily from 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.
The wooden decks are reconstructed every year; otherwise they would be crushed under the weight of the ice pack that forms during winter on the rocks below the falls. The wood is treated by Thompson's Water Seal, which began to advertise a few years back that its sealant was powerful enough to protect the famed "Hurricane Deck," where visitors to the fabled attraction get soaked. When the decks are open, the cost is $11 for adults and $8 for children.
Depending on weather, the Maid of the Mist will start its trips May 20. Find out exactly when by visiting the company's website at www.maidofthemist.com. From the American side, the Maid of the Mist costs $13.50 for adults and $7.85 for children.
Generally, you can experience shorter lines on the Cave of the Winds and the Maid of the Mist before Memorial Day weekend and after Labor Day, until they close in midfall.
Prices are subject to change. You can find out if they do, as well as a whole lot more about the state park, by visiting www.niagarafallsstatepark.com.
*Walk to Canada: With border traffic not quite at peak, it's also a good time to grab your passport or enhanced driver's license and walk across the Rainbow Bridge. The entrance from the state park is on the south edge on the bridge, and you'll have to clear customs each way, but it's worth it to get a straight-on view of the Horseshoe Falls.
Another plus: it costs 50 cents to walk or take a bike across the bridge, compared with $3.25 by car.
*The food: If you choose to walk the bridge, you can stop on either side of the border for a bite or a beer at a Hard Rock Cafe. A plethora of Indian restaurants on the American side are open for business, and you'll want to consider stopping for a drink or appetizer at Wine on Third, a couple of blocks north of the casino on Third Street. The Hershey store and Rain Forest Cafe at the foot of Clifton Hill, are among the culinary attractions in Canada near the Rainbow Bridge.
Back on the U.S. side, if romance is what you want, the Red Coach Inn might be your spot. The food is pricey, but of high quality. You might even consider an overnight stay in one of the guest rooms or suites.
You'd be in good company. After all, this is the place that producers of NBC's hit show "The Office" decided should be the hub of the show's wedding special in 2009 for characters Pam Beesly and Jim Halpert.
If you decide to splurge on lodging this time of year, visit www.niagara-usa.com. You'll pay less for a hotel room than in the summer season, and you can look at it this way: Staying so close to home, look at the money you saved on gas!