This makes it great for kids, because you don't have to spend too much time in the car, and you can even make this trip during the school year with only a day or two of missed class time. Along the way, there are fun, scenic and educational extras that can be added on if you have the time.
Niagara Falls is roughly 400 miles from Philadelphia, but it can take a good 8 or 9 hours to get there because the route north diverges occasionally from super-quick highways. The most direct way takes you north through Scranton, PA, and Binghamton, NY, and then west to Elmira, Corning and Buffalo. But I'm a big proponent of breaking up the trip north into two days since there are so many neat things to visit along the way. Some add a couple of hours to the driving, but also lend interest and definition to the experience.
You're In The Army Now!
Staying in eastern New York along the Hudson River before making the turn west to Niagara, it's possible to visit West Point Military Academy, which has a Visitors Center, Museum, and even a historic hotel on the grounds. It's not uncommon to see lines of cadets marching in unison across the campus, which is perched high above the Hudson in a beautiful section of the state that was familiar to Teddy Roosevelt as a youngster and Theodore Roosevelt straight through adulthood. Farther north, near Poughkeepsie, FDR's home is open to the public.
Batters and Books
Baseball lovers should take the opportunity to drop by Cooperstown, New York, home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. You can do the museum in a couple of hours and see most of what you want to see. My kids enjoyed this and so did my non-baseball-loving wife who appreciated the history represented. Staying in or near Cooperstown was a plus for her, too, because the town is, in her description, "darling". Cooperstown is not large, but quaint. The baseball field where the beginning of "A League of Their Own" was shot is a few blocks from the Hall. Ostego Lake, smaller cousin to New York's primary "finger lakes" sets its southern foot at Cooperstown's doorstep, and it's possible to rent a canoe or small watercraft if the weather's nice.
In Elmira, you can visit Mark Twain's (Samuel Clemens') gravesite, and tour the octagonal study where the famous writer penned some of his most famous works, including Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. It's a quick stop, but interesting, especially if your kids have read any of Twain's books.
If you have the time for a more scenic ride, I'd suggest taking Route 14 north from Elmira along Seneca Lake to I-90 West. From there, go into Rochester, a mid-sized city that has rapid-filled rivers running through its center. Get yourself up to Route 18 after that which approaches Niagara from the east and runs along the Lake Ontario, passing numerous boat launches and summer homes. The final miles into the falls area are especially exciting using this approach, because the road south from the Great Lake parallels the gorge cut by the falls before they receded back to their current position. Numerous high-tension wires signal the advent of the falls, since Niagara is still used to generate hydro-electric power.
I would suggest approaching the falls from the American side first. The overlooks are fairly easy to access by car from the city of Niagara and there are parking lots and pathways that provide a short hike to the action. There is also access to the base of Bridal Veil Falls via The Cave of the Winds tour ($11 per adult, $8 for kids 8-12, FREE for 5 and under). Wear sneakers for sure footing. Also use the ponchos they provide, because it gets wet down there!
Passport to the Best Views
I have nothing against the good old USA, but when it comes to staying in Niagara, I've always felt that you're better off on the Canadian side, mainly because the views are far better. Bring your passports, though. The Canadian authorities can get testy if you (and especially your kids) do not have proper ID. If you're going off-season, you may be able to get a decent deal on a room that overlooks the falls. We did this once, and I still love watching the video we took one morning when our daughter woke us up to show us sunrise breaking through the mist. The Canadian side also offers a scenic park, an overlook directly adjacent to the top of Horseshoe Falls (which will have you holding onto your kids' hands tightly), and a tunnel that takes you behind the falls! There's also a funicular railway that climbs a steep hillside and offers spectacular views. The Skylon Tower takes you even higher, but at some point, most families will have to draw the line on how many of these pay-as-you-go choices you really need. The Imax theater's film relating to the falls is great, though, along with the attached exhibit which features some of the contraptions that people tried to ride over the falls (some successfully, some not). A combo ticket is $15 per adult, and $11.50 per kid, if you buy online. And of course, you can't go to Niagara without piling the kids onto the famous Maid of the Mist, the boat that takes you into the roar of the falling water and blinding mist. It's quite an experience. In fact, one of our younger kids wasn't too happy about it, but forgave us years later, so it's all good! As of 2010, the Maid is priced at $13.50 per adult, and $8 for kids 6-12 (FREE for 5 and under).
I would not recommend the main streets of the Canadian side above the falls which have become choked in the last decade or two with every manner of expensive and overdone sideshow, from wax museums to freak shows. Unless you don't mind cheesy fun, you can skip this stuff. On the way home, it's fun to travel south on the Canadian side and approach Buffalo via the Peace Bridge (toll). Buffalo is a shell of its former industrial self, but they've done a nice job of sprucing up the downtown and even the steel relics of the city's past are picturesque in their own way.
The ride home tends to be an express route for me with few stops, but if you get tired of driving and you hit Scranton with any energy left, Steamtown (now a National Park Service operation) offers a glimpse at the world of steam locomotives. There are also a couple of coal mine tours in town, and farther south near Stroudsburg, PA, Bushkill Falls offer fenced hiking trails that skirt a gorge with numerous falls, the largest standing at 100 ft. It's not Niagara, but the trails are nice and my kids enjoyed this.
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