The Dufferin Islands, located only a few kilometres from the Falls, offer a 10 acre quiet oasis for locals, tourists, families, and friends to take a moment and catch their breath. There are no shortage of footpaths and bridges to traverse and enjoy!
When people are thinking about the Niagara Falls’ attractions that they want to prioritize on their visit to the city, the Dufferin Islands isn’t often the first place that comes to mind. It’s places such as the Niagara Parks Power Station, the Whirlpool Aero Car, the White Water Walk, or even the Niagara restaurant scene – but the Dufferin Islands, for one reason or another, often get lost in the mix.
Here are Ultimate Ontario, we feel as if the Dufferin Islands deserve a little more respect, and perhaps deserve to be anointed with that “hidden gem” type of title, largely because it’s an attraction that’s not quite like the others. It’s free to enter (though there is metered parking), and it’s all about appreciating 10 acres of quiet and secluded areas that get you away from the crowds.
In short, it’s an area of small islands with photogenic bridges and footpaths aplenty. Some come to shoot some photography of the local wildlife, others come to read in a serene setting, and others still use it as their outdoor playground for exercise.
We want to double click on the Dufferin Islands today because we feel as if a quick visit here would fit very well into a lot of Niagara Falls itineraries, especially for families with young kids.
A Brief History of the Dufferin Islands
The Early Days
As early as 1794, a saw and grist mill were present in the eastern end of the islands, and that was followed shortly thereafter by an ore mill. The islands, at that time, were named the “Clark Hill Islands,”after two local pioneers.
The mills were burned by American forces in 1814 as part of the War of 1812. However, the interest in this land was far from over. Historical records suggest that around 1820, people started referring to the area as “The Burning Springs.”
As they note on the Clifton Hill website, “it got this name due to natural gas that was leaking from along the ground by the Niagara River just above the Horseshoe Falls. A barrel with a pipe attached and a cork that covered the pipe was placed upon this natural leak. When the cork was removed and ignited, it created a phenomenon which was called a ‘burning spring.’ It soon became an attraction, and people from all over came to witness it in action. In 1902, water was diverted by the Ontario Power Company and resulted in transforming the site into a more natural setting as it looks today.”
Though it’s interesting to look back at what was once known as Niagara Falls’ “first tourist attraction,” we should all be appreciative of the fact that the Dufferin Islands moved away from the gimmicks, and focused on being a place of natural refuge (and not natural gas!).
Becoming the Dufferin Islands
Thankfully, Niagara Parks took over in the late 1800s. They renamed the islands “The Dufferin Islands” after the Canadian Governor-General Lord Dufferin, someone who had helped establish parkland and natural areas in the region.
The islands and cascades were added partly to deal with water flow, but more so to create an enjoyable environment for citizens. After WWI, more dirt and stone were added still in order to create an increasingly natural refuge, especially for returning soldiers and the like.
The Dufferin Islands Today
The efforts to effectively naturalize this area and to create an oasis of sorts is ongoing to this day. Recently, fish have been introduced, and you’ll notice bird boxes and bird feeding station throughout the grounds. Indigenous vegetation has also been strategically planted.
The Dufferin Islands, due to these efforts, continue to have a reputation of a place to effectively “escape” from it all and to catch your breath in natural surroundings.
However, in winter, they’re also known as a key site for the Winter Festival of Lights. For those unfamiliar, the Winter Festival of Lights is Canada’s largest illumination festival, and it regularly attracts over 1 million visitors annually.
From mid-November until Family Day in February you’ll find the Dufferin Islands decked out with twinkling lights, luminous displays, and interactive experiences. That being said, these displays don’t come at the expense of the natural ambiance and allure. For example, the Dufferin Islands offer some fantastic opportunities for birdwatchers during the winter months.
Believe it or not, the Dufferin Islands are only a 15-20 minute walk from the Table Rock Centre (and the views from Table Rock Restaurant, of course), so the islands really are in the heart of the action. Many people stop by the Table Rock Market to nab some grab-and-go items then picnic in the park. Picnic tables are actually available throughout the Dufferin Islands.
The Dufferin Islands Await
Whenever and however you decide to visit the Dufferin Islands, we hope it offers a little escape from the busyness that can sometimes be present during the height of Niagara Falls’ tourism season. In the end, it’s a little something different, and it can offer you the opportunity to take a deep breath, surrounded by trees and wildlife, in the heart of the Niagara Falls tourism corridor.
We want to humbly thank Niagara Parks for hosting us as media. All opinions are completely our own.
Christopher Mitchell is the Cofounder of Ultimate Ontario. He’s visited over 80 countries, and has lived on 4 continents, but now has his eyes set squarely on exploring this incredible province, and helping others do the same.