28 Aug

Campground Review: Branches of Niagara, Grand Island

Three generations of my family recently enjoyed an action packed, two week RV trip through upstate New York.  We kayaked and swam in the Finger Lakes, hiked past 19 waterfalls along the gorge path at Watkins Glen State Park, cliff jumped into a crystal-clear swimming hole near Buttermilk Falls, felt the rush of cool mist blowing off of Niagara Falls, and toured lighthouses and ate like kings and queens in Woodstock and Saugerties.
The highlight of our trip, though, may have been the time we spent at one of America’s most exciting new campgrounds.  Our three day stay at Branches of Niagara, in Grand Island, managed to be both thrilling and relaxing.   Branches is only a ten-minute drive away from America’s oldest and wettest state park, but an even greater adventure can be had right on the grounds of their activity-filled property.
The 70 acre campground has 80 sites and 14 log cabins situated around a surprisingly lovely 8-acre man-made lake that is rimmed with wild flowers and marsh grasses.  The camp store, activity center, and bathhouse are also log cabins, and they give Branches a warm and rustic look and feel.  The sites where our party camped, numbers 22 and 24, were spacious and well shaded, backing up to deep and quiet woods.  Both sites included water and 30 Amp service, and both felt secluded and private but were just a short walk to all of the amenities.  Full hook up sites are also available throughout the park.
 During our first day at Brancheswe headed into Niagara Falls State Park.   We purchased Discovery Passes and proceeded to work our way through all of the major attractions.  We started with the Maid of the Mist boat ride, which comes astonishingly close to the base of Horseshoe Falls.   Then we proceeded to get completely soaked on the Hurricane Deck during the Cave of the Winds tour along the edge of Bridal Falls.  Both of these activities were awe-inspiring and invigorating…and we should have stopped there.
Unfortunately, we decided to head over to the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center and the Aquarium of Niagara—which were mildly interesting—but not worth the walk.  Then we finished our day by watching the corny and disappointing Niagara: Legends of AdventureIMAX movie.   Our entire family was exhausted by the time we ended up sitting around the campfire back at Branches.  So we decided to spend the next day relaxing at the campground.  That is, if you call zip lining with three year old twins relaxing!
The next morning, after eating a healthy breakfast, the entire group headed over to the Eagle Zipline and the adults proceeded to take turns soaring over the lake and hamming it up for the cameras.  Then, after a solid hour of zip lining, we decided to get the kids equipped for some nice, relaxing fishing.  The lake was well stocked and the boys were thrilled to catch a couple of fish with their new poles. After lunch, we saw two staff members bringing the zip lining equipment over to the Hummingbird Line which is designed for younger campers.  I was a bit scared to bring our boys up there but Mom was confident that they would be brave and have fun.  She was so right—but what else is new?
When the boys glided across the lake their gigantic smiles lit up the whole campground.  We finished our day off with some lake swimming, kayaking, and a trip to the on-site Wildlife Show.  It was a great day of camping and we packed in enough adventure for the entire trip.  The Activity Center at Branches of Niagara is clearly the beating heart of the campground.  I highly recommend that you buy the activities pass, which costs an extra 20 dollars per night, per site, but includes unlimited group access to canoe and kayak rentals, and more importantly, to the aforementioned Eagle and Hummingbird zip lines.
Branches of Niagarais a beautiful campground and its Activity Center is world class—but I was even more impressed with the young staff of the campground.  Each staff member made us feel like they were there just to make sure that our family was having a great time.  Not a good time—but a great time.  When we showed up late for the hayride and the tractor was full the driver promised that he would take another trip around just for us.  After exiting the bath house one evening a staffer asked me if anything needed to be cleaned up.  When we showed up at the Activity Center on our last morning another staffer offered us free coffee and asked us about the next leg of our trip. The spirit of this place was just fantastic.   After three years of extensive RVing I would clearly call it one of our family’s favorite campgrounds.
If you go, bring citronella candles to ward off the bugs and, more importantly, bring a sense of child-like wonder and adventure.  This campground felt like our personal playground during our too short, three-night stay—and it will feel that way for your family too.  When my boys get a bit older I would like to show them Niagara again—and I would also like to take them back to Branches. I can’t wait to show their older selves the beauty and grandeur of the falls, and I also can’t wait to watch their smiles light up the campground again when they graduate from the Hummingbird to the Eagle.