If you haven’t been to Niagara Falls, you’ve probably seen pictures of it and read the stats about how big it is and how much water flows over it every second. Hundreds of thousands of gallons – it has one of the highest waterfall flow rates in the world. That’s a big number, but I don’t think I truly appreciated just how big it is until I was there. Even from the brink of the falls, I don’t think I fully understood. It wasn’t until we took the elevator down to the base of the falls, donned our souvenir sandals and ponchos, and got waterfalled upon, that I was really able to grasp just how powerful Niagara Falls is.
Niagara Falls is actually three waterfalls – Horseshoe Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, and American Falls – that straddle the border between New York and Ontario, Canada. Here, millions of gallons of water fall 167 feet as they travel down the Niagara River from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario.
Niagara Falls State Park, the first state park in the US, is located on Goat Island which is in the middle of the Niagara River. It’s $10 per day to park your car (as of 2014), but once you’re there, you have your choice of walking trails, picnic spots, and views. If you’re not on a budget, there’s also an aquarium, IMAX theater, and fancy restaurant.
As you walk under the large rock arch and head towards the visitor center, you’ll see clouds of water droplets rising up into the air to your left and up ahead, giving the first indication of the enormity of the falls. To the left is Horseshoe Falls, located on the Canadian side of the border. To the right and located in the US are Bridal Veil and American Falls, separated by the tiny Luna Island, which you can walk out onto and experience the feeling of having waterfalls on both sides of you.
To avoid the crowds, I recommend getting there first thing in the morning. However, after dark in the summer, the falls are illuminated in a variety of colors, so braving the crowds might be the way to go. Of course, you could easily spend all day there as well. When we were there, we arrived late in the day, watched the illumination, and then came back the next morning for one of the tours (and parked in the city of Niagara Falls instead of in the park, which only cost about $2, I believe).
After seeing the falls from above and watching the nighttime display, we returned the following morning to take the Cave of the Winds tour and see the falls from below. It’s $12 per person and completely worth it. You get waterproof sandals and a yellow poncho and hop on an elevator down to the base of the falls, which opens up onto a series of boardwalks. From there, you can walk over to the base of Bridal Veil Falls. Behind you is a very different view of Horseshoe Falls while a glance upward will reveal the brink of American and Bridal Veil Falls and all of the water thundering over them.
Be prepared to get soaked, especially on the highest section of boardwalk, called Hurricane Deck. The ponchos worked well, and our clothes stayed mostly dry (though if you wear long pants, you’ll probably end up with wet pant legs). It was a great experience and definitely one of my favorite parts of this particular vacation. I’d gladly go back any day.
There’s also a boat ride that takes you down to the base of both falls (slightly more expensive than Cave of the Winds, I believe, but we didn’t do this tour so I can’t give any details about it). I also highly recommend crossing over to the Canadian side ($3.25 USD toll via Rainbow Bridge) and viewing the falls from there, because you can see all three falls at once.
So maybe for some people it’s cliché, or too much of a mainstream vacation destination (which I suppose it kind of is, it’s one of the most popular honeymoon spots in the US). But I maintain that Niagara Falls is a place that deserves a visit, if for no other reason than just to experience the power and immensity of the falls. It truly is a spectacular place.
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: the falls are located between the towns of Niagara Falls, NY and Niagara Falls, ON about 20 minutes north of Buffalo, NY; the state park itself is on Goat Island, which is the US side
- Fees & passes: $10 per day to park, $12 per person for Cave of the Winds, and plenty of other ($$) tourist opportunities are available; visitor center and viewing the falls is free of charge (aside from the cost of parking)
- Camping: there is no camping in the park; we stayed at a KOA north of the city, but there are many other campgrounds in the area as well
- Hiking: there are walking paths all over the park
- Other: parking fills up early, especially on weekends during the summer!