Seaside – Jan/Feb/March 2018
Olympia – Jan/Feb 2018

A First Timer’s Guide to Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls tourism

Photo Niagara USA

There are certain monuments and geographic icons that every North American should see and Niagara Falls is certainly one of them. Niagara Falls is the name of three waterfalls—American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls on the American side and Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side—on the international border that separates New York and Ontario.

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls creates plumes of spray as it cascades 165 feet to the river below. Photo Anne Weaver.

Together, these three impressive falls make up Niagara Falls and boast the highest flow rate of any waterfall in the world. With a vertical drop of 165 feet, American and Bridal Fall sees 75,750 gallons/second and Horseshoe Falls 681,750 gallons/second flow over its precipice. And the water moves fast—up to 32 feet per second. The water crashes down at the bases of the falls with tremendous force, as much as 280 tons at American and Bridal Veil and a whopping 2,509 tons at Horseshoe.

We drive from Buffalo, NY, 17 miles to Niagara Falls, NY, following signs for the falls. We almost get fooled by the multi-story building advertising tourism information and hawkers directing visitors into parking lots. However, the address doesn’t match the one we have for Niagara U.S.A. Visitor Center (10 Rainbow Blvd., Niagara Falls, NY 14303) so we keep looking until we find the right place. At the Niagara Falls Visitor’s Center, we pick up maps and information and get directions to the entrance to Niagara Falls State Park, just a few blocks away.

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls draws visitors from around the world. Photo Anne Weaver.

 Impressive Niagara Falls State Park

Niagara Falls State Park is truly a “people’s park” that’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Entrance to Niagara Falls State Park is free and we park in one of the spacious lots. During high season, parking is $8-10 per car, but it’s October and there’s no one staffing the parking booths so we park for free.

Niagara Falls Visitors Center tourism

The Niagara Gorge Discovery Center is a great starting point for visiting Niagara Falls. Photo Niagara USA.

The Niagara Falls State Park Visitor Center is a great place to get an orientation to the falls. It’s also where we pick up a Discovery Pass ($45 adults; $34 kids 6-12 years), which enables us to access five park attractions: Maid of the Mist falls boat cruise; Cave of the Winds where you can walk right next to the falls; Niagara Gorge Discovery Center that tells the story of Niagara Falls; the Aquarium of Niagara; and the video “Niagara: Legends Movie.” The Pass saves about 30% off buying tickets individually to these attractions.

It doesn’t take us long to realize we should have planned an additional day at Niagara Falls to hike the park’s 15 miles of trails. America’s first landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, best known for designing New York City’s Central Park, designed Niagara Falls State Park and it’s a beauty. Olmsted believed parks should “renew the masses” with natural beauty and Niagara Falls State Park reflects his philosophy. Olmstead created a network of footpaths through wooded areas and along the banks of the Niagara River with plenty of native vegetation and beautiful vistas.

Niagara Falls tourist

Visitor takes a break along the path to Niagara Falls. Photo Anne Weaver.

If you’re interested in hiking, start at the Niagara Gorge Trailhead Center. The local Gorge Trail System offers a variety of hikes from easy to challenging sections with steep stairs and rocks to scramble over. The hikes include: the Great Gorge Scenic Overlook Hike, an easy, one-hour, all-ages round trip that begins at the Trailhead Building; the Upper Great Gorge Hike, which also starts at the Trailhead Building, an easy, two-hour round trip hike that follows the Great Gorge Railway Trail; Devil’s Hole Rapids and Giant Rock that begins at Devil’s Hole State Park (a short drive from the falls), a moderate, 2.5-hour round trip journey (children under 8 not allowed); and, the most difficult, Whirlpool Rapids Adventure Hike, which begins at Whirlpool State Park, a challenging, three-hour round trip that includes some boulder hopping and is restricted to hikers 8 years and older. The park also offers guided hikes mid-May through October. (Call 716-282-5154 for group rates and information.)

We go into the 275-seat, multi-screen Niagara Falls Adventure Theater that’s showing the 40-minute “Legends” movie. Originally, I imagined 40 minutes would be too long for a movie about a waterfall, but I was wrong. This fascinating film, displayed on an impressive 45-ft-wide screen, explores 12,000 years of the Niagara River history, geology and legends of the falls and it’s a great way to get to know the falls before experiencing them first hand. (For those who are not native English speakers, this film is also available in Spanish, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean and German.)

Niagara Falls

Mist from Horseshoe Falls rises from the river. Photo Anne Weaver.

We learn that Niagara Falls State Park is America’s oldest state park. It was established in 1885 (then called Niagara Reservation) to protect the beauty of the falls from encroaching development and industrialization. That same year, Canada established Queen Victoria Niagara Falls Park with the same intention.

And with such power, it’s no wonder Niagara Falls has been under continuous pressure to develop and harness its energy. It was in 1759 that the first canal was built to direct water from the falls to power a sawmill. Since then, industrialists have been vying to tap this amazing resource. In 1896, Niagara electric power was first transmitted from Adams Power Plant in Niagara Falls, NY. It was also the first time alternating current was transmitted over such a long distance.

The pressure to develop Niagara Falls for commercial use proved unrelenting. Developers at one point even wanted to cut up Goat Island, the beautiful piece of land separating American and Horseshoe Falls. Fortunately, a treaty signed in 1950 between the U.S. and Canada helped protect the beauty of the falls. The treaty limits water usage by power plants and directs power plants ensure that at least 100,000 cubic feet of water flow over the falls during April-October, the highest season for tourists. It also allows the plants to divert more water during the night and in winter months.

Niagara Falls path

Easy walking paths draw visitors toward the falls on a fall day. Photo Anne Weaver.

After the movie, we head for the falls. Our Discovery Pass gives us free, on-and-off transportation on the Niagara Scenic Trolley throughout the 400-acre park. However, it’s a beautiful fall day so we opt to stroll the wide, paved paths along the Niagara River.

We’re on Goat Island between Horseshoe Falls and American Falls. As we walk along the Niagara River, we’re amazed at the incredibly rapid pace of the water. And we can hear the falls long before we can see them. The distant roar and a huge plume of mist draws us forward.

Niagara Falls Sisters Is

Stone bridge gives visitors a pathway to Three Sisters Islands. Photo Anne Weaver.

We see a number of people walking a winding path across a bridge onto little islands and we follow them. These are the Three Sisters Islands, small patches of land surrounded by raging water, that were named after Celinda, Angelina, and Asenath Whitney, daughters of General Parkhurst Whitney who founded and operated the Cataract House Hotel near the upper rapids just above the falls. The sisters are believed to be the first settlers to trek to the three small islands (there were no bridges between the islands then).

However, the sisters weren’t the first people to visit the islands. Before white settlers, native Iroquois shamans came to the islands to made sacrifices to He-No (Mighty Thunderer), the spirit believed to live in the mist-enshrouded cave at the base of the falls. Today, psychics and mystics say if you listen carefully enough when you visit Three Sisters Islands, you can hear the voices of the spirits. While we don’t hear any spirits, we’re thrilled at being so close to the rushing waters of Niagara River.

Niagara Falls has so much water because four of five Great Lakes (Superior, Michigan, Huron, and Erie) drain into the Niagara River before emptying into Lake Ontario. All that water flowing over the falls has long been an inspiration for explorers, travelers, artists, musicians, filmmakers, authors, residents, visitors, and, of course, lovers. The falls have been a traditional honeymoon destination since the 19th century and, as we approach the falls and its heart-stopping beauty, it’s easy to see why.

The Falls Up Close

Niagara Falls

Visitors talking selfies at Niagara Falls become drenched by spray. Photo Anne Weaver.

We walk along the blacktopped walkway toward Terrapin Point and Horseshoe Falls. Even before we arrive at the broad concrete viewing platform across from the roaring Horseshoe Falls, we’re inundated by mist. Though the sun is shining, the mist from waterfalls quickly dampens us and we scramble to protect valuable camera equipment. Visitors from around the world line up along the railing for mist-shrouded selfies and we follow suit.

Like the Grand Canyon, the sheer vastness of Niagara Falls makes it difficult to really take it in. Watching the water cascade unceasingly over the sheer drop is both hypnotic and dizzying. Far below, we spot one of the Maid of the Mist boats motoring toward the base of the raging water through the thick mist.

The cold and wet from the constant mist plume makes us scramble to get a few shots. Then we step away from the precipice to get away from the dampness. We’d love to get some hot coffee to warm up, but the Top of the Falls Restaurant just up the hill is closed for construction. So instead we head to the Observation Tower and the Maid of the Mist.

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls Observation Tower is a short walk from Horseshoe Falls. Photo Anne Weaver.

The 283-foot Prospect Point Observation Tower is the only place on the U.S. side of the falls where you can see both American and Horseshoe Falls and it’s well worth a visit. And, at $1, it’s a bargain. Constructed of glass, steel and aluminum, the tower sports an observation deck, gift shop, and restrooms. We board high-speed elevators and within moments we’re treated to unobstructed views of the wild cascades of Niagara Falls and the furious whitewater below.

Niagara Falls tour

Tour boats from both the American and Canadian side of Niagara Falls bring visitors close to the Falls. Photo Anne Weaver.

The Maid of the Mist boat ride, which U.S. News and World Report lists as its #1 Niagara Falls attraction, takes visitors to the base of mighty Horseshoe Falls for an up-close look. We don complimentary souvenir plastic rain ponchos and the double-decker boat motors away from the relatively calm waters at the dock below the Observation Deck and Rainbow Bridge. We line up along the boat’s railings, feeling the mist and mesmerized by the rapidly flowing water of American and Bridal Veil Falls. The mist thickens as the boat bucks through the increasingly wild whitewater. As we approach monstrous Horseshoe Falls and the massive rock formations, the roar is deafening and the mist falls on us like a torrent. We return to shore thoroughly soaked and giddy with newfound appreciation of the power and grandeur of Niagara Falls.

Niagara Falls Cave tourism

Visitors feel the power of Niagara Falls on the Cave of the Winds tour. Photo Niagara USA.

Now we’re ready to experience the falls with the Cave of the Wind Tour that allows visitors to actually walk right next to the falls. We don new rain ponchos and rubber sandals and step onto a series of redwood wooden staircases and platforms between the American and Canadian Falls. Amazingly, the Parks Department builds and then removes this intricate series of decks and stairs each year. The noise and the power of the rushing water are deafening. From the base of American Falls, we follow the decks and platforms right up to the base of the Bridal Veil Falls. Water crashes all around us and flows beneath the decking. It’s a total rush.

Niagara Falls tourism

Niagara Falls lit up at night makes for dramatic images. Photo Niagara USA.

It’s getting dark by the time we finish our Cave of the Winds tour so exploring the aquarium and hiking the park’s trails will have to wait for another visit. However, as we walk towards our car, we’re thrilled to see that the falls are beautifully lit up and sparkle with multi-colored lights. It’s the perfect end to a first timer’s trip to one of America’s most amazing natural wonders—awe-inspiring Niagara Falls. —Story by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor; Photos by Anne Weaver, RFT Editor


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Bobbie Hasselbring

RFT founder and the website's former editor-in-chief, Bobbie Hasselbring has been a travel junkie her entire life. She's been an award-winning writer and editor for more than 25 years and author of the regional food-travel bestsellers, The Chocolate Lover’s Guide to the Pacific Northwest and The Chocolate Lover’s Guide Cookbook.