Nearly everyone you talk to will tell you “the Canadian side is prettier!” when planning a visit to Niagara Falls , and that might be true. It’s been about 16 years since I was in the Canadian side of the Falls. However, the American side is quite majestic, and affords a view of both sides of the falls from Goat Island as well as a few exciting adventures.
First, this is one area where you can either do it yourself or take a pre-paid tour. If you love to walk, then doing it yourself is fine; Niagara Falls is a state park, so the costs can be minimized. There’s also a Discovery Pass for $30 that will get your into the main attractions, like the Maid of the Mist and Cave of the Winds. The boat trip and observation deck tickets are the significant expenses. If you take a tour, you get a talkative guide, a bus, and you don’t have to search for parking, but it costs more to go that route. We took Bedore Tours; they picked us up at the campgroun, were friendly and courteous, and really knew their way around.
Second, the American side is not as built-up as the Canadian side, and this is evidenced when you take one of the tours, look across the gorge or canyon to the Canadian side, and realize you’re staring at a place where you can’t walk 100 feet without passing a gift shop, parking lot, or hotel. That’s somewhat true of the American side as well, but the park areas around the falls are vast and unencumbered.
A few highlights of the falls area:
The Whirlpool Gorge, where a vortex of water forms after the falls and before continuing on as the mighty Niagara River. Class 6 rapids lead up to the whirlpool, making it an extremely dangerous area to access, though there is a path access by land. Private boats are not allowed here, but the power speedboat tours are– and they are mighty and quite a tour adventure themselves. There’s an air gondola ride from Canada that takes a trip across the whirlpool as well.
The next stop is Goat Island, where you can take a walk down to the Cave of the Winds, which is a man-made tunnel down to the American side of the falls. 90% of the water going over Niagara Falls flows over the Horseshoe Falls, and the other 10% go over the Bridal Veil Falls on the American side. In the Cave of the Winds tour, you wear a plastic garbage bag and sandals and walk down on wooden planks to have the falls “mist” you with up to 70 mph rainy winds.
The Horseshoe Falls is perhaps the best-known and most-visited part of the Falls area. The Horseshoe Falls are the quintessential Falls you see when you’re thinking “Niagara Falls.” They’re the ones people go over in a barrel or a kayak (and rarely survive). They are massive. They are impressive– even moreso when you realize that they represent only 50% of the total water heading to the Falls– the other 50% is taken out and used for hydro-electric power on both sides of the the U.S.-Canada border.
If the Horseshoe Falls are the quintessential Niagara Falls trip, the Maid of the Mist trip is the quintessence of how to visit them. If you’re on a budget, save your pennies for this part of the destination. You can take either the American or Canadian boat tours– either one will give you a wild ride that’s well worth the time and money. Canadian trip tickets are $14.50 (CDN), U.S. tickets are $12.50 (USD), and include the cost of the elevator ticket, which you could purchase separately for about $1 if you just wanted to tease yourself by going down to the dock and not getting on the boat. Trips start at 9 or 10, depending on the season, and end around dusk. Plan to get wet– you will.
The Observation Deck platform next to the falls juts out so you can view both the Bridal Veil Falls and Horseshoe at the same time and without getting wet. The park itself is open after dusk, and the falls are lighted at night into one terrific show until 11 PM.
Resources and Information:
Niagara Falls State Park and Discovery Pass: 716-278-1796. Pass is $30 adults, $23 kids 6-12.
Hurricane Deck at Cave of the Winds: $10/$7. Observation Tower: $1 adults.
Maid of the Mist : 716-284-8897. $12.50 adults/$7.30 kids. Reservations not required.
Bedore Tours: 1-800-538-8433. All-American Tour $69.95 adults/$49.95 kids. Reservations required.