Niagara Falls is a five hour drive from central Ohio, but it never occurred to us to make the trip until friends of ours came all the way from London to go there. Attractions in your own backyard never have the allure of distant ones, so sometimes it takes the enthusiasm of outsiders to give that extra push.
As immigrants, my parents have always had an outsider’s appreciation for the natural wonders of the United States. So I grew up with the great American summer road trip – a tradition which until this summer I had not passed down to my own children. Car rides and motion sensitivity are a poor combination, especially when I’m constantly turning back to address the needs of a car full of kids.
But I loved the experience. No theme parks or electronics, just the dazzling awesomeness of nature. And the kids loved the natural water fun inherent in any trip to Niagara Falls.
Great waterfalls have a combination of height, width and volume. Niagara Falls are not so much tall as wide, but the real stunner is their power. While some waterfalls slow to a dribble in dry season, Niagara thunders year round. Niagara may be outranked by the more massive Iguazu Falls, on the border of Brazil and Argentina, or the dramatic gorges of Victoria Falls, on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia. But at only 25 miles from the Buffalo airport and 75 miles from Toronto, Niagara wins on accessibility, making it one of the most visited tourist attractions in the world.
Niagara River runs north
The five Great Lakes contain 21 percent of the world’s surface freshwater, an enormous volume that works its way eastward from Lakes Superior over to Lakes Michigan and Huron, then down to Lake Erie, then north up the Niagara River, dropping nearly 170 feet over Niagara Falls on its way to Lake Ontario. From there it continues east again out the St Lawrence seaway to the Atlantic Ocean.
The impact of Niagara Falls comes from a narrowing of the Niagara River, which squeezes into a bottleneck just before the sudden drop. The bottleneck is made even smaller by Brother Island in the center of the river, which separates the American falls on the east side of the island from the Canadian falls on the west.
Canada has the better half
I always thought of Niagara Falls as an American attraction, but really the more spectacular falls and view are on the Canadian side. Only 10 percent of the river’s water flows over the American side – American Falls plus the small, adjoining Bridal Veil Falls. The remaining 90 percent is thrust over Canada’s stunning, semicircular Horseshoe Falls.
The volume of water, and its force, dissolve 60 tons of minerals per minute (a ton a second!), giving the water its distinctive green color. Due to water diversion, the power of the water is somewhat less than it used to be. Though with erosion of three feet per year, Niagara is still among the fastest-moving falls in the world.
Twin towns of Niagara Falls
The Niagara Gorge divides the twin towns of Niagara Falls, New York and Niagara Falls, Ontario, a narrow stretch of the Niagara River’s run from Lake Erie up to Lake Ontario. Niagara on the American side is mostly preserved as a state park, with some aging hotels and souvenir shops. The Canadian side is packed like the Vegas strip with hotels, casinos, chain restaurants and campy tourist attractions. But it’s a lovely walk along the wide pedestrian walkway of Queen Victoria Park to witness the deep green rushing water and misty rainbows of Horseshoe Falls.
To passport or not
You can see Niagara Falls without going to Canada, but the better view is from the Canadian side. From the New York State Park, you will get a side view of the American falls and a distant view of the Canadian falls. But from the Canadian side you will get a direct view of both falls, plus the incomparable I-can-almost-touch-it experience of standing above the sharp edge of Horseshoe Falls.
Americans can get a passport card, valid for travel to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda, for less than half the cost of a regular passport ($55 for adults and $40 for minors, vs full passport fees of $135 and $105).
Note that the rules on passports are much stricter post-9/11. The passport photo has to be just so – size and position of head in photo, white background, no hats, sunglasses, etc. I worried for four weeks that my four-year-old’s application would be rejected due to the giant flower hair clip she wore for her photo. But fortunately we squeaked by.
Investing in a passport is great incentive to use it again. Leaving the country, even to as kindred a land as Canada, is always an illuminating cultural experience.
Gorgeous, clean and uncrowded, Canada is in many places like a pristine version of the United States. And Canadians are a lovely people – friendly, polite, modest and exceedingly pleasant. There are places in the world where America’s stars and stripes are not welcomed, but the maple leaf of Canada engenders no hostility.
But unless you are going to ski, visiting Canada is best done in the warmer months. Much of the fun for us at Niagara Falls involved getting wet, which was no problem in hot weather but would have been less fun in cold.
We traveled with our friends who came to Ohio last summer from London, the friends whose four kids match ours, age for age, boy for boy, girl for girl. Last summer we played it safe at home, venturing out mostly just for Jeni’s ice cream. But this summer we tagged along on their plans to visit New York’s Finger Lakes, followed by Niagara Falls.
We snacked on some appetizer-sized waterfalls as we hiked around Ithaca, New York, “gorges” as advertised. The hike at Robert Treman State Park was as memorable for the cascading waterfalls as it was for the beautifully crafted stone steps and walkways.
Traveling with friends – let alone our combined dozen – requires a high level of compatibility. Improbably we have it, pair for pair.
We skipped the hike to peek at Taughannock Falls from the scenic overlook near the road – suprised to find that at 215 feet, these falls are the highest single-drop falls in New York state. The drop at Niagara’s American Falls is only about 165 feet.
But at Niagara we saw the volume difference. Niagara Falls may not be tall, but they are thunderous. This is the view from the elevated observation platform on the American side.
The classic activity at Niagara, in operation since the mid-19th century, is the Maid of the Mist boat ride, which passes along the American Falls and into the U-shaped bay of Horseshoe Falls. Launched in 1846 as a ferry service between the Canadian and American sides of the river, the Maid of the Mist was reworked as a tourist attraction when a suspension bridge spanning the gorge was completed two years later.
The Maid of the Mist operates from both sides of the river. But starting in 2014, the Canadian boat will be operated by Hornblower, which operates the Alcatraz ferry and cruises on San Francisco Bay and other locations.
Maid of the Mist operates late April/early May (depending on when the last of the Lake Erie ice melts) to October 24 yearly. Niagara highs average 80 degrees F in July, compared with mid-60s in May or high-50s in October.
Even with the body-length disposable ponchos provided, it’s a wet ride. The heavy spray of the waterfalls ranges from a light shower to a heavy downpour.
This boat is in the dry part of the ride. What looks like soft mist at Horseshoe Falls in the distance feels like water pellets when you are in it.
The second major attraction on the American side is the Cave of the Winds, not a cave at all but a wooden platform that is re-built every year below Bridal Veil Falls. Participants in this drenching tour get not only full-length ponchos but disposable sandals as well. (The sister attraction on the Canadian side is called Journey Behind the Falls.)
The adventure begins with an elevator down the cliff, followed by a walk through a dank, hand-hewn tunnel. Then it’s a stormy walk on the platform.
The highlight of the walk is the Hurricane Deck. Even a minor spray from the “small” falls of Bridal Veil carries the terrifying power of nature. The kids loved it even more than the Maid of the Mist.
It seems crazy that workers take apart this platform every fall and rebuild it again every spring. Hard to imagine how they build as they’re getting pummeled by hurricane-force wind and water.
In touring the Canadian side, we arrived just in time for the last of the day’s rainbows, seen here from the Queen Victoria Park walkway.
After their initial confusion by the directions on the binocular stations, the kids were amused to discover the gold-colored dollar coin in Canada is called a loonie, for the loon bird depicted on one side.
The emerald of Horseshoe Falls is striking. Pictures don’t convey the enormous volume of mist, the movement and the roaring sound of the in-person experience.
It’s hard to imagine anyone going over the edge of the falls – the surging water alone looks like it could crush a barrel. In 1901, 63-year-old Annie Edson Taylor was the first. The teacher from Michigan survived, bleeding, and said, “No one ought ever do that again.”
Fourteen have, since, not all of them as lucky as Taylor. Survivors face charges and fines, as going over the falls is outlawed in both countries. Though you’d think going over the falls would be punishment and deterrent enough.
Lighting of Niagara Falls was first attempted in 1860 for a visit by the Prince of Wales, using various types of fireworks. Electric lighting was introduced in 1879, but the falls were lit only intermittently until the Niagara Falls Illumination Board was founded in 1925.
Now the falls are lit nightly, with high-powered lights projecting across the river to illuminate the falls. The kids were disappointed to miss out on fireworks, which are launched over the falls on certain weekend nights and holidays.
The lights went on at 9 p.m., first white, then rotating colors. The illumination was fun, but it seemed like such a minor trick of man compared to Mother Nature’s show of real force in the falls themselves.
Niagara Falls is a far finer sight to see than place to stay. The New York side is run down; the Ontario side is hyper-touristy. My Canadian friends all recommended staying in Niagara-on-the-Lake, a picturesque town on Lake Ontario just 25 minutes away in Ontario’s wine country.
The town of Niagara-on-the-Lake is scenic and has a great park for kids to play. But like Napa or Sonoma it’s more of an adults getaway, with quiet, upscale eateries that don’t easily fit a dinner group of four adults with eight kids. But it was nice to have a relaxing day before heading back to tourist central to see the illuminated falls at night.
My only recommendation for eating near the falls on the Ontario side is Napoli Ristorante (5485 Ferry Street), a family-owned restaurant serving excellent Italian food. Our group of eight kids was a restaurant’s worst nightmare – too many cheap, messy, noisy eaters – but they were very accommodating, and the unassuming corner restaurant was a delicious oasis in a sea of overpriced, neon-glaring tourist traps.
And if you are driving across the border, make sure you check current wait times for US-Canada bridges, updated real-time by the Canada Border Services Agency. No commercial traffic is allowed on Rainbow Bridge, which connects the towns of Niagara Falls across the gorge. Also nearby are the Queenston-Lewiston Bridge to the north and the Peace Bridge to the south.