Niagra Falls: A Natural Wonder
By Adam B. Widmer
Pics by Adam B. Widmer
Has been a tourist destination for nearly two hundred years, and as a result the controlled landscape around the falls has been sculpted, belittled, and changed many times over. In fact, in the mid-late nineteenth century wealthy Europeans began visiting the falls in large numbers and were appalled at the way the area was being managed. Or, more accurately, the utter lack of management.
The cliffs all around this awe-inspiring wonder had been carved up and held firmly by private owners for years. Each one charging separate entrance fees and modifying the land in whatever way they saw fit. At the nearest train station, hucksters and carnival barkers were employed to hound passengers from the platform, promising free transportation, low prices, and the best view of the falls.
As disparaging accounts from foreign travelers began appearing in the press, the conditions around Niagara Falls were viewed as a national embarrassment for the United States. This, in part, helped to galvanize support for a system of National Parks and, eventually, the consolidation and protection of property along the Niagara River.
These days, the falls themselves and the areas immediately along the cliffs of the Niagara Gorge are protected by parks: Queen Victoria Park on the Canadian side and a cluster of New York State Parks on the American side, joined by the Rainbow Bridge, easily the most beautiful border crossing in the U.S.
That being said: Bring Your Passport.
If you don’t have one, it’s easy to get. They take awhile to come along in the mail, but they’re viable for years and the cost over time is somewhere around $10-15 per year. That’s pretty damn cheap for the ability to easily leave and re-enter the country at a moment’s notice, and I firmly believe every American should have one. As a bonus, your passport serves as a near universally accepted form of photo ID throughout the United States.
Beyond all of these reasons to acquire a passport, when you visit Niagara Falls, you will absolutely want to experience it from both sides of the border. The crossing is easy, and, though Rainbow Bridge is essentially the only place to cross, I’ve never waited more than fifteen minutes at the border gate.
Each side has its charms, and nothing should be missed.
The American Side
In theory, the New York side of the falls is more “natural,” or at least it’s supposed to be. All this means in reality is that there are trees and grass instead of tall, obnoxious buildings immediately along the cliffside. Niagara Falls State Park curves along the shoreline, both upstream and downstream of the falls, and includes Goat Island, which is situated between the massive Horseshoe Falls, and the tandem Bridal Veil Falls and American Falls. Now, Niagara Falls State Park is beautiful, gorgeous in fact, but I wouldn’t call it natural. It follows the pleasing aesthetics typically displayed by 20th century landscape architecture, offering lovely walking paths leading to perfect overlooks through a mixture of native and non-native species.
This is in no way meant to discount the American side of the falls, it is without a doubt a must-see and the park is incredible. It is here where you can get closer to each of the three falls than anywhere else on the rim of the gorge. An afternoon can easily be whiled away by wandering the different paths through dense trees and open fields as you make your way between the vistas. You’ll have the opportunity to admire each of the falls from multiple viewpoints, from island to island, and in different phases of sunlight. Walking upstream from the falls you find yourself in a much less crowded section of the park, where one can relax on the shoreline. Toes in the chilly water, pondering the immense power brought by all this water, eyes peeled for local wildlife.
The New York side also boasts two of the most astonishing and iconic attractions at Niagara: the Maid of the Mist, and the Cave of the Winds. Both are actually contained within the state park, and if it can be afforded, both should absolutely be on your Niagara to-do list. They may be touristy, but in truth, hitting both of these in the same afternoon made for one of the most amazing days I’ve experienced in all my years of travel.
The Cave of the Winds tour starts out on Goat Island at the rim of the gorge. Tickets can either be purchased online beforehand, or right there at a ticket window same-day. You’ll be given a rain poncho and, if memory serves, a pair of flip flops. Wear them! This is a very wet adventure. You absolutely want to wear whatever they give you and secure/waterproof any electronics before you get in line. Resist the urge to bring an expensive camera all the way up to the falls, it could be disastrous. Honestly, I recommend just leaving that stuff in the car, the moments of experience you capture there will stick in your memory far better anyway.
Originally, the Cave of the Winds was an actual cave. In 1841, private owners began escorting tours down a staircase and into Aeolus’ Cave (named for the Greek god of wind) which led visitors behind Bridal Veil Falls. A series of rockfalls eventually obliterated the cave, and starting in 1924 tours were led to the front of Bridal Veil Falls. Far from a disappointment, the forward approach to the falls is likely even more incredible due to the context provided by the surrounding cliffs and the views of the river and American Falls.
Today, you’ll head down through the rock in an elevator, walk down a tunnel, and pop out at the bottom of the staggering Niagara Gorge. A series of redwood decks and staircases leads you right up to the base of Bridal Veil Falls, where you can quite literally stand beneath the falling water and let it wash over you in a freezing, joyful, raucous chaos of punishing bucketfuls. You will never feel closer to the falls, and despite the “rain protection” you will get wet.
The Maid of the Mist is less physically intense, but just as spectacular.
Located on Prospect Point, the Maid of the Mist boat tour utilizes an elevator within the Niagara Falls Observation Tower to get down to the water. Tickets can be purchased at a number of area establishments, as well as onsite and online.
If you know anything about Niagara, you’ve likely heard of the Maid of the Mist. When you board the ferry-sized vessel, you’ll realize just how popular this attraction is. Try to get on early so you can grab a spot right against the railing. Slowly the boat chugs away from the dock and plows its way upstream, passing by American and Bridal Veil Falls to give you an unparalleled view. Then it’s onto the real destination at the base of Horseshoe Falls.
Personnel on the bridge adjust the engines as the boat makes its approach, and they come into an uneasy equilibrium with the water, fighting a raging current to maintain a stationary position. Everyone onboard is shrouded in the misty, foggy roar. Lost in the termination of such immense power. The water beneath foams and churns between invisible boulders, bubbling to the surface as a white froth.
After what seems like an eternity, the engines back off and the current takes over, pushing the great vessel back downstream where the pilots take over and steer her back to the dock. The passengers stare in awe at the receding glory of Horseshoe Falls and wonder how those moments could possibly have ended.
Unfortunately, both of these attractions are only open during peak season. The falls are just north of Buffalo, NY and it’s really cold in the winter. In fact, when autumn hits, the entire collection of redwood deckworks at the Cave of the Winds is disassembled and removed due to potential damage from ice and freezing temperatures. So, if you’re planning to arrive after the summer season is over, these options won’t be available.But don’t worry! There’s still plenty to see.
Our first visit to the falls was actually in November, and we had a fantastic time.
You didn’t hear it from me, (and you really shouldn’t do this because it’s definitely illegal and quite dangerous) but if one were to time it just right, arriving late at night in the offseason, there is a certain place just north of American Falls, where one could climb over a small railing on the walkway, creep down to the shore, and stand atop a large rock in the river, just a meter or so from the brink of the falls. Closing their eyes, feeling the tremendous vibration of cascading water, and maybe even sharing a kiss with the person they love most.
One could also slip, be washed over the falls, and die. This doesn’t always happen, but it easily can, surely has, and is doubtless the reason why such railings exist along the walkways.
Just a thought.
The Canadian Side
There is surely more than enough to be seen on the American side of the falls to make for a satisfying trip, and if you’re unable for some reason to acquire a passport by all means do this. If there is any way for you to legally cross the international boundary, however, don’t miss your chance.
As stated previously, the American side is perceived as more “natural” than the Canadian side, and though the truth of this claim is debatable, the view from the New York side seems to bolster the idea. You’ll see several very large hotels, a series of brightly lit, vibrant streets, and even a gigantic ferris wheel. If you’ve ever been to the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, Niagara Falls, Ontario is a lot like Gatlinburg.
There’s a vast number of kitschy restaurants, a Ripley’s Museum, laser tag, glow-in-the-dark miniature golf, massive hotels overlooking the falls, a criminal’s hall of fame, and of course, Tim Horton’s. All of it lined in glorious, buzzing neon and LED lights. None of it immediately along the gorge, however.
There are two main reasons for visiting the Canadian side of Niagara. The first, and perhaps less important reason, is lodging.
For whatever reason, lodging in the United States is absurdly expensive. When we took our first trip up here it was late November, solidly in the offseason, and the cheapest podunk room we could find in a city full of empty hotels on the New York side was $55-60. A brief search of Niagara Falls, Ontario and we landed a decent room within 2 miles of the falls for $27 USD.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve travelled all over the U.S. and I’ve never paid so little for a private hotel room. Sure, it wasn’t exactly nice, but it was far from the worst hotel I’ve ever had. I once stayed in a $55 per night room in Chicago with fresh vomit on the carpet. And that was ten years ago.
So yeah, this place was actually pretty good. Even had a few gas grills outside so we could make our own dinner. We came back to the same hotel during peak season the following year and only paid $35USD per night.
The second biggest reason to visit the Canadian side is the view
On the U.S. side of the border, you get up close and personal with all three waterfalls. Although the largest of them, Horseshoe Falls, is pretty much entirely within the boundaries of Canada, there’s only one point on the walkway where you can get anywhere near the brink.
But Canada benefits from this juxtaposition.
When you look across the gorge from the New York side, all you see is the gorge wall and and a group of hotels and tourist traps. When you look out from the Canadian side, the hotels and tourist traps are behind you, out of sight, and what you see across the gorge is three astounding waterfalls surrounded by beautiful greenspace. Queen Victoria Park has kept all the unsightly consumerism nicely out of sight from the cliffside.
A broad stone walkway will lead you along the rim and you’ll be treated to one of the best views of the falls that can possibly be had. The absolute best in the offseason. All three falls will be laid out before you, filling the air with roaring thunder and a chilled mist.
At night, the water shines with color.
It’s artificial, and, sure, a bit offensive. After all, wouldn’t it still be beautiful in the moonlight? And I surely would be offended if the once-proposed lights were currently shining nightly on the falls in Yosemite Valley. However, given the current level of commercialism already in existence around Niagara, I’m not really bothered by the changing multicolored spotlights illuminating the water. In fact, it’s made them gorgeous even on a moonless night.
If you make it all the way to the north end of Queen Victoria Park, especially at night, hang a left and find your way to the Niagara SkyWheel. It’s expensive for a ferris wheel ride, but just like everything else on the Canadian side, the view is worth the trip.
Away from the Tourism
As I said earlier, Niagara has been one of the western world’s travel destinations for at least two centuries, so finding somewhere nearby to unwind away from all the tourism (and more importantly the tourists that come with it) is both important and slightly difficult.
If you’re looking to get away from the crowds, you’re in luck. There are a handful of hiking and walking trails along the gorge but away from the falls, and the majority of visitors have no idea they even exist. This means that even on a sunny day in peak season, you might only see one or two other people.
A bit of Googling and you’ll easily find a few options, but I can recommend both the Ongiara Trail and the Whirlpool Rapids Trail. Both are on the New York side, well under 4 miles roundtrip, and either one will eventually bring you to the Whirlpool: a spectacularly large vortex of water trapped in a corner where the river makes a 90 degree turn.
Hiking down into the gorge is well worth it. The trek is fairly laid back and the reward is a view of the Niagara gorge most travellers will never see, most of them won’t even know it’s there. Any place that has been a travel destination for this long is unfortunately bound to be covered in graffiti, and this trail is no exception. Something within human beings leads us to think that “all this natural wonder is missing is my mark,” which is a bit tragic, but it does occasionally result in an amusing picture.
When standing on the rocks at the bottom of the gorge, you can feel the rapids shaking the rocks and vibrating up through your feet as you look out on the whirlpool. Down here is a great place for a picnic lunch, watching the Whirlpool Aero Car pass by on its cables overhead. The passengers onboard will wave to you, and you’ll wave back as they wonder how the hell you got down there.
- Okay, so… Is Niagara Falls a tourist trap? Yes.
- Is it a bit overstated in the American imagination? Absolutely.
But aside from these things, Niagara Falls is a stunning beauty. It is a natural wonder, with only a handful of rivals around the world. It is an absolute must for anyone who wants to truly explore the United States. It’s also a wonderful jumping off point for a trip into Canada.
And, if you live anywhere east of the Mississippi, Niagra Falls is not as far away as you might think!