There are two ways to experience Niagara Falls: the American way, and the Canadian way. The American way involves visiting Niagara Falls State Park, an area that’s quite literally in the middle of the falls, and devoid of commercial development. The Canadian way involves walking down a long, crowded, commercially developed promenade, and gazing across the Niagara River at the falling water. Clearly, the American side offers the better alternative, right?
Well, I love America, but I’m going to say something very un-American. If you have your passport, you should head directly for the Canadian side — especially if your time at the falls is limited.
If you have enough time to see both sides, or if you don’t have the documentation necessary to cross the border, the American side will do just fine. If you want to jump ahead and see what the Canadian side offers, go right ahead. But, if you do decide to hang out on the south side of the border, keep reading.
Let’s begin with a geography lesson. There are two sets of waterfalls at Niagara Falls. The American Falls lie entirely within the USA, while Horseshoe Falls is almost entirely within Canada. The two are separated by Goat Island, which is occupied by Niagara Falls State Park. Above, you see the view of Horseshoe Falls from the southwestern end of Goat Island. The buildings you see in the mist are some of the casinos and hotels on the Canadian side. That boat, on the river below, is one of the Maid of the Mist cruises, which depart from the American side.
This picture begins to illustrate the problem with a visit to the falls in the state park. Here, you’re standing at the brink of the falls, and you don’t get a great view.
Backing up a bit (and climbing slightly uphill, towards the main parking area), you get a slightly better view of Horseshoe Falls.
It’s a great panorama, but still, from here you’re getting a better view of Canada than of the falls.
Head back to the main visitor area, then a bit further north, and you’re at the American falls. This waterfall is separated into two parts by Luna Island. Bridal Veil Falls is the smaller cascade, between Luna and Goat Islands.
A small footbridge takes you across to Luna Island, for a different perspective on Bridal Veil Falls.
From here, you also get a good perspective on two other ways to experience the falls. The first is Cave of the Winds, where an elevator takes you down to the bottom of Bridal Veil, then wooden decks allow you to walk out to within 20 feet of the base of the falls.
The other American way to see the falls is to venture out onto the Observation Tower. Looking like a bridge to Canada that was never completed, this walkway juts out over the river, allowing you to look back on the American Falls. There is also an elevator to the base of the Observation Tower, where you can board the Maid of the Mist boats, or simply view the falls from a lower angle. (You can also board the Maid of the Mist boats from the Canadian side.)
Okay, I’ll admit it. The Maid of the Mist, the Observation Tower, the Cave of the Winds — those are pretty cool ways to experience the falls from the American side. Maybe I was too hard on the good ol’ USA earlier. My only quibble is that these options are expensive. First, you’ll pay $10 to park in the state park. Then, the Cave of the Winds will cost you $11 (children 6-12, $8). Finally, the Maid of the Mist demands $13.50 (children 6-12, $7.85).
The only price I won’t grumble about is the Observation Tower, which is actually quite reasonable (although I didn’t know it at the time, and I didn’t even bother checking on the price, since I assumed it would be too pricey). Admission to the viewing deck is only $1, and it’s free from November 1 to April 1. This price does not include elevator access, though. (By the way, these are all 2011 prices, for updates, check here.)
If you do decide to walk up to the Observation Tower, you’ll cross over the Niagara River on a footbridge, just above the brink of the American Falls. This is a good place to stop and appreciate the ferocity of the whitewater, and ponder what would motivate anyone to attempt a trip over the falls (in a barrel, or anything else).
From this northernmost viewing spot, you get a fairly good look at the American Falls. I’ve seen pictures taken here that show the falls at night, when they are illuminated by high-power spotlights that shine across from the Canadian side. Indeed, late evening might be the best time to view the falls from here. And if I had, maybe I would once again be reconsidering my harsh opinion of the American side of Niagara Falls.
Here’s the time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive from Buffalo to Niagara Falls, New York, then on into Canada via Rainbow Bridge: