Niagara Falls has changed a lot since it was first documented by westerners in 1678. It was bought up by private hands and harnessed for hydroelectric power. It became the country’s first and most popular state park as notable citizens like Frederick Law Olmsted push for its protection. And it attracted more and more tourists (presently an estimated 30 million per year) supporting all number of enterprises and buildings surrounding the falls. But the one thing that has never changed is its power to drop the jaws when people take in its unbelievable immensity and power.
There is no doubt the falls are the most built-up, touristy, non-natural park I’ve been to. But, in my opinion, Niagara Falls’ breathtaking views, place in American lore, and sheer notoriety put it in the same class as the Grand Canyon. So even though it is only a New York state park, we couldn’t pass it up on our drive to Maine. I just wish I had read this post of Niagara Falls tips before we went.
1. Parking – Parking in the state park itself (right outside the visitor’s center) is $10. For a stop-in at the falls, you could probably just feed the meter in the town of Niagara Falls that surrounds the falls. If you have the luxury of more time and are buying the Discovery Pass (more on that later), park at the Aquarium of Niagara for free and take the park’s shuttle to the visitors center.
SWITCHBACK TIP: Park at the huge, gaudy 10-story-ish building that you see before the visitor center. Parking is a better deal there at $5 as long as you can ignore the overpriced tour packages and walk the 50 extra yards straight through the building to the visitors center. We happened to stumble into this lot and it worked great.
2. Attractions – Once at the visitors center, you have a lot of different options to “experience” the falls. Now, you can just walk over to the edge of the falls and get some decent views for free. But, since we were excited for our first time at the falls, we were looking for a more immersive visit. And of course anything extra isn’t cheap. Here are the options along with our experiences:
- Maid of the Mist ($17, 25 minutes). This boat ride took you in front of the 3 falls – the pounding American Falls, the small Bridal Veil Falls next door and the massive and iconic Horseshoe Falls. It was incredible to see the falls from below, watch the thousands of seagulls swirl around you, get soaked by the mist and hear the wind whipping the provided cheap plastic ponchos.
- Cave of the Winds ($14, self-paced but budget 30 minutes). The walk to the base of the American Falls is deceptively named because the cave behind the falls has been closed to tourists for decades due to rock falls. We didn’t realize this. But you can watch the water cascading into the gorge right beside you, stick your foot in the waterfall (like I did) and get drenched on “Hurricane Deck” where you come about 10 feet from the main water plume.
- Adventure Theater ($12, 30 minutes). A film about the historical events and characters of the falls. The stories were interesting, but I wouldn’t pay $12 for it.
- Niagara Gorge Discovery Center ($3, ? minutes). This was closed for the season when we visited. It looked like it was really meant for kids, so we didn’t mind missing it.
- Aquarium of Niagara ($11, 2-3 hours). Compared to other aquariums I’ve been to, this one was very small. But the programs (shark feeding, sea lion show, seal demonstration) were very fun and the tanks and exhibits were interesting. We definitely enjoyed it and we’re glad the size wasn’t overwhelming, but you usually don’t come to Niagara to see fish. Unless you have kids or you really love aquariums, it’s skippable.
Now here’s the trap… You can get tickets to all five of the attractions above, plus shuttle access for a day if you purchase the Discovery Pass ($38, an advertised saving of 35%!!!). I really wanted to do was Maid of the Mist and Elizabeth favored Cave of the Winds. But combined those are $31, so you might as well get the pass and do the other stuff too. The prices were all perfectly calculated to lead you to the pass. So after a lengthy discussion we decided to go “all out” at Niagara since we may never be back, and we got the pass.
SWITCHBACK TIP: Don’t get the pass! The Maid of the Mist was by far our favorite, so just do that. Instead of the movie, read the free exhibits in the lower level of the visitors center and you’ll get the interesting stories of the Niagara characters and more. Instead of the Cave of the Winds, consider the Add-on Option under our Canadian Views tip below. And instead of the Aquarium, go have a nice seafood dinner with the money you saved!
3. Attire – If you do either Maid of the Mist or Cave of the Winds you will get drenched (if you’re doing it right ;)). The little poncho they gave us didn’t really do anything, but still wear it.
SWITCHBACK TIP: Then wear a rain jacket underneath. Quick drying pants are really useful (not jeans like Elizabeth!) and shorts are even better if it’s warm. Cave of the Winds provides sandals, but for Maid of the Mist wear shoes that can get soaked and take off your socks. Sandals are even better. The day we were there was very windy even for Niagara standards according to the worker I asked. Maybe you have mist flying everywhere on a regular day. But either way, the windy observation deck back at the top of the falls is a great place to dry out really fast while taking in an amazing view.
4. Canadian Views – We had heard the views of Niagara from the Canadian side were best. When we got there we immediately realized why. The American Falls – that the state park is based around – directly face the Canadian side of Niagara Gorge. So the best you can see from America is a side view from the observation deck. And the iconic Horseshoe Falls that you picture as Niagara are far away and the American overlook was under construction when we went.
SWITCHBACK TIP: Bring your passport and cross Rainbow Bridge into Canada ($3.50 toll) for jaw-dropping, full-picture views. The only problem is we didn’t know where to park. We weren’t going to pay $5 for 30 minutes at the meter in front of the police station or $15 for the lot when we didn’t have Canadian money. So we took turns sitting in the car at the meter while the other person went to the overlooks. Not ideal, but it worked for a short look. This is where I really felt mesmerized by the beauty of the falls. I could’ve stayed there for a couple hours of it wasn’t getting dark (and if Elizabeth wasn’t waiting in the car!). Add-on Option: Buy tickets for Journey Behind the Falls ($16.75 USD for adults) on the Canadian side. It lets you not only go up within feet of the base of massive Horseshoe Falls similar to Cave of the Winds, but go behind them as well.
5. Camping – There is no camping at Niagara Falls State Park, but we couldn’t afford an expensive hotel in the city.
SWITCHBACK TIP: Not many state parks in the area offer camping either, except Four Mile Creek State Park. This park was about 24 minutes away and appeared to be the designated state campground for the area with hundreds of sites. When we went rates were $25 a night. And there were showers!
6. Time of Year – Consider your timing. Summer is much more crowded, but much warmer. Winter is possible if you want to see the biggest icicles of your life.
SWITCHBACK TIP: We went in the fall with less crowds, and unknowingly made it on the last day the Cave of the Winds tour and Discovery Pass were offered for the season (late October).
Just remember… no matter how you experience Niagara Falls, you really can’t go wrong.
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