Say “Niagara Falls” and thoughts instantly turn to the massive, majestic natural wonder that is one of the world’s most famous waterfalls.
But, Niagara Falls is actually a region with three waterfalls – one in Canada and two in the United States – and two cities, all falling under the Niagara Falls title.
Niagara Falls – United States
Located along the Niagara River, which separates Canada and the U.S., Niagara Falls, NY is the quieter, less-touristy of the two cities bearing the same name. The United States side of Niagara Falls is home to the oldest state park, Niagara Falls State Park, which opened in 1885 and was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted who also designed Central Park in New York. The park is over 400 acres and is open 365 days a year, 24-hours a day.
The two falls on the United States side are American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls. American Falls is approximately 70 to 110 feet (21–34 m). The smaller Bridal Veil Falls is located just to the right of American Falls, separated from Luna Island.
Niagara Falls – Canada
Across the river in Ontario, Canada’s Niagara Falls is a larger city and feels a bit Vegas-like, with big hotels, casinos, attractions, and many, many tourists.
Horseshoe Falls, which is also called Canadian Falls, is the largest of the three waterfalls, with approximately 90% of the water from the Niagara River flowing over Horseshoe Falls.
A bit of Niagara Falls history
About 12,000 years ago, water from melting glaciers made its way through the Niagara peninsula forming what is now Lake Erie and the Niagara River. Along the river’s path, the water ran over a cliff forming the falls. Then, as now, the swirling waters below created a whirlpool and then flow toward Lake Ontario.
In 1678, a French priest, Father Louis Hennepin, viewed the falls on an expedition with Robert de La Salle and was the first to describe Niagara Falls in his book, A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America, which was published in French in 1697 and in English in 1698.
Hennepin wrote: “This great deluge of water tumbling furiously over the greatest and most dreadful Leap in the World…” and also included illustrations to accompany his description in the book.
When Hennepin viewed the falls in 1678, he would have been standing further down the river, as the falls erode each year. Prior to the introduction of hydro-power generation and diversion of water upstream, the erosion of the falls was over 3 feet per year. The current rate of erosion is about 1 foot per year.
Scientists believe the American Falls could dry up in around 2,000 years and Horseshoe falls will continue to travel back around 4 miles over the next 15,000 years and eventually could become a series of rapids.
Visiting Niagara Falls today
Today, each year over 14 million visitors travel to the region to enjoy the beauty of one of the world’s most amazing natural wonders.
For our visit, we took a Via Rail train from Toronto to Burlington for about an hour, then switched to a waiting bus for the remaining hour. The bus dropped us at a parking lot about a mile away from Horseshoe Falls. We walked to our hotel in lieu of calling an Uber or a cab.
Where we stayed
We selected the Embassy Suites on the Canadian side as it is closest to Horseshoe Falls and reserved a fallsview room for our stay. While many times we don’t pay the extra for a room with a view, watching the sunrise over the falls while drinking a cup of coffee in bed was well worth the extra expense.
The Marriott Falls was next door and also looked like a good option or there are dozens of other hotels within walking distance of Horseshoe Falls.
WeGo passes were included in the hotel’s resort fee and provided a good way to get from hotels to tourist areas if you choose not to walk. WeGo passes can also be purchased or are included in some of the attractions bulk options (i.e., three attractions plus a WeGo pass for a discounted price).
Behind the Embassy Suites, the Niagara Parks Incline Railway is a fast way to get to Table Rock Centre ($7/day at the time of our visit). The tram rises and descends along at a very slow pace along the inclined track.
Table Rock Welcome Centre
Table Rock Welcome Centre is located very near Horseshoe Falls and, in addition to attractions such as Journey Behind the Falls, Table Rock has restaurants, gift shops, a candy store, and an observation deck behind the building.
A walking path extends from Table Rock Centre along the water to the base of Clifton Hill, where the Hornblower Niagara Cruises depart. Clifton Hill is a popular tourist area of Niagra Falls with bars, restaurants, a wax museum, arcades, and other attractions.
Journeying to the Falls
Anyone that spends more than a few minutes researching Niagra Falls finds photos of people in rain ponchos on a boat headed to the falls – so, of course, we had to do that too. The Falls boat trips are not new – the boat tour experience is North America’s oldest attraction dating back to 1846.
Currently, there are two boat tour options – one from the Canada side, the Hornblower Niagara Cruises, and one from the American side, Maid of the Mist. As we were on the Canadian side and didn’t want to cross through customs to the U.S. side, the Hornblower Niagara Cruise was our cruise. You can tell the difference in photos of the boats by the color of rain ponchos – the blue ones are on Maid of the Mist and Hornblower has red.
Hornblower offers daytime trips lasting 20 minutes and a 40 minute Fall Illumination Cruise each evening. The falls are illuminated at dusk each evening in an array of colors.
In addition to the Falls Illumination, in June, July and August there are fireworks each night at 10 p.m. and each evening of Labor Day weekend.
We donned our ponchos, waited in line for 20 minutes or so, boarded the boat at 9:15 pm, and set sail at 9:30 pm. It was windy and wet before we even left the dock. We slowly cruised past American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls providing a beautiful view, then picked up speed as we headed to Horseshoe Falls.
We turned around near the entry to Horseshoe Falls, not going as close to the falls as the daytime boats do, but still getting a good drenching from the heavy mist.
We got a second view of American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls as we returned and then, on schedule at 10:00 pm, the fireworks began over Horseshoe Falls.
After we docked and departed at 10:10 pm, we walked back to the Table Rock Centre taking in the sites along the way.
Exploring Niagara-on-the-Lake and the Wineries
Niagara-on-the-Lake is a charming village about 14 miles/22 kilometers from Niagara Falls with boutiques, inns, bed and breakfasts, and the second largest repertory theatre company in North America, The Shaw Festival.
The Niagara-on-the-Lake region is also home to over 80 wineries set amidst the picturesque countryside near Lake Ontario. We spent a day touring four wineries and the village of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Getting to the Buffalo airport from Canada
We left Niagara Falls on a Friday morning before a holiday weekend and expected to encounter heavy traffic. While Uber will book the ride across the border, the drivers will not take the ride, so someone from the Embassy Suites called a cab. The fare for the ride across the bridge/border and to the airport about 30 miles/48 kilometers was $110CAD, which included tolls.
We encountered no line at the border, answered a couple of questions from the backseat of the cab, then proceeded across the border. It was very efficient compared to when we’d traveled across the border from Vancouver to Seattle by bus a month earlier. On the bus, we were required to disembark, gather all of our belongings, fill out a form (even though we have Global Entry), go through bag screening, and answer questions before returning to the same bus to continue.
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