It’s hard to comprehend the magnitude of Niagara Falls until you see it in person. Use our Niagara Falls Guide to make the most of your visit.
When we first left Massachusetts on June 1, 2019, our goal was to get to Alaska by June 21 for the Midnight Sun Baseball Game on the summer solstice. We had a few required stops on our journey west.
Stop Number 1: Niagara Falls.
I’ll be honest. Visiting Niagara Falls was all Dawn’s idea. The thought of driving our 27-foot fifth wheel over 5,000 miles to Fairbanks, Alaska in three weeks–when I’d never towed a trailer of any kind before–was daunting, to say the least. The planner in me wanted to hit the road and get to the Midwest as quickly as possible. But now we have to veer north to go look at a mega tourist attraction?
I wasn’t too excited about visiting the falls. Boy, was I wrong.
How did Niagara Falls get so awesome?
The water at Niagara Falls plummets over what’s called an escarpment, which is a steep (sometimes vertical) slope separating two relatively flat areas. Sometimes they’re formed by uneven erosion on the two sides. Sometimes they’re formed by shifting that occurs on a natural fault line.
The Niagara Escarpment was formed 12,000 years ago by uneven erosion and actually extends all the way from Wisconsin to New York, spanning the entire Great Lakes system (shown in red below).
The drop-off from one side of the escarpment to the other isn’t always as prominent as seen at Niagara Falls. The following image shows a section of the escarpment in Wisconsin. It can’t be more than 20 feet high, right?
In some sections it’s even shorter.
But at Niagara Falls the fall-off is massive as six million cubic feet of water plummet 167 feet every minute. That’s over 68 Olympic swimming pools worth of water!
We met an awesome park ranger who told us three amazing facts about Niagara Falls:
- Two hydroelectric dams restrict the amount of water that flows over the falls today. Before they were built, the flow rate was double.
- Approximately 20% of all drinking water in the United States goes over Niagara Falls.
- Over 90% of all fish that go over Niagara Falls survive!
As animal lovers, that third fact relieved us.
This is an awesome resource if you want more information on the geological history of the Great Lakes, the Niagara River, and Niagara Falls.
Map of Niagara Falls State Park
There are maps all over the park. Below, I snapped a photo of one.
Things to do in Niagara Falls
You made it all the way here. So, what are the best things to do in Niagara Falls? Let me highlight a few key points of interest.
First, the most obvious:
The Waterfalls at Niagara Falls
This is why you’re here. There are three different falls to behold at Niagara, listed below from biggest to, well, just less big:
- Horseshoe Falls
- American Falls
- Bridal Veil Falls
Horseshoe Falls is the iconic Niagara Falls that you probably came to see. As you overlook it from one of the many vantage points, you’ll see this is the falls where the passenger boats are ferrying people to get drenched in the mist (and yes, I mean drenched). It’s over 2,700 feet wide, and approximately 90% of the water that flows over Niagara Falls goes over Horseshoe Falls.
American Falls receives the vast majority of the remaining 10% that doesn’t go over Horseshoe Falls. It’s about 830 feet wide and ranges from 70-110 feet high.
Bridal Veil Falls is the teeny, tiny (comparatively) falls to the right of American Falls in the image above. It’s only 56 feet wide, less than one-twelfth as wide as American Falls, but boasts one of the coolest attractions at Niagara Falls: The Cave of the Winds. (More on that in a minute.)
Maid of the Mist
I was fully prepared for this to be underwhelming. I don’t know why I expected that. Maybe just the touristy-ness of it? I was wrong. So, let me describe the Maid of the Mist as best as I can:
Check out this 12-second clip I took on my phone while getting totally drenched by the falls.
They give you a cheap poncho to hold back most of the moisture, but there’s no two ways about it. You’re going to get wet. I made the mistake of wearing a heavy sweatshirt under my poncho. The added warmth was welcomed on a cool, partly cloudy June morning, but the heavy cotton sleeves ended up totally water-logged.
Pro Tip: Take the first trip of the day. The Maid of the Mist opens their ticketing gate at 8:30 am and the first boat leaves the dock at 9:00 am. We got there about 8:25 am and caught the first boat of the day. It was practically empty.
This is what most trips on the Maid of the Mist look like:
Our near-empty boat was on a Tuesday, not a weekend or a holiday, but it was amazing being able to wander wherever we wanted to get clear photos without having to work our way to the front of a crowded deck packed with people trying to do the same.
Admission is $19.25 for adults over 12 and $11.20 for kids 6-12.
North of all the falls (i.e. down river) is the Observation Deck, which extends out over the Niagara Gorge to give you a wide view of all three falls.
From the high-up vantage point there’s almost nothing you can’t see.
The Observation Deck costs $1.25 in-season, which is defined as when the Maid of the Mist is operating. It’s free all other times of the year. The hours of operation vary throughout both the year and the week, but generally it’s open from 8:30 am until 7:00 pm.
If you purchase tickets for the Maid of the Mist you actually access the boat via an elevator on the Observation Deck, so you won’t have to pay an additional $1.25 per person.
Cave of the Winds
If you want an up-close-and-wet experience, wander over to Cave of the Winds next to Bridal Veil Falls. Accessible from Goat Island, this tour takes you down to the aptly named Hurricane Deck.
Like Maid of the Mist, you’ll be outfitted with a poncho, but this time you also get souvenir sandals. Then you’ll venture down 175 feet to the slippery wooden deck where you’ll come face to face with the falls in hurricane conditions. That nice park ranger from before told us you’ll experience Category 3 winds, but I think it’s more like a tropical storm or Category 1. No matter. You’ll still be struck by the power of the falls.
The Cave of the Winds costs $19 for adults, $16 for children 6-12, and is free for children under six. Like the Maid of the Mist, Cave of the Winds doesn’t open until 9:00 am but it runs as late as 9:15 pm on weekends from mid-June to early-September.
Three Sisters Island
Located off Goat Island in the opposite direction of the falls is Three Sisters Island, which is a collection of three islands positioned right offshore in the rapids upstream of Horseshoe Falls.
The islands are a nice, easy stroll with some close-up views of the rapids. The path is much less crowded than the rest of the park and is a great place to sit in quiet contemplation. If you’re into observing the flora and fauna of the region, this is a great place to do it.
Rainbow Bridge to Canada
No trip to Niagara Falls is complete without venturing over to the Canadian side. To do that, take Rainbow Bridge.
Rainbow Bridge actually isn’t the first bridge to span the gorge. That honor belongs to Honeymoon Bridge, which collapsed in 1938 from an ice jam in the river.
You can cross Rainbow Bridge on foot ($1.00), by bicycle ($1.00), or by car ($3.75). Pedestrian and bicycle tolls are collected when leaving Canada for the United States. Car tolls are collected when leaving the United State for Canada.
Discovery Center and Aquarium
Located all the way downstream past Rainbow Bridge are the Discovery Center and Aquarium. The Discovery Center goes into detail about the history of the Niagara Gorge, including the hydro-electric dams that are powered by the rapids.
There are interactive displays, a rock climbing wall, and some cool fossils and geological samples to check out. It’s a fun time for people of all ages but especially appropriate for middle school kids who need to have their minds expanded!
Admission is only $3.00 for adults and $2.00 for children, making the Discovery Center one of the better values for curious tourists.
If you’re a lover of all things aquatic (and you probably are, seeing as you came all this way to look at water) then head over to the Aquarium of Niagara.
I’m a sucker for aquariums, good and bad. That said, I probably wouldn’t visit this aquarium unless it’s part of the Discovery Pass. It’s a little small without a ton of exhibits, but they do have seal and penguin shows. The seal pool is actually located in the middle of this two-story building, and you can watch the show from your second-story vantage point.
No matter how good an aquarium is, those shows are always fun.
Admission is $14.95 for adults, $10.95 for children 3-12, $12.95 for seniors 60-plus, and free for kids under three.
Parking at Niagara Falls
There are four parking lots to choose from:
Parking Lot 1 is located on Prospect Point (black box on the map above) at 332 Prospect St, Niagara Falls, NY 14303. There’s a $10 fee paid to an automated machine at the entrance to the lot. No RVs or buses in P1.
Parking Lot 2 is located on Goat Island (big island on the map above) near Cave of the Winds on the western/top part of the island. The address listed on this site says 24 Buffalo Ave, Niagara Falls, NY 14303, but that isn’t totally right. That takes you to the intersection of Buffalo Ave. and 1st St. which is where the American Rapids Bridge is located. You need to cross the vehicle bridge onto Goat Island before you can find the lot. It took me three passes around the block before I figured that out. Learn from my mistake. There’s a $10 fee for the day paid to an automated machine at the entrance to the lot. No RVs or buses in P2.
Parking Lot 3 is located on Goat Island as well (big island on the map above) near Three Sisters Island on the eastern/bottom part of the island. Like Parking Lot 2, the address is a little misleading, so see above. I did not need to pay parking admission when I parked here on either of the two days I visited Niagara Falls State Park. There is no automated payment system and no one collected a parking fee. P3 is RV and bus-friendly.
Parking Lot 4 is located near the Discovery Center and Aquarium of Niagara (top-right corner on the map above) at 244 Walnut Ave, Niagara Falls, NY 14303. It’s the furthest lot from any of the falls or main attractions in Niagara Falls State Park, so you’ll only want to park here if you’re planning to begin/end your day at the Discovery Center or aquarium or if every other lot is full. Parking is $5 for the day, $10 overnight, and $20 for RVs and buses. From October through April, parking is free. P4 is RV and bus-friendly.
RV Parking at Niagara Falls: If you drive a Class A RV, Class C RV, or have any kind of trailer in tow, you need to use either P3 or P4. I recommend using P3 for the best access to Niagara Falls State Park, and I didn’t have to pay a parking fee when I visited.
American vs Canadian side: Which is better?
If we’re talking strictly about views of the falls it’s the Canadian side, hands down. It isn’t America’s fault. It’s not like Canada did a better job serving the falls up to you. Mother Nature did that for them.
From the American side, you’re looking at the falls from the side. From the Canadian side, you see them head-on.
Like the American side’s Maid of the Mist and Cave of the Winds, the Canadian side has its own paid excursions as well: The Hornblower boat ride and Journey Behind the Falls. You can probably guess which is which.
Best time to visit Niagara Falls
Summer and early fall is the peak season for a reason: great weather. With temperatures in the 80s on most days, the cooling mist from the falls feels welcome.
I visited on June 2, 2019, and while that should have been a warm day, it was actually cooler and overcast. The mist was cold that day.
While Niagara Falls State Park is open year-round, not all of the activities are. The Maid of the Mist shuts down in September or October and doesn’t re-open until May.
I’d also recommend getting to the park early, especially if you want to view the falls up close from the Maid of the Mist or Hornblower, which you absolutely should. As mentioned above, the first trip of the day at 9:00 am is much less crowded than subsequent trips.
Where to eat in Niagara Falls
There are several dining options available both in the state park and the surrounding area, but may I recommend a more fun and economical idea: have a picnic!
Niagara Falls State Park is gorgeous, and there are plenty of spots to sit down and enjoy a homemade meal.
For example, here’s a bench overlooking the Canadian rapids.
Or how about this pristine, shaded field?
I’m sure these Canadian Geese would enjoy your company.
(Actually, on second thought, don’t eat near the geese.)
If dining out is more your speed, you have a few options.
Where to eat in Niagara Falls State Park
Top of the Falls Restaurant overlooks Horseshoe Falls and offers the most upscale dining experience in the park.
Prospect Point Cafe is located on the lower level of the Niagara Falls Visitor Center in Prospect Point and offers sandwiches, salads, pizza, and lighter snacks.
Prospect Point Grill is a step up from Prospect Point Cafe, offering hot sandwiches.
Cave of the Winds Snack Bar is located on Goat Island and offers sandwiches, fries, pizza, and ice cream.
Where to eat in Niagara Falls, NY, USA
Hard Rock Cafe (333 Prospect St, Niagara Falls, NY 14303) is right outside the park.
Mario’s Pizza (307 Prospect St, Niagara Falls, NY 14303) is near Hard Rock Cafe and offers authentic New York style pizza.
Third Street Retreat Eatery & Pub (250 Rainbow Blvd, Niagara Falls, NY 14303) is a little further down but offers typical pub fare, including some local craft beers. Don’t let the address fool you; it’s on the corner of 3rd and Rainbow Blvd.
Wine on Third (501 3rd St, Niagara Falls, NY 14303) is on 3rd St. as well but in the other direction. It’s a local, artsy wine bar with a good tapas menu and full-sized entrees.
Bella Vista Ristorante (7001 Buffalo Ave, Niagara Falls, NY 14304) is located in the Four Points by Sheraton and overlooks the Niagara Gorge. There’s an outdoor patio for days where the weather permits, and the views are as good as the food.
Where to eat in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada
Secret Garden (5827 Niagara Pkwy, Niagara Falls, ON L2G 3K9, Canada) is an outdoor patio area overlooking the falls. As you cross Rainbow Bridge into Canada, the restaurant is to the left about one block down. Their menu includes breakfast items, sandwiches, salads, pasta entrees, and even hearty dinner entrees like steak and Atlantic Salmon.
Massimo’s Italian Fallsview Restaurant (5875 Falls Ave Level A, Niagara Falls, ON L2G 3K7, Canada) is a block further away from the bridge than Secret Garden, and the menu is what you’d expect from an Italian restaurant. As the name states, you get a nice view of the falls.
Sweet Jesus Niagara (5875 Falls Ave, Niagara Falls, ON L2G 3K7, Canada) is the Niagara Falls location of this a must-stop ice cream chain.
Places to stay: Hotels in Niagara Falls
Red Coach Inn (2 Buffalo Ave, Niagara Falls, NY 14303) is a very cute and highly-rated option that doesn’t have the conventional hotel vibe. It’s right behind the Niagara Falls Visitor Center (the one outside the state park) and is in close proximity to everything.
Holiday Inn Niagara Falls (114 Buffalo Ave, Niagara Falls, NY 14303) is a more affordable option while still keeping you close to the action.
Sheraton Niagara Falls (300 3rd St, Niagara Falls, NY 14303) and DoubleTree by Hilton Niagara Falls (401 Buffalo Ave, Niagara Falls, NY 14303) are two other popular options.
Niagara Falls photography tips
There are a lot of great vantage points from which to capture the majesty of each falls. First, let’s talk about lighting.
The image below is a Google Earth snapshot of Niagara Falls with North at the top. The sun rises in the east (right) and sets in the west (left).
I like shooting with the sun behind me. That means the best shots from the American side come in the morning and the best shots from the Canadian side come in the afternoon. You can also get some really well-lit shots of the Canadian skyline in the morning.
I’d also recommend a wide angle lens to really capture the entirety of the skyline. I took the following photo with a 15 mm focal length.
There’s a lot of mist in the air, and it creates dark spot in your photos as it settles on your lens. Have a microfiber cloth handy, because you’re going to need to clean your lens repeatedly if you’re shooting near the falls.
For Maid of the Mist or Hornblower cruises, I can’t recommend a GoPro enough. I used the GoPro Hero 7 Silver, which is waterproof and records in 4k.
Final thoughts before you visit Niagara Falls
I can’t stress enough how utterly jaw-dropping Niagara Falls is. I’ve been stargazing 14,000 feet high on an extinct volcano in Hawaii. I’ve snorkeled with penguins in the Galapagos Islands. The Maid of the Mist cruise I took is right up there on my list of impactful, unforgettable experiences.
Niagara Falls State Park is kid-friendly and fun for the whole family. Get there when the park opens for the first Maid of the Mist boat of the day, walk around the park to see both the rapids and the falls from multiple vantage points, enjoy a picnic lunch on the beautifully maintained grounds, explore the Visitor Center and Discovery Center, and then venture to Canada in the afternoon for a full view of the falls’ power, and then call it a day.
If you want to do it all, get the Discovery Pass. It’s $46 or adults (over 12) and $35 for kids 6-12. The pass includes the following:
- Maid of the Mist ($19.25 for adults | $11.20 for children 6-12)
- Cave of the Winds ($19.00 | $16.00)
- Adventure Theater ($12.00 | $9.00)
- Trolley ($3.00 per ride | $2.00 per ride)
- Aquarium of Niagara ($14.95 | $10.95)
- Discovery Center ($3.00 | $2.00)
That’s a $74 value for adults (save $28) and $53 value for kids (save $18), assuming two one-way trolley rides. For a family of four, that’s over $90 in savings — plenty for that free lunch!