Niagara Falls, New York and Ontario

The start of this trip would take me to one of the most famous border crossings between the United States and Canada, the town of Niagara Falls. The celebrated waterfalls sit atop the border between the two countries, with half of them in America and half of them in Canada. I had been to Niagara Falls one time previously, when my family took a trip to upstate New York when I was about ten years old. Two decades had passed since that visit and I was eager to see what had changed in the intervening time. This would be the first stop on my journey up the Saint Lawrence valley, and I had planned a more relaxing day given the need to drive all the way to Niagara Falls. As it turned out, I was arriving on a Canadian holiday and had the good fortune to be crossing the border at a very active time of the year.

Before anything else though, I needed to pick up my rental car. I didn't trust my aging vehicle to do this trip given the distances that needed to be traveled, and therefore I spent the money to purchase this rental car instead. I believe that this was a 2013 Ford Fusion although I'm not 100% certain on the make and model. It was a Ford of some kind since that's what was on the wheels. I selected a small car out of a desire to get the best fuel mileage possible, and this rental car did quite well in that regard at almost 35 miles per gallon. I also made sure that the rental came with unlimited mileage when I paid for it, since I was about to take this baby a lot further than the rental company likely expected. The odometer had 6423 miles on it at the outset of this journey. I'll post a picture from the last day at the end of the trip to showcase where it finally ended up.

The drive to Niagara Falls took about seven hours from the Baltimore area and proved to be uneventful. I had done the initial drive up through Harrisburg many times previously and the road further north through central Pennsylvania and western New York had few cars to contend with on this Monday morning. I managed to get clear of Buffalo before the rush hour traffic arrived, and reached the Niagara Falls area by about 3:00 pm.

The main attraction in Niagara is naturally the waterfalls themselves, and that was where I headed first. For someone approaching the falls from the American side, the natural starting point is Niagara Falls State Park as illustrated above. Tourists park in the lot next to the visitor center and can then walk on the paths around Goat Island, the best location from which to see the falls up close. That park sign provides a pretty good depiction of the natural geography of the area surrounding the falls. There are technically three separate waterfalls that make up Niagara Falls, although one of them is tiny and barely distinguishable. The largest of the three is Horseshoe Falls, named for its distinctive "U" shape and sitting atop the border between the United States and Canada. Horseshoe Falls is the largest both in terms of width and vertical height, and the most famous paintings and photographs tend to focus on it.

Horseshoe Falls is separated from the American Falls by Goat Island, a small piece of land sitting at a bend in the Niagara River. Both Goat Island and the American Falls are located entirely within the United States, and the American Falls come close in vertical height to matching Horseshoe Falls, if not in terms of the water's flow rate. The American Falls are noteworthy for having a field of giant boulders at their base, which is why all of the famous "going over the falls in a barrel" attempts have taken place at Horseshoe Falls. Trying to plummet over the American Falls would be tantamount to suicide. Finally, there's the tiny Bridal Veil Falls, which are really part of the American Falls but gets considered separately for historical reasons. It separates the miniscule piece of land known as Luna Island from the neighboring Goat Island.

My car ended up parking in the "P2" lot listed above out on Goat Island. After exiting and stretching my legs a bit, I started out by heading east towards the American Falls. The first picture above looks towards that portion of the falls, with the Bridal Veil Falls obscured by foliage in the foreground and the much larger American Falls behind them. Off in the distance behind the waterfall was the New York mainland and the observation tower built at Prospect Point. Further away to the west, on the other side of the river, was the Canadian side of the town. I had a better view when I looked straight across the river, and all of those ferris wheels and fancy looking hotels were in the Canadian portion of Niagara Falls. From this initial vantage point, I crossed over an old stone bridge to the postage stamp-sized Luna Island and looked down at the falls themselves. Bridal Veil Falls were off to my left, along with a whole bunch of visitors wearing yellow ponchos down below. Those were tourists taking part in the Cave of the Winds experience, an attraction that takes visitors down into the ground below Goat Island and then lets them out to walk along a series of wooden walkways at the base of the falls. Everyone gets soaked with water down there and the ponchos are provided to try and keep the tourists at least somewhat dry. I took part in the Cave of the Winds experience with my family on my previous trip to Niagara Falls, and it was about the most fun thing ever for a ten year old kid. The wind and water at the base of the falls are very powerful, and this trip provides a unique vantage point for viewing Bridal Veil Falls. I would highly recommend this especially for anyone who might be traveling with young children.

Off to my right from this spot on Luna Island were the American Falls. An absolute torrent of water was cascading over the edge of the falls to crash onto the rocks below. Here are a few more pictures of the American Falls as viewed from their southern edge:

The American Falls have a vertical fall of roughly 70 to 100 feet (20-30 meters) and are about 1000 feet (315 meters) in width. Despite their impressive looking size here, the Horseshoe Falls are large enough that about 90 percent of the total water flow crosses over them, leaving only the remaining 10 percent to traverse the American Falls. I should also mention that the falls are no longer a a true natural phenomenon at all, and are instead highly regulated by human activity. The water flow over the falls is controlled by a dam located upstream which is jointly administered by the United States and Canada. The water flow is turned down at night and reduced as well in the non-summer months of the year when there are fewer tourists present. The water can even be turned off entirely to make structural repairs at the base of the falls, which has happened a number of times over the years since the dam was built in the 1950s. I'll link you to a picture from 1969 when the American Falls were turned off so that the Army Corps of Engineers could work on them, which resulted in a really sad looking photo. Since this was the height of the summer tourist season, I was getting the best show possible from the falls on this occasion.

After checking out the American Falls, I headed to the other end of Goat Island for a peek at the Horseshoe Falls. This edge of the island is known as Terrapin Point, which was a name that had my hearty approval as an alumnus from the University of Maryland. Naturally the name refers to the shape of the land at the end of the island, which does indeed look like the triangular snout of a turtle. This is one of the closest places that visitors can get to Horseshoe Falls, but for that same reason it can be difficult to see them from this spot. The falls kick up a lot of mist and the crescent shape of the horseshoe isn't very clear when standing next to one of the ends. It's generally easier to see Horseshoe Falls from the Canadian side of the river, and I would be heading over there later to get that perspective as well.

Another great way to view the falls is by taking a short cruise on one of the Maid of the Mist boats. That's the boat pictured above with all of the tourists sporting bright blue ponchos this time. The Maid of the Mist operation has been running these boat tours for decades and they will take visitors up close to the base of both sets of waterfalls, although they can get a lot closer to the Horseshoe Falls due to the lack of rocks on that side. This was another attraction that I had done on my previous visit, and it's also a fun way to see the falls from below.

At the other end of Goat Island away from the falls themselves was the collection of islands known as the Three Sisters. According to the informational materials on site, these islands were named after the three daughters of Parkhurst Whitney, a local businessman who lived in the area during the early 19th century. His daughters supposedly walked out onto the islands over the ice in the frozen river in 1816 and the names stuck in local legend ever since. Today the Three Sisters Islands are a quiet place situated in the midst of a series of walking and biking trails on Goat Island. They don't attract nearly as many visitors as the waterfalls at the other end of the park, and there were only a handful of other people when I passed through. A series of picturesque bridges connect them together, and they offer up good views of the Horseshoe Rapids leading up to the falls a short distance downriver. The current here was very swift and it would be an extremely bad idea to go into the water. I was a little surprised that there wasn't more in the way of guardrails to stop anyone from falling in.

I walked over to Prospect Point as well, but didn't find anything of much interest over there. The observation tower was the biggest attraction and that didn't yield anything that couldn't be seen from the cliffside next to the falls - and the view from the falls was free. There was also a large shopping mall hawking its food court and cheap tourist souvenirs that I could do without. As a result, with no further ado it was time to cross the Rainbow Bridge over to the Canadian side of the river. I had to wait in line for a little bit with my car, then cleared customs and could start exploring the other side.

The Canadian side of Niagara Falls was not what I had been expecting. Much like the tacky tourist stuff at the American Prospect Point, a good portion of the Canadian side of the river in Clifton Hill was packed with carnival style attractions. There was a large casino here, a ferris wheel, a huge movie theatre, several haunted houses, a Ripley's Believe It Or Not - you get the idea. This had the feel of a state fair or a boardwalk at the beach, lots of rides and cheap entertainment for families with kids. To be honest, almost everything in Niagara Falls not directly associated with the falls themselves was more or less a big tourist trap. Don't think that I'm looking down my highbrow nose at all of that stuff, which was perfectly fine and great for younger children. I distinctly remember going to the Ripley's Believe It Or Not here in Niagara Falls as a child and enjoying it a lot. I'm only trying to point out what this place is like for anyone who might be visiting. Expect a lot of flashy and inexpensive attractions similar to what might be found in Atlantic City or Brighton Beach.

I was more interested in appreciating the view of the falls themselves from the western bank of the Niagara River. This new perspective of the American Falls helped to showcase the extent of the rock field at the base of the falls. There was tiny little Bridal Veil Falls on the right edge of the picture, which I still maintain didn't deserve to be considered a waterfall in its own right. It looked like part of the American Falls to me. Off in the distance was the half circle of the Horseshoe Falls, still largely obscured by the spray that the falls were kicking up. There's a park with a walking path that parallels the river, and I was hiking up it towards the Horseshoe Falls on foot. The distance involved caught me a bit by surprise; the distances are longer on the Canadian side because the American portion of the falls has the "inside track" as the river bends around a curve. It's a surprisingly long walk from the touristy area in Clifton Hill up to the viewing area next to the Horseshoe Falls themselves.

Here on the Canadian side I could finally get a better measure of Horseshoe Falls. They are simply enormous beyond my ability to put into words, even when viewed from a distance as I was doing above. The Horseshoe Falls are about double the height of the American Falls at 185 feet (55 meters) and stretch half a mile in width when measured from end to end. These are the falls that put the area on the map, and they've been commemorated in paintings and photographs as far back as the 17th century. When traveling to different areas around the world, you will often hear the claim about how such and such waterfall is higher than Niagara Falls, and it's true that these falls aren't especially tall in the grand scheme of things. That's missing the point, however; Niagara Falls isn't famous for being a tall waterfall, it's famous due to the gigantic width and rate of water flow. Most waterfalls tend to be narrow affairs, not the bloated monstrosity of Horseshoe Falls that stretches half a mile in size. When visiting the falls, especially on the Canadian side, the sheer volume of noise created by the water plunging over the edge makes it impossible to hear anything else. Visitors have to step back from the railing or head inside the visitor center to be able to talk to one another. The mist kicked up by the falling water also blocks most of the visibility. I couldn't get a good picture up close to Horseshoe Falls because there simply was too much spray in the air. (This was also back before I had a real camera.) Trust me, Horseshoe Falls are an imposing sight and well worth visiting.

I mentioned at the outset of this page that it was a particularly good day to be visiting Niagara Falls. That was due to the fact that July 1st is Canada Day, the equivalent of July 4th in the United States and a national holiday in the Great White North. There were lots of people dressed up in red and white on the Canadian side of the border, and the Maple Leaf flag seemed to be flying everywhere. What a perfect way to be starting out my trip through Canada! Three years earlier I had been in Charlottesville, Prince Edward Island for Canada Day without planning it and the same thing was happening again. There was also a fireworks display that took place out over the falls, and I can tell you that it was pretty spectacular to watch. Unfortunately my sad little point and shoot camera was unable to capture any of the fireworks, and I can only tell the story from memory alone. I can't think of too many better places to put on a fireworks display than above the natural half circle created by Horseshoe Falls. Impressive stuff.

That was the end of the first day of my trip. I was headed for Toronto next, the largest city in Canada and with a packed day of sightseeing ahead of me.