Of course, it depends on where in the city you start from, how much traffic there is, and whether you drive sensibly, like a maniac, or somewhere in between, but it recently took me about an hour and a half to drive to what the world knows as Niagara Falls from my home in Toronto. I said “what the world knows as” because to people in Toronto and, I suspect, to most people within an easy day-trip away, they are generally known simply as “The Falls.”
My use of the plural pronoun “they”, rather than the singular “it” was not a typo. Niagara Falls is comprised of multiple waterfalls; two or three depending on how you count them. At about its midpoint as it flows from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, the Niagara River splits around Goat Island at the top of the Niagara Escarpment. (It also splits around other islands upstream, including the much larger Grand Island, but they aren’t relevant here.) Because the falls are the result of water dropping about 165 feet over the Niagara Escarpment, there are waterfalls on both sites of Goat Island. The Niagara River twists somewhat, but it essentially flows roughly from south to north. The border between the United States and Canada runs down the river so, along the Niagara River, Canada is not north of the United States, but rather west of it. The waterfall on the west side of Goat Island is curved like a giant horseshoe, giving it its name, Horseshoe Falls. It is also referred to as the Canadian Falls because most of it lies within Canada.
The waterfalls on the other side of Goat Island are entirely within the U.S. and, not surprisingly, are referred to as the American Falls. The reason why I said that there Niagara Falls is comprised of two or three waterfalls depending on how you count them is that the American Falls split around a small island called Luna Island, which is close to Goat Island. The small waterfall between Luna and Goat Islands is generally considered to be a separate falls called Bridal Veil Falls.
The Cities and Views
Writing about Niagara Falls can get a bit ambiguous because not only is Niagara Falls the name of the collection of the American, Bridal Veil and Horseshoe Falls, but there are also two cities called Niagara Falls. They sit beside the falls, one is in the Province of Ontario on the Canadian side and the other is in New York State on the American side. Both of those cities have at least one casino. I guess just visiting one of the most famous—arguably the most famous—set of waterfalls in the world isn’t enough for people. Go figure. To be clear, this blog post is about The Falls, not either of the cities called Niagara Falls. And, more specifically, it’s about viewing The Falls from the Canadian side. I’ve driven through Niagara Falls, New York to get elsewhere, but I’ve never stopped to view The Falls from that side. I should probably correct that deficiency one day, but I couldn’t do it on this visit because I didn’t have my passport with me. American officials are quite insistent on passports these days, although it wasn’t always so.
Maybe it’s just because I’m Canadian, but I’m convinced that we (Canada) have the more beautiful falls. If you’ve never visited, and even if you have, if you have a vision in your head of Niagara Falls based on pictures you’ve seen of it, you’re almost certainly visualizing the Horseshoe Falls, aka, the Canadian Falls. There are a number of ways to view The Falls from the Canadian side. I took advantage of three of them on this visit. Before talking about those, because I won’t be describing them further, let’s get some of the other ones that I know about out of the way first. You can take a helicopter ride over the falls, view The Falls from a hotel room in one of the large hotels sitting on a rise of land a short distance back from the falls, or view them from the observation deck or revolving restaurant of the Skylon Tower. OK. With that out of the way, on to the ways I did view Niagara Falls.
The Free View
There is one free way to view The Falls from the Canadian side—free assuming you don’t count the cost of parking your car—which is from the public walkway that starts a bit north of the falls, runs past the falls, and then continues for a fair piece downstream along the top edge of Niagara River gorge. (If you start at the other end then reverse what I just said. But you probably figured that out on your own.) When standing on Table Rock, which is adjacent to the Horseshoe Falls, expect to be continually enveloped in a fine mist rising off the falls. That is to say, expect to be enveloped in a fine mist unless it is pouring rain, in which case expect drenching to be the salient moisture feature. Fortunately, it was a mostly sunny day when I was there recently.
The combination of mist and sun creates one of the beautiful features of a visit to Niagara Falls, that is, beyond the falls themselves: rainbows. You can see one of them arching over people strolling on a patio built on Table Rock and another, this one a double rainbow, over the American Falls in pictures 3 and 4, respectively. I don’t know about you, but I think the flowers in the foreground and the double rainbow over the American Falls in photo 4 are so beautiful that they look fake. They’re not. I took the picture with my iPhone while standing on another part of that same patio on Table Rock. The photo is exactly as it was taken. (The upper rainbow in the double rainbow in photo 4 is quite faint. I can see it on the picture. I hope it’s still visible when rendered on your Web browser.)
The Cliché: A lot of water
As you stand at the railing and become mesmerized by watching Horseshoe Falls, it’s hard not to spout clichés about the thundering falls and the volume of water continuously pouring over the escarpment. If you’re alone and you spout those clichés aloud, expect some quizzical and possibly more than a few worried looks in your direction from the many tourists who visit The Falls. Fortunately, I managed to keep my comments to myself. So I’m only guessing about those reactions. Honest. While contemplating how much water is flowing over Horseshoe Falls, think about this: That isn’t all of it. The Canadian Falls receives most of the water flow, but as you can see from picture 2, The American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls aren’t exactly piddly little waterfalls either. And even that isn’t all of it. There are hydroelectric plants on both sides of the Niagara River. The Canadian and American power plants draw water from the Niagara River above the falls, run it through tunnels past generators that generate a lot of electricity, and then empty it into the river below the falls. These are both major hydroelectric plants, drawing a considerable flow of water, but they still leave enough water running over the falls to create an amazing natural spectacle. As you stroll along the walkway beside the river, falls, and gorge, the beauty of your walk is enhanced by a long, thin park running along the other side of the path. This park is comprised of lawns, flowers, shrubs and trees. Although, if you visit in the winter you’ll probably find that it is then comprised of snow-covered lawns, flowers, shrubs and trees. I haven’t yet visited in the winter so I can’t confirm that.
Journey Behind the Falls
Another way I viewed Niagara Falls was to pay to go on the “Journey Behind the Falls.” You’ll find the entrance to this attraction inside a pavilion built on Table Rock. After buying your ticket, you take an elevator down to a point I think is roughly halfway between the top and the bottom of the falls. As I exited the elevator I was handed a raincoat. However, to call it a raincoat is a bit of a stretch. It was a flimsy, filmy yellow plastic bag with a hood and armholes, and a “Journey Behind the Falls” logo printed on the front. If you plan to do the whole Journey Behind the Falls experience and you don’t want to get thoroughly drenched, put it on. Beyond the elevator, you walk through a small room and into a tunnel. You then quickly come to a split in the tunnel. One long tunnel runs behind the falls, with two short arms leading to small portals that open out behind the falls. The other tunnel at the split is shorter and leads to two observation decks. To my tastes, despite being what gives the attraction its name, the portals are not worth the money, but the observation decks more than make up for it. Railings prevent you from getting too close to the portal openings. What you hear from your position at the railing is a loud roar. What you see is a wall of water. Because it’s a wall of water, as opposed to, say rivulets of water, it’s hard to distinguish much of anything at all in the wall. The railing is far enough back from the opening that you won’t get very wet even if you don’t bother to put on your raincoat.
The two observation decks, on the other hand, provide stunning views. The decks, which are built one on top of the other, are outside, very close to one end of the arc of the Canadian Falls. The upper deck is open on three sides, but fully covered above. As a result, you won’t get very wet there. The lower deck juts out beyond the upper deck, so it is not completely covered. Walk out to the edge of this deck to get the best views of the Horseshoe Falls, the American Falls and the river downstream. If you walk out there without the provided raincoat, expect to get drenched. Not all of the water from the Horseshoe Falls falls straight down and then flows on its way down the river. A lot splashes outward. You are allowed to keep the raincoat as a souvenir if you want or you can deposit it in one of the recycling bins near the exit. Because I’m not sentimental about those sorts of things, my raincoat is probably being recycled into a yellow plastic flower pot or something equally useful.
Maid of the Mist
I also sprang for what is probably the most famous and iconic of the Niagara Falls viewing attractions, the Maid of the Mist. There are two Maid of the Mist operations, one that runs from a dock on the American side and one from the Canadian side. The Maid of the Mist is a boat (or rather a fleet of a few boats) that runs on the river below the falls. There is an elevator that takes you to the bottom of the deep gorge and brings you back up again when your done. So, while you can’t drive your car down to the dock, you also don’t have to worry about an arduous climb back up.
When you get to the dock, before you board the boat, you receive another raincoat. This raincoat is a little different than the one you get at the Journey Behind the Falls. This one is a flimsy, filmy blue, not yellow, plastic bag with a hood and armholes and a “Maid of the Mist” logo printed on the front. Again, you can either keep the raincoat as a souvenir or throw it in one of the recycling bins after you leave the boat. Again, mine is probably being recycled into a plastic flower pot or something equally useful, although this one will be blue instead of yellow. The Maid of the Mist gets you up close and personal with both the American and Canadian Falls. At the Canadian Falls, the boat takes you almost to a point between the two arms of the horseshoe. There, you can practically feel the boat pushing against the current, struggling to remain in position for what seemed like a few minutes.
At it’s closest approach to Horseshoe Falls you come to realize that “Maid of the Mist” is a misnomer. What you experience while standing on the patio on Table Rock beside the top of Horseshoe Falls is a mist. What you experience on the Maid of the Mist when it gets close to the base of Horseshoe Falls is more like a hard, driving rain. I snapped a quick picture and then immediately thrust my iPhone back under my raincoat out of fear of water-logging and destroying my phone. I apologize for the poor framing and quality of the resulting photo. So concludes my chronicle of my recent visit to The Falls. I also went to the Niagara Falls Butterfly Conservatory, which is a short drive from The Falls, but I’ll save that for my next post. Unless I get ambitious—not likely—that post will probably appear about a week after I publish this one. My recommendation: If you’ve never been to Niagara Falls, you might want to consider adding it to your bucket list.