The massive volume of swirling, gushing water at Niagara Falls will immediately captivate any onlooker’s attention. (Imagine if you are watching it upclose on a boat like the Maid of the Mist ride — more on this in a bit.)
It sure captured the imagination of Annie Taylor, a 63-year-old American schoolteacher and, of all things, an amateur daredevil stunter who became inspired to secure her notoriety by being the first person to ever go over the Falls. As if that wasn’t enough, she was to do it riding inside a wooden barrel.
Racing towards the cliffs at high speed, water exiting the Niagara River tumbles off the crestline, covering 10 metres in a second and creates a heavy mist towards the end of its’ downward trip into the gorge. Niagara Falls, a series of three waterfalls (Horseshoe, American and Bridal Veil) that sit between the border of New York, United States and Ontario, Canada, is approximately 50 meters in height, allowing the water just about five seconds to hit the bottom.
Imagine what it must have been like for Taylor when she went over for a 50 metre drop — inside a barrel padded only with a mattress, and her lucky heart-shaped pillow — in what must have felt like a heart stopping blink of an eye. It was on 24 October 1901, that Taylor survived her barrel ride practically unscathed, and lived another 20 years to tell her tale.
Following Taylor’s escapade, daredevils through the ages have attempted to replicate her success with stunts like swimming against strong river currents or crossing the gorge on a tightrope; and each time there was success, the ante got upped. One tightrope walker in the 1800s, a French-born Charles Blondin, even ventured to cross the gorge in a variety of ways: on stilts, blindfolded and while carrying a man on his shoulders. (He succeeded in all attempts.)
In modern times, daredevil acts are strictly prohibited, except for one commemorative stunt every 20 years, with prior approval required from the Niagara Parks Commission. This privilege recently went to Nik Wallenda, an aerialist who walked across the gorge at night in June 2012, cheered on by large crowds who turned up on both sides of the border to watch Wallenda in action.
For us craven types who shudder at the thought of barrel rides or tightrope walking of any kind, but are wooed by the strength of this stunning natural wonder — with its claim to the world’s largest flow rate of anywhere between 500,000 to 800,000 litres going over the edge every second — it’s hard to imagine any better way to experience the mighty Niagara Falls in action, up close and personal, than from the safety of a nice boat.
Ride the Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls
On the New York side, visitors can ride the Maid of the Mist, an all-steel, 700-horse powered, two-deck tour ship that circles the Niagara Gorge at 30-minute intervals. The most exciting part is when the Maid rides right up to the brink of Horseshoe, the largest of the falls, and lets her riders soak up one of the most majestic scenes Mother Nature has to offer. That is, if you aren’t too busy holding on to your poncho to keep it from flapping away, and avoiding a continuous spray of mist from the falling water.
To get to the boarding dock, boat visitors are directed to enter via an Observation Tower where they can begin their trip with an unhindered view of the three waterfalls. The Observation Tower extends out over the gorge to give visitors better photo opportunities with the Falls, and to catch a preview of the boat ride they are about to embark on. Linger on the deck for as long as you like before taking the elevators within the tower, down to the dock, where park ushers hand out thin, blue Maid of the Mist rain covers as people enter the queue to board the boat. Once passenger capacity is filled, a horn trumpets as the Maid’s engine revs to life and chugs slowly out into the gorge, heading towards the Falls.
For optimum views, it’s best to try and secure a standing spot at the helm of the boat. You will likely pass a Hornblower boat, the Canadian version of the Maid of the Mist tour returning to shore. It’s customary (and good manners) to wave back at the passengers on it. Then, turn your attention towards the left for a full frontal view of the American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls. One can see a deep red wooden stairwell built into the cliff boulders, right beside the falling water; people ascending and descending the flight of stairs in their blue rain covers vaguely resembling slow-moving beetles.
Mighty, mighty waters
As the boat presses on, one hears the recorded tour narration overhead announce an upcoming notable sight: the now defunct Schoellkopf Power Station, which used to tap 360,000 kilowatts of hydroelectric power for the city of Niagara before a tragic collapse in June 1956, about 60 years after it was built. Earth movement and cracks on the wall behind the plant are attributed to the destruction of two-thirds of the power station, which remarkably resumed operations for another five years after the incident. The remnants that still stand today look gray and ancient, but is a powerful reminder of the mighty waters of the Falls.
By the time you turn your attention away from the power station, get ready! The Maid of the Mist will have reached the foot of Horseshoe Falls, bringing her passengers treacherously close to a C-shaped, 16 metre wall of howling, impenetrable water.
The boat sways back, forth and sideways, rocked by choppy waves now that the Maid of the Mist is just a few feet away from the falls. Mist rising out of the gorge envelops the boat, creating a surreal atmosphere, almost like being at the edge of a secret world hidden behind the liquid curtain in front of the boat. The feeling is heightened on a rainy day, as passengers also have to contend with heavy drops crashing down on them.
Yet, Niagara Falls declares dominance over all in its vicinity by cancelling out distractions, with a deafening roar from the sheer volume of water. And passengers of the Maid respond; some with screams of delight and wonder, others by clinging tightly to the boat’s rails, and still others risking water damage to electronic devices, all for a selfie memento of an experience so exhilarating, and for many, a once in a lifetime adventure. Passengers get about 15 minutes to savour the moment before the boat begins turning back for the dock.
Upclose to the Falls on foot
Upon returning to shore, keep the adrenaline rush on the uptick with more encounters with the Falls. Take a jaunt up the red wooden staircase to get as close as you can to the American Falls, one of the two waterfalls that lie exclusively on the United States’ side. Afterwards, check out another tour called the Cave of the Winds that brings you back into the gorge for some extreme waterpark-style fun.
This self-guided tour starts after an elevator ride down to the base of Bridal Veil Falls, where another series of red wooden platforms and stairs lead you up to the falling water. Prepare to get thoroughly drenched (if you aren’t already) up on the “Hurricane Deck,” where people enjoy a natural simulation of tropical storm conditions, created by a combination of high winds and torrential falling water from Bridal Veil. If the sun is shining, you’re bound to be treated with mini rainbows dancing in the rays!
More travel in the US: Underground wonders at Luray Caverns in Virginia, including a stalactite pipe organ.
Niagara Falls at night
If none are in sight, fret not. Come back after dark and witness Niagara Falls bathed in a myriad of man-made lights, beamed over from the Canadian side to produce a stunning light show on the Falls, accompanied by the constant soundtrack of rushing water. Neon rays that fall on the misty air create a pleasant, pseudo Northern Lights effect. What a picture perfect way to conclude your Niagara Falls experience.
But in the night, the rushing water somehow echoes ominously all around. Nik Wallenda the aerialist may have deftly navigated his way across the gorge without minding the sound of the water, but to visitors, it is a loud reminder of how unpleasant it would be to fall in. So please, don’t.
Get more out of your visit to Niagara Falls
Save with a Discovery Pass
*Make the most of your trip to Niagara Falls with a Discovery Pass on the USA side. It includes a Maid of the Mist ride and a Cave of the Winds tour, plus access to Niagara Aquarium, the Discovery Center, Adventure Theatre and one-day unlimited trolley rides to and from attractions. The Discovery Pass costs USD 36 for adults and USD 29 (youth ages 6-12.) It can be purchased online. Check out the Niagara State Park website for more information.
Explore the hiking trails
The area has a few hiking trails with different levels of difficulty for great alternative views of the Falls and its surroundings. You can go it alone, or take a guided hike (available between mid-May through October,) offered by the Discovery Center.
Best time to go
This depends on your priorities:
For the best weather experience, go during the summer months (June-August,) but hotels fill up quickly due to a high volume of crowds.
For lower rates (flights and hotels) and smaller crowds, visit in September or November. Most attractions are still open then, and you will enjoy seeing the vibrant colours of autumn foliage begin to emerge, but pack for colder temperatures.
Visit the Canadian side
A trip to Niagara Falls wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Canadian side, which offers shopping, hotels, entertainment, more stunning views and more unique encounters with the Falls. The Journey Behind the Falls tour is a unique look at what’s behind Horseshoe Falls, while the antique Whirlpool Aero Car will thrill you with a ride over Niagara Gorge. Grab your passport, and check out the Canada Niagara Parks website for more information and tickets.
Bring rain gear and spare shoes
Unless you don’t do any of the tours, it’s almost impossible to avoid getting wet. An extra pair of shoes or slippers is probably the most valuable thing to bring on your vacation to Niagara Falls. Goggles for the boat ride (especially when it rains) are also a good idea. The rain covers that are handed out are useful in good weather, but can be a nuisance in rain and heavy winds; hence, consider packing your own, and one made of heavier material that won’t constantly threaten to blow away.)