Niagara Falls: The American Side

Niagara Falls is one of those destinations that is truly worth the hype. It’s iconic. It’s international. It’s inspirational. It’s something everyone absolutely should see if they can. We decided it was a perfect destination for a multi-generational road trip with the grandparents since it offers something for everyone. We enjoyed the natural beauty, as well as the many attractions surrounding it.

Niagara Falls isn’t just an American icon, it’s an international one, stretching in a wide arc across the U.S. and Canadian border. Many people wonder whether it’s worth visiting both sides, and we say absolutely yes. We spent 4-5 days in the area, making several treks to the falls on both sides. We also spent part of a day visiting Buffalo, NY, and we went deeper into Canada to visit the charming town of Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Additionally, we wanted to have plenty of downtime at our campground since we were staying at one of the nation’s best, Branches of Niagara (click here for my review). With all there was to see and do in the area, we could have enjoyed a few more days.

Niagara Falls State Park

Niagara Falls State Park is the oldest state park in America. In the late 1800s, landscape developer Frederick Law Olmsted (who designed Central Park and many others across the nation) helped lobby to move the falls from the hands of private ventures into public protection, and we are all lucky he did.

Niagara Falls State Park allows visitors to get a good look at the American Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, and Horseshoe Falls from several observation points (check out the park map). Together, these falls arc 3,409 feet across the international border, dropping 187 feet at the highest point of Horseshoe Falls. The photo below (taken from the Canadian side) shows the entirety, with the Rainbow Bridge (connecting US and Canada) and the American and Bridal Veil falls on the far left and Horseshoe Falls on the far right.

The state park is a beautiful place to explore the natural beauty of Niagara Falls, from above and below. While entrance to the park itself is free, there are several attractions here that cost money. We purchased a Discovery Pass, which included admission to all five, as well as a day’s worth of trips on the trolley.

We often skip paid attractions in favor of free natural settings, but I highly recommend NOT doing that at Niagara Falls. A big part of the fun is getting up close to the falls, which you can’t do without paying for one (or more) of these attractions. While we didn’t do everything included in the pass, we felt we got our money’s worth from the ones we did do (more on those below).

Now, back to the beauty. We started our visit to Niagara Falls State Park by heading to the observation points overlooking the American and Bridal Veil Falls.

Clearly, our family was ready to take plenty of pictures!

Cave of the Winds

Of course, it’s not enough to merely look at the falls. We wanted to EXPERIENCE the falls. Luckily, there are several ways to do that. We started with a visit to the Cave of the Winds.

The adventure starts with an lively, informative multimedia presentation in the The World Changed Here Pavilion about the history of the falls. Soon, it was time to don our yellow ponchos and souvenir sandals and descend to the base of Bridal Veil falls.

Aside from encountering the mist from the falls, how wet you get is entirely up to you. If you’re willing to get soaked, a walk up to the Hurricane Deck is a must. The falls create a mighty surge of wind, in addition to the surge of water; thus, the name “Hurricane Deck.” You have to brace yourself just to stand. I found myself laughing like a crazed person because this was just so exhilarating!

Maid of the Mist

Next up, we partook in another iconic Niagara Falls adventure, a ride on the Maid of the Mist. Since the late 1800s, these boats have been taking visitors to the base of Horseshoe Falls. On the Canadian side, you’ll find a similar adventure known as the Hornblower.

Yet again, ponchos were involved.

While the Hurricane Deck lets you actually feel the power of the falls directly, a ride on the Maid of the Mist multiplies the experience times 1000. The boat takes you to the bottom of the widest, tallest waterfall of Niagara Falls (Horseshoe Falls), which arc around the boat and stretch high into the sky, totally immersing you in the experience.

What really struck me was the enormous, continual roar of the falls. Thousands and thousands of gallons of water flow over the falls per section…every single second..every single day (85,000 cu ft. per second, to be exact). It’s mind boggling.

On your ride back from the Horseshoe Falls on the Maid of the Mist, you also get treated to nice views of the American and Bridal Veil falls. In the photo below, look for the decking for the Cave of the Winds to get a sense of the scale. Those yellow dots are people.

Observation Tower

After experiencing the falls from below in a couple of different ways, it was time to experience them from above again. What I loved about Niagara Falls was how captivating each view was…each not to be missed.

The Observation Tower rises 282 feet above the Niagara River below. It offers amazing views of the whole river gorge..and the falls themselves, of course. This is also where you take an elevator down to board the Maid of the Mist, so it’s really easy to combine the two attractions.

You can see the Maid of the Mist from above and look over into the Canadian side.

Adventure Theater

The Adventure Theater provides a fun opportunity to learn about the history of Niagara Falls…including the infamous daredevils who conquered–or attempted to conquer–the famous falls. The 30-minute show is a little cheesy at times; however, it is entertaining. Plus, the theater is also a great place to cool off on a hot afternoon (if you’re not already soaked).

All the Stuff We Didn’t Do

Niagara Falls State Park also has so much more we didn’t explore. There are hiking trails, which are supposed to be quite nice. You can see rapids in the river as it heads toward the falls. There’s a small aquarium and a discovery center (where you can learn about the geology). One popular attraction is the Top of the Falls restaurant, which offers great views of Horseshoe Falls. Also, visitors can explore the industrial history of the falls with a visit to the Schoellkopf Power Plant ruins. While we would have loved to see and do more on the American side of the falls, we also wanted to spend a lot of time at our awesome campground and have time to head over to see the Canadian side and to visit the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. So, we didn’t do it all!

The Surrounding Area

One thing that is a definite disappointment at Niagara Falls is the town surrounding the famed attraction. It has definitely seen better days. This area has tons of abandoned buildings and destinations that are clearly past their prime.

One bright spot was Donatello’s restaurant–a park worker tipped us to the fact that this was a great place to eat not too far from Niagara Falls State Park. We decided to walk over, which only took 10-15 minutes.

Donatello’s is known for it pizza, wings, and sandwiches. Our party of six tried a little of everything, and no one left disappointed. We kept seeing “Beef on Weck” on menus in the local area, and my husband decided he had to try this regional favorite. Beef on weck consists of thinly sliced roast beef (often rare) served on a kummelweck roll (a fluffy bun topped with salt and caraway seeds). It was good!

Final Thoughts

Niagara Falls was spectacular! I’m so glad we spent plenty of time on the American side and still had time for more. Our younger son doesn’t especially love exploring places like national parks because he’s just not that into nature; however, he had fun at the falls because there was so much to do there other than just hike. We also loved that the attractions that we did were also fun for the grandparents.

My next post will tell you all about our adventures on the Canadian side. If you’re planning a trip to Niagara Falls of your own, check out my tips below.

Tips for Visiting the American Side of Niagara Falls

  • Plan 1-2 days to explore the area. Niagara Falls isn’t just a 30-minute stop. There is so much to do here other than just look at the falls.
  • Don’t miss the paid attractions. Yes, they are pricy, but they are worth it. You can’t really experience the falls without getting up close.
  • Purchase a Discovery Pass if you plan to do several attractions. We did the Cave of the Winds, Maid of the Mist, Adventure Theater, and the trolley and felt we got our money’s worth. In 2019, prices were around $46 for adults (ages 12 and up) and $35 for children under 11.
  • You do not have to do everything on the Discovery Pass in a single day. It’s nice to spread out the attractions, if you have time. Some are timed/ticketed, so you will have to navigate some wait times, possibly.
  • Go early in the day or late in the day to avoid crowds. Midday is especially crowded, and the lines for attractions are longer.
  • Make use of the trolley. Niagara Falls State Park is a little bigger than you might expect. A trolley makes the rounds from one end of the park to the other, and one day’s fare is included in a Discovery Pass purchase.

The RV Atlas Podcast

I shared our adventures at Niagara Falls on the RV Atlas podcast. Find that episode here:

Niagara Falls: A Trip Planning Guide

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