8 Tips For Visiting & Photographing Niagara Falls
We made it! We finally made it to Niagara Falls! This is a spot that’s been on our “bucket list” for years so it was a BIG deal to finally be here. We wanted to make sure we had enough time in the area, so we’d booked a full week at the State Park just 20 mins north of the falls (review coming), and we had at least 2-3 days of good weather in the forecast. Things were looking pretty good. Now what?
It’s always a bit overwhelming when you get to a really iconic sightseeing spot. Perhaps it’s something you’ve dreamt about for a long time, and maybe you only have a few days to explore it? So, the questions start rolling….
“Will it be as good as I imagine?”
“How do I make the most of my limited time?”
“Where can I take the dog”
“How, where (and at what time) is best to photograph it?”
If I do enough research I can usually find partial answers to all these questions (in this case I discovered several links which really helped me -> see bottom of post), but the whole answer didn’t come together until we were actually here. And for a place like this knowing how to make the *most* of your time is key.
So, over the next two posts I’m going to attempt to do exactly that. I’m going to write the kind of top-level guide I was looking for when we first came here, and hopefully answer ALL those burning questions you might have about this amazing place. My first post will deal specifically with Niagara Falls, while the second will deal with the area around Niagara Falls. This got a little crazy, so be ready for a lot of info…..
Tip #1 -> YES, They’re Worth Seeing!!
Perhaps the first question I asked myself before we came here was whether or not Niagara Falls was really up to all the hype. I mean of course I knew about it, but I wasn’t sure if it was going to be as impressive as I had in my minds eye.
I think the closest experience I can relate Niagara Falls to is The Grand Canyon. It’s the oddest thing walking up to it because you don’t see it coming. The surroundings look perfectly normal and there’s nothing to prepare you for what you’re about to see until you’re literally right on-top of it. So when that gaping hole finally reveals itself it’s like an electric shock to the senses. Your mind simply can’t process it!
Niagara Falls is very much like that, albeit on a much (much) smaller scale. If you arrive from the US side from behind American Falls (as I first did) it really just looks like a kinda rough rapids. You walk next to a wide stream of very fast-running water and you can tell it’s dangerous, but you really have no idea where it’s going. A few hundred feet later the scene suddenly changes and the stream ends in a fine, straight line on the horizon. You walk over to the line and BAM you’re hit with the force of ~6 million cubic feet (168,000 cubic meters)* of water falling every minute. It’s the largest waterfall by flow-rate in North America and you can literally hear it. The thundering sound is incredible and drowns out everything around you, and the sheer volume of water is so heavy it literally takes your breath away. The phenomenal flow creates a mist that rises more than 200 feet spraying everything around it with a fine rain, and if you go at just the right time, as I did, a rainbow will explode right in front of you too. The scene totally blew me away.
Waterfalls, views and rainbows. Oh yeah, it’s absolutely amazing and definitely worth the visit!!
* For those of you into the technical details, only ~10% of this total water flow is by American/Bridal Veil Falls. The other ~90% goes through the much larger, heavier Horseshoe Falls to the South.
Tip #2 -> BUT Crowds Can Be Crazy
Unlike the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls is not that big (space-wise) and during the summer it really does get insane, and by that I mean some of the WORST crowds I’ve ever seen at a sightseeing spot EVER. During the day parking lots can overflow and close (especially on US side, by the State Park), and street traffic can come to a standstill. That’s not even mentioning the crowds at the falls themselves.
My absolute worst experience was at night when I went in to shoot the night-time LED show. I had “staked out” a spot around 30 mins before the event, and that’s really the only reason I even got to see it. The mass of people that came to the overlook grew to 4-5 deep and folks were so anxious that they were literally pushing and shoving me on the rails. I had to defend my gear from damage and hope the rail didn’t fail. It was the most stressful shoot I’ve ever done!
So, is there ANY release from the crowds? Yes! There are tricks.
Tip #3 -> Pick Your Times For The Best Experience
While we were here I discovered 3 tricks to getting some relief from the crowds:
Come Early! If you visit early in the morning, say around 8AM you’ll have no problem parking at any of the parking lots (either the State Park lots on US side or the street-side lots on Canadian side) and it’s actually really pleasant to walk around. At that time you’ll get at least an hour and a half of completely relaxed strolling before the crowds start to roll in. By around 11AM the crowds start to amass and if you’re anything like us, you’ll want to be out of there. We found early AM worked great for both US and Canadian sides.
Come At Dusk! I also noticed a slight drop in crowds just around dusk. Around this time the day-crowd seems to disperse while the night crowds have not yet arrived. So there was a blissful little gap of people. I did some nice photo shooting at this time too.
Go In The Off-Season: Lastly, although we didn’t test this ourselves, I’ve been told that if you go off-season (before June, after Aug) it’s quite nice and mostly people-free.
Tip #4 -> USA Or Canada? There Are 2 Sides (And 3 Waterfalls)!
The other important thing to understand when you come to Niagara Falls is that they are right smack on the international border* between the US & Canada, so there are actually 2 sides you can visit -> a US side and a Canadian side.
The towns on each side of the border are both called Niagara Falls which is either really confusing, or completely logical depending on which way you look at it. So there’s the town of Niagara Falls (US side) and the town of Niagara Falls (Ontario side). There’s a bridge just north of the Falls (Rainbow Bridge) that connects the US to Canada which you can cross by either foot, bicycle or car**, so it’s super easy to get from one side to the other.
The other (perhaps also confusing) detail is that Niagara Falls actually consists of 3 separate falls that make up the whole. So, there is no single waterfall called “Niagara”. Instead what you’ll see on the map is American Falls (a large, 940-ft wide flattish waterfall on US side), Bridal Veil Falls (a small 45-ft wide waterfall to the immediate south of American Falls on US side) and Horseshoe Falls (also called Canadian Falls -> a large, semi-circular 2,700 foot wide horseshoe-shaped waterfall to the south on the Canadian side). The combo of the three is what makes up “Niagara Falls” and you can see all of them from either side of the border, but views will be very different.
My advice? If you want the full panorama and all the angles you really need to visit both sides:
The US side is actually a State Park, so it’s nicely separate from the street traffic and is quite green and relaxed. You can get up and close and personal to all 3 falls here in several different places , but the views are mostly “side views” (as opposed to “full frontal” views).
Parking on the US side is super easy as long as you get there early! You can park in any one of 3 State Park lots right inside the park which cost just $10 for the day (FREE if you have the Empire Pass or are staying at another NY State Park (just bring your camping pass)). If you arrive later in the day (say, mid-morning) the State Park lots will usually be full and you’ll have to find street parking which is more of a hassle and more expensive.
The Canadian side is by a street so it’s much busier, plus the whole area is very built-up with touristy stuff (shops, casino’s, rides etc.), so the atmosphere isn’t as relaxing as the US side IMO. BUT there’s a nice wide walkway by the river and it’s the only place you’ll get a “full frontal” view of the American/Bridal Veils Falls which is quite special. Plus you can get up close and personal to the other side of Horseshoe Falls just down the road by the Table Rock Welcome Center.
Parking on the Canadian side is on the street or in nearby street lots, and is definitely more expensive than US side. We parked on the street and paid CAD 5 for each 30 mins.
*NOTE1/ Cell Phone Roaming -> Your phone will likely bounce between Canada & USA cell towers as you walk around the Falls (both sides), so if you don’t want to incur international charges make sure your data roaming is “OFF” before you get here . Switching your phone to “airplane mode” which will do the job too.
**NOTE2/ Border Crossing Reminder -> If you cross the Rainbow Bridge you’re crossing an international border so you’ll need your passports, plus rabies certificate (if you bring the dog). Also be aware that there are certain things you cannot bring into Canada (e.g. certain foods, guns etc.) so make sure NONE of those things are on your person or in your car when you cross. For passenger cars the Rainbow Bridge Tolls are $3.75 on US side, CAD 4.75 on the way back (EZ Pass is accepted so bring that if you have it). You won’t need to exchange cash for your trip (most places on Canadian side will take US$), but it’s helpful to carry a credit card with no foreign transaction fees to pay for parking, food, wine etc.
Tip #5 -> The Falls Are Free, But “Added Attractions” Cost Extra
Once you park, visiting the Falls on either US or Canada side is free. So if you just want to walk around and enjoy the views you absolutely can and you don’t have to pay an added cent to do do so! The things that cost extra are the “added attractions***”. The following is not a complete list of attractions, but covers the most common (and popular) ones on each side:
- Prospect Point Observation Tower (US side): This is a large viewing platform overlooking American Falls. $1.25 during the day, free at night. Definitely a view you don’t want to miss, plus you can take the elevator down to the bottom of the Falls and catch the view from there too.
- Walk Below Bridal Veil Falls (US side): On US side from Goat Island, you can take an elevator 175-feet down to the bottom of Bridal Veil Falls and walk an outdoor wooden walkway to an observation deck only 20 feet from the falling water. It’s called “Cave Of The Winds” ($17/person) and it’s a wet affair (ponchos are provided), but it’s a view that you can’t get anywhere else.
- Discovery Center (US side): Learn all about Niagara Falls in-depth including the natural, geological and local history of the area. Hands-on interactive displays and a 180° multi-screen theater experience. $3/person. See more HERE.
- Adventure Theater (US side): 45-min film covering Niagara and its history in all its glory inside the main Visitors Center. $13/person. See more HERE.
- Niagara Trolleys (US side): There are several trolley services on US side that take you around the various attractions and even up the river (to Old Fort Niagara). Some are free and some are pay. See more HERE.
- Walk Behind Horseshoe Falls (Canada side): On Canada side you can take an elevator down 150 ft to bedrock tunnels that actually go behind Horseshoe Falls. It’s called “Journey Behind The Falls” (CAD 17.30 per person) and it’s quite the unique experience.
- Incline Railway (Canada side): Ride a tram from street level to Table Rock Visitor Center. CAD 2.75/person each way (CAD 5.50 round trip). See more HERE.
- Niagara’s Fury: Experience Niagara Falls in 4D in this 360 degree multi-sensory theater. CAD 14.55/person. See more HERE.
- Zip Line To The Falls (Canada side): Yes, you can actually zip line 670 metres (2,200 feet) from street-level to Horseshoe Falls. It’s called the Wildplay MistRider Zipline and costs CAD 49.99 per person.
- Skylon Tower (Canada side): See the falls from above from this 775-foot (233 m) sky scraper that has an observation deck and a revolving restaurant at the top. CAD 15.02/person to ride to the top. See more HERE.
- Boat Rides to Horseshoe Falls (US & Canada sides): You can catch a boat that takes you right into the center of the falling mist at Horseshoe Falls from either side of the border. It’s a wet affair, but also very exciting plus it’s the only way to get ON the water and see the falls from that perspective. On US side this the boat is called “Maid Of The Mist” and costs $18.25/person. On Canada side it’s called “Hornblower Niagara Cruises” and costs CAD 25.95/person.
- Helicopter Rides (US & Canada sides): Want aerial view of the Falls? Both sides of the border offer Helicopter rides for around $115-$200 (12-20 mins ride). On Canada side check out Niagara Helicopters. On US side look at Rainbow Air Tours or National Helicopters Inc.
Discount Packages Are Available: If you’re only doing one or two attractions buy the passes individually, but if you want to do multiple consider buying a package pass. On US side the package is called the Discovery Pass ($45/person, covers 5 attractions on US side), while on Canada side it’s called the Adventure Pass CAD 57/person, covers 5 attractions on Canadian side)
***NOTE3/ NONE of these “added attractions” are dog-friendly, so if you want to do any of these while you’re here then leave doggie at home.
Tip #6 -> The Falls Are (Mostly) Dog Friendly!
One thing we really did enjoy about Niagara Falls is that, apart from the “added attractions” (listed above), it’s entirely dog friendly!
On the the US side you walk doggie through a State Park which is 100% dog-friendly, so it’s quite pleasant with lots of trails, several places to relax/picnic and no traffic noise.
On the Canada side you walk next to the street so it’s busier and noisier, but there is a nice wide walking path (completely dog-friendly) and some greenery, so it’s fine for walking doggie too****.
We personally preferred the trails in the State Park on the US side, but as long as you go early AM (to avoid the crowds) there’s really no reason you can’t do both.
Again, as I mentioned above, the only places you cannot take doggie are the “added attractions”. So you can cannot take your dog down below the Falls (both sides), up onto the observation tower (US side), or into any buildings (Discovery Center, Visitors Center etc.). But for just walking around and enjoying the views, you can most definitely bring pooch along!
****NOTE4/ For detailed info on visiting the Canadian side of the Falls with a dog, check out this excellent blog-post by Montecristo Travels. It was super helpful for our trip across the bridge.
Tip #7 -> There Are Several GREAT Times & Places To Photograph
Most folks who write about photographing the Falls prefer the Canada side primarily because it’s the only place you can get those “full frontal” waterfall views. I went for 5 separate photo outings at Niagara and enjoyed them all, but I have to admit I personally preferred the US side as I felt it had more interesting (and varied) angles to shoot. Plus I really (really, really) loved the AM rainbows on that side too. Here’s my photo tips for the area:
Shoot The US Side In AM, Canada Side In PM: In the summer because of the way the Falls are angled towards the sun, the light is best on US side in the early morning and on the Canadian side in the late afternoon. So, if you want that “golden light” my advice is to photograph US side in the early AM and Canada side in the PM. As for view-points there are several I really liked:
- On US side my favorite views were from Prospect Point Park & Prospect Point Observation Tower (my #1 spot, overlooking American Falls), Luna Island (the small island between American and Bridal Veil Falls) and Terrapin Point (the viewpoint next to Horseshoe Falls).
- On Canada side the best views are from Queen Victoria Park (a large public park, directly opposite American Falls), and Table Rock Welcome Center (the main visitor center right next to Horseshoe Falls)
Photograph US Side In AM For Max Rainbows! The other key thing about shooting the US-side in the early morning is that it literally explodes with rainbows!! The heavy water mist from the falls interacts just perfectly with the early AM sun so that you see rainbows all over the place. We saw an insane amount of rainbows from every single US view-point from ~8AM to 11AM, every time we went (I went 3 times!). Oh and if you have a polarizer for your camera make sure you bring it to “pop out” those rainbow colors. It really makes a difference.
Either Side Works For Night Show (But Come Early): The night-time LED show starts right after sunset (exact times HERE) and it’s certainly worth it’s own photo outing. On the Canada side you’ll see the full frontal view of the falls, whereas on the US side you’ll see the side view, either of which will be pretty. Bring a tripod so you can do longer exposures, and (if you’re into it) experiment with multi-exposures especially right at sunset. Just be sure to come early (~30 mins early) to “stake out” your spot as the crowds do get crazy at the night show!
Tip #8 -> You Can “Do” Niagara Falls In A Day, But Several Is a Better
So, how do you bring it all together?
There’s no doubt you can “do” Niagara Falls in one long day. If you get to to the US side early you can walk the Falls, catch the Maid of the Mist (boat), do the under-the-falls (Cave of the Wind) walk, visit the Discovery Center and then either go into town for lunch or cross the Rainbow Bridge into Canada for lunch at the revolving Skylon Tower. After lunch you can explore the Canadian side, walk around Queen Victoria Park, maybe catch the zip line to Horseshoe Falls, explore the Welcome Center, do the behind-the-falls-tour (Journey Behind The Falls) and then find somewhere for dinner. Finally you can wrap up the day by going back to the US side to see the night lights.
Yeah it’s possible, but it’s a looooong and exhausting day!!
In my opinion a few days is better, ideally one day for the US side and one day for Canadian side. This also gives you some extra time to drive around and explore the surrounding area(s) too. Plus if you’re bringing doggie for those two trips you may want to dedicate a separate morning to drive in and do the added attractions that don’t accept dogs. Lastly the night lights which are worth seeing too, but be prepared for those crazy crowds I mentioned above (we didn’t bring the dog for that event for that very reason).
Coming Up Next –> Exploring the area around Niagara Falls. You’ll be amazed how much there is to see!
Useful External Links:
- Niagara Falls Visitor Guides -> Click HERE (USA side) and HERE (Canada side)
- Niagara Falls State Park (US side) -> Click HERE
- Niagara Falls With A Dog (Canada side) -> Great blog post HERE (Montecristo Travels)
- US Versus Canadian side? Which is Better-> Read 2 different viewpoints HERE and HERE
- Niagara Falls Interactive Map -> Click HERE
- Niagara Falls Attractions Price List -> Very complete up-to-date price list of attractions on both sides HERE
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