Every year, millions of visitors from around the globe flock to one of the world’s greatest natural wonders that spans two nations and the Niagara River. It drains the waters of four of the five Great Lakes.
It is right in our backyard and yet there are many Western New Yorkers who rarely, if ever, come to the Niagara Falls and enjoy the phenomenon and allure of the mighty waterfall. This is the summer to go to the Falls and experience both old and new attractions.
There are higher and bigger falls but nowhere else are the waterfalls so grand and accessible to millions of visitors. The falls offer an immersive experience to all.
There is certainly no shortage of vistas from which to ponder the wonder of the Falls of Niagara. Visitors line the promenade opposite, peer out from caves behind, climb out on a web of wooden catwalks, absorb the view while dining in a revolving tower, ogle from a helicopter above — absorbing the vistas from every conceivable angle. I have done them all but still believe the best way to intensely experience the falls is aboard the iconic Maid of the Mist which is both thrilling and accessible to everyone.
On May 27, 1846, the Niagara Courier reported after the launching of the first boat: “Whoever visits Niagara will not have seen half its wonders till they have taken a trip on the steamer the Maid.” In 1901, Teddy Roosevelt, who was sworn in as President in Buffalo, took a ride proclaiming the experience “the only way fully to realize the grandeur of the great Falls of Niagara.”
The boats boast a long list of celebrity passengers starting in 1860 with the British Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), Marilyn Monroe while starring in the movie Niagara, and Princess Diana and her two sons Prince William and Prince Harry.
In October 2020, the Niagara Falls, NY based Maid of the Mist company launched two new all electric 600-passenger vessels, the first of their kind in the country. For newcomers to the electric boats, the main difference for passengers is the absence of engine noise so the sounds are 100% the roar of the magnificent waterfall.
The boats are named James V. Glynn and Nikola Tesla. The James V. Glynn honors the longtime Maid of the Mist Chairman James V. Glynn, and the Nikola Tesla honors the Serbian-born engineer behind the design and construction of the world’s first hydro-electric power plant in Niagara Falls, NY.
On board the Tesla, everyone is excitedly gearing up with their new blue plastic raincoats. Phones and cameras are ready for their adventure. The boat first cruises by the base of the American and Bridal Veil Falls and then continues almost into the thunderous deluge of the Horseshoe Falls. There is a moment, just a moment, when we seem to be engulfed by the water and mist. But, of course, we emerge from the cataracts and are soon making the trip back to the dock.
The Maid of the Mist boasts an enviable safety record. Only once has one of the Maid’s life preservers been used and then not for one of its own. Our captain tells the amazing story of seven-year-old Roger Woodward. On July 9, 1960, he was swept over the Horseshoe Falls after a boat he was in with his sister and a family friend stalled and swamped, pitching him into the water.
Wearing only his orange life jacket and bathing suit Roger hurtled over the brink at an estimated 75 miles per hour. On the third try, Roger was able to grab the life ring and, miraculously, he was safely aboard seconds later. He instantly became world famous as the only person to survive a trip over the falls with only a life jacket for protection. He returned 20 years later with his wife to enjoy the falls and the Maid of the Mist in a more conventional fashion.
For a sublime experience, pick a hot summer day, stand at the bow, forego the raincoat, and wait for the falls themselves to drench you to the skin. The luckiest of all will catch a glimpse of at least one rainbow.
Just a year ago, a huge tunnel buried deep below the cascading waters opened to visitors. The area’s newest attraction is part of the Niagara Parks Power Station on the Canadian side of the falls. This 2200-foot-long tunnel is Phase II of a unique attraction. This one-of-a-kind attraction is the only fully intact, decommissioned hydroelectric power plant of its period left in the world.
The massive stone power station sits 1,500 feet above the Horseshoe Falls. It was completed in 1905 and supplied electric power through 2006 to Fort Erie and Buffalo which was soon known as the City of Light. The water from the mighty Niagara was diverted to run the 11 giant generators that electrified the region.
The original 11 blue cylindrical generators are on display as part of Phase I of the project which opened to the public in 2021. Displays and exhibits tell the story of the inventors including George Westinghouse. Uncover the War of the Currents, a bitter feud between inventors that lasted many years. Guides are on hand to tell the building’s remarkable story.
It’s time to enter the glass paneled elevator that offers views of the six underground decks as it travels down 180 feet to the tunnel. This is where the water would exit into the river when it was operating as a power station.
It took thousands of workers four years to build this tunnel and excavate the shale using dynamite, shovels, and pickaxes. There are benches for resting and exhibits along the walls. It is accessible for strollers and wheelchairs. Near the end of the tunnel, we can see daylight. The path exits onto a 60-foot cement platform very close to the base of the Horseshoe Falls.
There seems to be mist and water everywhere but not to worry as our guide hands out yellow plastic raincoats. Out of the mist comes the Maid of the Mist. Here is a new perspective on the falls and many would say it is the best place to see the falls.
Come back in the evening for an entirely different way to experience the power station. Called Currents: Niagara’s Power Transformed, it is an epic sight and sound show in the heart of the plant. It features immersive, interactive media where projected effects react to your presence. Children seemed to be having a great time with that feature. There’s imagery, color, lights, sound, and a wonderful musical score.
Nights in Niagara Falls are filled with light. The Falls are illuminated nightly with distinctive lights for holidays or special occasions on both sides of the border. Fireworks fill the skies at 10 pm (weather permitting) until early fall.
The Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls offer a spectacular panoramic view of the waterfalls. For a fun experience, the whole family can walk through the turnstile at the bottom of the bridge on the U.S. side. There is a barrier between the road and the sidewalk, so it is safe to walk across or just to the middle for some great photos.
Be sure to bring along your identification that you would use for crossing into Canada. There is no charge if you don’t cross into Canada. If you decide to cross the border, then there is a $1 per person charge for the return trip.
The Niagara Falls train station is another special place because it also is home to the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center. The award-winning permanent exhibit, One More River to Cross, features the rich stories of the Underground Railroad in Niagara Falls and the escaped enslaved people who arrived here with freedom just across the river in Canada. It is in the former 1863 U.S. Customs House that is attached to the Amtrak Station. While not a site on the Underground Railroad, the Customs House is adjacent to the former International Suspension Bridge. The bridge was a point of crossing for many freedom seekers including Harriet Tubman. Freedom Conservation Tours are held Tuesday through Sunday at 11:30 am and 2 pm.
Later this summer, the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Welcome Center at Niagara Falls State Park will open with new ticketing and information desks, interpretive museum space including immersive experiences and exhibits on the history of the Falls, and to connect visitors to the many opportunities for recreation in the area.
The Wilson Foundation donated $8 million toward the $46 million state-of-the-art welcome center. It is designed to be a center befitting its location alongside the mighty Falls in the country’s first state park that attracts more than nine million people annually. The project will complement the $150 million revitalization of the park landscape changed to better reflect noted park designer Frederick Law Olmsted’s vision for the landscape.
Travel Tip of the Month: All COVID border mandates on both sides of the border have ended, so crossing the border has returned to pre-pandemic rules. Adults need a passport, passport card, enhanced driver’s license, or NEXUS card to cross the border and children need a birth certificate. Bring along a change of clothes and towels if you think you will be riding the Maid of the Mist and foregoing the raincoat.
For Maid of the Mist visit maidofthemist.com or call 716-284-8897. For the Niagara Parks Power Station and The Tunnel visit niagaraparks.com or call 877-642-7275. For information on the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center at the Train Station visit niagarafallsundergroundrailroad.org or call 716-300-8477. For Niagara Falls, NY visit niagarafalllsusa.com or call 1-877 FALLS US. For the Canadian side visit niagarafallstourism.com or call 1-800 56FALLS.
Deborah Williams lives in Holland, NY and is a veteran travel writer whose work has appeared in national and international publications. She is the recipient of the Society of American Travel Writers’ Lowell Thomas Gold Travel Writing Award.