Sometimes, in order to appreciate the enormous power of nature, we need to stand as close to it as possible. Only then can our brains attempt to fathom places like the Belleville Salt Flats or the sheer extent of the Grand Canyon. In these moments, our size and importance becomes startlingly apparent, as does our role in ensuring these great pillars of American history and culture remain intact for generations of awe.
Niagara Falls State Park is squarely on the list of most remarkable American natural wonders. You’ll feel it as you stand on the edge, wind whipping your hair and spray from the more than 160-foot drop dampening your clothes. Bridging the Canada and U.S. border, almost 6 million cubic feet of water flows over these three waterfalls every minute as it rushes from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. Here’s a list of the state park’s best attractions to make the most of your visit.
1. Maid of the Mist
Let’s start with the tour that will take you right into the spray of the falls themselves. The boats have been shuttling visitors to the base of the three falls since the national park opened in 1885 (making it New York’s oldest state park). With American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls on the U.S. side and Horseshoe Falls spanning the two countries, the best way to see the monumental power of this natural creation is from below. The boat ride delivers with a soundtrack of deafening pounding water and panchos to keep off the wet (that also double as souvenirs).
2. The Prospect Point Observation Tower
On the New York state side and above the dock for the Maid of the Mist tours, the Prospect Point Observation Tower extends dramatically over the Niagara gorge. From up high you can watch the graceful curve of American Falls and the sheets of water leaping from the edge. For centuries, Niagara River’s grand cascade has captured the attention of painters, writers, and lawmakers, and from Prospect Point you join their ranks. Or, take your trip to international heights on the Ontario side and visit the Skylon Tower, which stretches 520 feet above the falls.
3. Cave of the Winds
Goat Island, wedged between Bridal Veil Falls and Horseshoe Falls, is the entrance to the Cave of the Winds. On boardwalks that are redone every year because of ice damage, visitors walk over bridges from Prospect Point to Green Island and down to the foot of American Falls. From the aptly named “hurricane deck,” visitors are able to get close enough to feel the powerful rush of water up close. The Cave of Winds is, well, windy; gusts can reach up to 68 miles per hour, but there’s no better way to immerse yourself in the experience than (almost) being swept away.
4. Hikes Around Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls State Park has a series of trail systems around the Niagara Gorge. The Rim Trail, also known as the Niagara Gorge Trail, is just over 6 miles and takes visitors past Devil’s Hole Rapids and the Whirlpool Rapids overlook. For longer trips (and more adventurous hikers), Whirlpool Rapids descends steeply into the gorge and brings visitors even closer to some of the fastest and most dangerous rapids in the United States.
5. Rapid Cruises
This one’s for the adrenaline-seekers: the class V rapids of the Niagara River aren’t for the faint of heart. Jet-powered boats guided by Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours and others take you on rides through Devil’s Hole and through the river’s whitewater. You can choose to lean into the splash or book a tour with a cover, keeping you and your clothes from being completely soaked by the waves.
6. Fort Niagara
Old Fort Niagara was built to control access to the easternmost Great Lakes in 1726. Playing a prominent role in the French and Indian War and in the American Revolutionary War, the building and land are now continually operated by the Coast Guard. Aside from being the oldest operated military site in North America, visitors are treated to live reenactments, orchestras and concerts, and educational tours about Fort Niagara’s role in the history of western New York and North America.
7. Aquarium of Niagara
If you’re not in the mood to be splashed, sprayed, or doused by the water of the falls, Niagara has quite a few indoor activities to entertain and educate. The Aquarium of Niagara is one way to be close to the water without immersing yourself. And from the Butterfly Conservatory and Botanical Gardens to the aquarium, the animal exposure around Niagara State Park are perfect stops before playing a round of golf at the Whirlpool Golf Course or trekking the Niagara wine trail.
8. Rainbow Bridge
Parallel to the waterfalls connecting the United States and Canada is another bridge — one that you can walk over. Joining Niagara Falls, New York to Niagara Falls, Ontario, this bridge functions as an overlook, a novelty border crossing, and a tourist attraction for stunning views of both countries. From this height, the waterfall mist sends rainbows into the air. Just be sure not to forget your passport when you go.