Niagara Falls: Family Bucket List Vacation Spot

If you breathe oxygen, it's on your bucket list. Heck, there are probably even some alien life forms out there that want to take their kids to Niagara Falls. It would be hard to overstate the breathtaking power and natural beauty of this international landmark, the first of our national parks, but I'll do my best.

I was lucky enough to stumble, with a little good advice, onto an itinerary as easy as a vacation should be, allowing our family to see Niagara Falls from above and below, from in front and behind, by day and by night, from the US and from Canada without waiting more than a few minutes in any line or spending a lot of money. To be fair, we pulled off this feat in June; repeating our movements in July or August might be more crowded, but I still think it will be the path of least resistance. Or you could go to the other extreme and see the Falls in winter, which by all accounts is a whole other kind of magical.

If you have time to explore a few fun things beyond the waterfalls—of which there are overwhelmingly many—there are some great free options. You'll run out of time before you run out of things to do in Niagara.

My first piece of advice: skip the package tours. The offers start rolling in at highway rest stops several miles before Niagara and continue on virtually every street corner, but I did the math and didn't consider them worth it; they include all sorts of extra destinations we weren't looking for and warnings about expensive parking that we didn't encounter. We managed to experience every aspect of Niagara Falls we wanted to for less than $50 per person and paid less than $10 for parking.

Maid of the Mist

Yes, the souvenir raincoats are very, very necessary.

We started our day on the American side, at the visitors center in the park at the top of the US waterfalls, which is the only place to board the legendary Maid of the Mist that your grandparents still talk about from their honeymoon. The visitors center offers maps, an information booth, and a Discovery Pass combo ticket which is a better deal than the package tours. This pass is good if you're remaining on the American side and want to hit some exhibits while drying off; but if you've got a passport, I'd save your money to mix in some of the incredible Canadian views. Individual tickets are sold at the entrance to each attraction.

The Maid sails from just outside the park building. We encountered no lines or crowds at all on a Tuesday in June; we were fitted for blue rain coats and sent to the ship for our ride to the bottom of both the US and Canadian falls, where we experienced the dramatic sprays and rainbows, fighting the current for the view of a lifetime. A similar ride leaves from the Canadian side; it's called the Hornblower, and her passengers wear red raincoats. The alternating flow of red coats and blue coats at the bottom of the Falls looks like the setup for a bizarre sea battle that never happens. It also looks darn colorful when photographed from the shore. But we couldn't help noticing that the line for the Canadian boat was much longer than the one for The Maid.

Be warned you will get seriously soaked. The weather may be fair and sunny at the top of the Falls, but the bottom feels very different. It's exciting like nobody's business, but you won't be snapchatting the experience: between the water, the wind, and the rough current, I suspect those who attempt selfies any closer than my shot above wave buh-bye to their iPhones.

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Seen from above, that boat ride seems like a pretty crazy thing to do!

Cave of the Winds

I am forever grateful to my recent college grad niece (yes, college grads know everything) who told me to make time for the Cave of the Winds tour; it is for sure the other absolute must-do activity on the American side. Brochure descriptions don't come close to conveying how memorable this walk is: the short hike is the closest thing possible to wading through Niagara Falls. Along with your ticket comes a souvenir pair of water shoes (the first clue of just how wet you're about to get). The wooden walkway, constructed each spring and taken down each November, leads directly into the path of the water, allowing visitors to walk straight through and plunge hands in for a drink. Everyone gets a soaking, but it's about as glorious a soaking as anyone could wish for. Our kids are still talking about how good that water tasted!

Note that the tour leaves from the island between the US and Canadian Falls, seen behind the kids below, and accessible by footbridge from the US side only.

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Oh, Canada

We made our move to Canadian Niagara later in the afternoon, by which time we encountered no lines crossing the border. Our kids can attest, however, that the border is no joking matter. We arrived at the immigration booth full of giddy excitement, radio playing, cameras snapping, and passports waving. We were quickly put in our place by the immigration officer, who gave our kids a talk on the seriousness of protecting borders and appropriate behavior at immigration control. We were dead serious at our next crossing and recommend the same to avoid downers on the Rainbow Bridge.

The biggest reason to cross to the Canadian side is the panoramic view. This might seem obvious, after several hours of taking in Niagara Falls already, but the Canadian view is the only way to take in everything at once; I heartily recommend staying on the Canadian side after dark to see the view of the Falls lit up in rainbow colors—and if you're lucky by a fireworks display. Officially, fireworks are on Sundays, Wednesdays, and holidays, but we saw a gorgeous display on a random Monday.

Unlike the US, Canada didn't have the foresight to set up a national park in Niagara a hundred years ago, so the Canadian side is much more built up, with casinos, restaurants, mini-golf, arcades, the works. It is as neon as the other side is green. That makes it a pretty good place to have dinner with a view of the Falls, though. We watched the fireworks from an exceptional Brazilian steak house–but I get ahead of myself.

Journey Behind the Falls

The first thing we did was head for a view of the Falls that only Canada can offer: the one from behind. Journey Behind the Falls follows a tunnel dug behind the actual waterfall, allowing visitors an extraordinary perspective on the power of water. The tunnel also includes a display with all sorts of historical info, including the bizarre tradition of daredevils flinging themselves into the water and occasionally surviving (now happily outlawed).

The end of the afternoon on the Canadian side provides daily rainbows, before giving way to the nightly light displays. The Ferris wheel is a great way to take in these breathtaking times of day; it goes quite high and provides several trips around. It runs well into the night, making a nice after-dinner treat.

Camping on the shores of Lake Ontario

Like any tourist town, Niagara offers all sorts of accommodations, including plenty on Canadian dollar rates. We opted to go a little more natural (and lower budget) by camping. We skipped the more urban campgrounds in town and were thrilled with the state park we found on the shore of Lake Ontario. Four Creeks State Park in New York books through ReserveAmerica; we found it to be a beautiful respite from the action-packed days, and conveniently located near three other attractions worth a visit if you have time to spare: Old Fort Niagara (with its daily historical reenactments), Lewiston's ArtPark (which hosts outdoor concerts and other family-friendly events all summer), and New York Power Authority's free Niagara Power Vista.

Getting energy saving tips from NYPA

The Power Vista lured our kids, and I was impressed with what an informative, well-designed experience it is. The museum's focus is hydroelectric power, of course, but the high-tech, interactive exhibits provide lots of thought-provoking information about conservation, guardianship of the planet, and making sustainable choices. Each child gets a personalized card to operate the two floors of exhibits, all of which are new this season. It's well worth stopping in for an hour or two.

But of course, the memories we take with us from Niagara are overwhelmingly those of the Falls, crowned by rainbows, festooned with fireworks, and splashing us mercilessly. Niagara Falls deserves every bit of its fame.

All photos by the author

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