Even if you’ve seen all the postcards and watched all the films, nothing quite prepares you for your first glimpse of the Falls, a fearsome white arc shrouded in clouds of dense spray with the river boats struggling down below, mere specks against the surging cauldron. There are actually two cataracts, as tiny Goat Island divides the accelerating water into two channels: on the far side, across the frontier, the river slips over the precipice of the American Falls, 320m wide but still only half the width of the Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side. The spectacle is even more extraordinary in winter, when snow-covered trees edge a jagged armoury of freezing mist and heaped ice blocks.
All this may look like a scene of untrammelled nature, but it isn’t. Since the early twentieth century, hydroelectric schemes have greatly reduced the water flow, and all sorts of tinkering has spread what’s left of the river more evenly over the crest line. As a result, the process of erosion, which has moved the Falls some 11km upstream in 12,000 years, has slowed down from one metre per year to just 30cm. This obviously has advantages for the tourist industry, but the environmental consequences of harnessing the river in such a way are still unclear. More positively, the cardsharps and charlatans who overran the riverside in Blondin’s day are long gone with the Niagara Parks Commission (w niagaraparks.com), which controls the area along the Canadian side of the river and beside the Falls, ensuring the immaculately tended tree-lined gardens and parkland remain precisely so.
Table Rock House
At Table Rock House, you can get disarmingly close to the crest line of the Horseshoe Falls at a free observation platform and from here you can also spy the rusting remains of the Old Scow, stuck against the rocks in the middle of the river just upstream. In 1918, this flat-bottomed barge was being towed across the Niagara River when the lines snapped and the boat – along with the two-man crew – hurtled towards the falls. There must have been an awful lot of praying going on, because – just 750m from the precipice – the barge caught against the rocks, and it’s stayed there ever since.
Inside Table Rock House, elevators travel to the base of the cliff, where the tunnels of the Journey Behind the Falls lead to points directly beside the cascade. It’s a stupendous sight, which is more than can be said for Table Rock’s other attraction, Niagara’s Fury, a self-billed “4-D experience” that aims to re-create the creation of the Falls.
Maid of the Mist boats
From Table Rock House, a wide path leads north along the edge of the river gorge, with the manicured lawns of Queen Victoria Park to the left and views over to the American Falls to the right. At the end of the park is Clifton Hill, the main drag linking the riverside with the town of Niagara Falls. From the jetty below Clifton Hill, Maid of the Mist boats edge out into the river and push up towards the Falls, an exhilarating trip no one should miss.
Clifton Hill and around
For better or worse – probably the latter – Clifton Hill is the centre of the tourist action in Niagara Falls, comprising a short, steep slope flanked by a tawdry collection of fast-food joints and bizarre attractions, from the innocuous Dinosaur Adventure Golf (yes, that’s right) to the eminently missable Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Close by, near the Rainbow Bridge off Victoria Avenue, is one of the town’s two 24hr casinos, a bristlingly modern structure where kids can watch their parents fritter away their inheritance; the other is up on Fallsview Boulevard. If you’re keen to avoid all this commercialization, then stick to the well-kept riverside area, where a string of much more agreeable attractions begins downstream with the White Water Walk, 3km from Clifton Hill.