I know that tourism, especially local tourism, can be both hokey and important. Niagara Falls meets both sides of that description. The town is not too attractive, the roads are poorly maintained, the hotels are average, yet the state park and the falls are compelling. The Niagara River is short but powerful.
About 18% of the world’s fresh water is in the Great Lakes System. The water in the Great Lakes System would cover the lower 48 states to a depth of 3.5 feet if it were allowed. The falls have about 6,000,000 cubic feet of water per minute pass over the (two) edges. The Niagara River connects Lakes Erie and Ontario. The Canadian side has about 2200 linear feet of falling water. The US side has about 850 feet. There are about 500 higher waterfalls around the world but few have the combination volume and elevation seen at Niagara.
Geologically the Niagara River follows the edge of the Niagara Escarpment. This sharp edge is about 1000 miles long and runs from Manitoulin Island in northeast Lake Huron on down into the central US. There are many escarpments around the world that are rifts or fault lines; in this case, the Niagara Escarpment is the ancient edge of a sea floor that has been uplifted and shaped by erosion. This is not the most usual circumstance for a river passage and there are some odd (and specific) geological features to the river channel. For instance there are gravel beaches located almost 500′ above any current body of water.
The various layers of sedimentary stone erode at different rates. Softer layers can be undermined causing the upper layers to cave in. This happened twice in the 20th century to the American Falls. The entire edge of the falls erodes as well. In the past 350 years the lip of the falls has moved considerably southward. Overall, it has moved about 7 miles in 12,500 years (since the glaciers melted away). This is not speedy I have to admit but it is rock after all and all there is is time. The river is about 170 feet deep at the base of the falls.
The Niagara River is the natural outlet from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. It is flowing northward, making the erosion at the falls wear to the south. The St. Lawrence River then drains Lake Ontario northeasterly into the Atlantic Ocean north of Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula (which is north of New Brunswick) – the water sort of crashing into the island of Newfoundland.
There are many Maid of the Mist boats that take you into the spray near the turmoil at the base of the falls. They ride is about 35 minutes, very wet, and reasonable in cost at $13.50 per person.
The tour aboard the Maid of the Mist (actually there are many Maids) is rather nice. The narration is hard to hear but the ponchos are adequate to keep you reasonable dry and the perspective from the bottom of the falls is rather grand.
One of the best perspectives is to be down on the lower river and look up at the falls. The sense of power is quite real. The look from the boat seems more natural; you are on a river looking at the falls, but to see the same thing from terra firma is quite different. The state park at the US falls is rather nice. It is planted, has large trees, and is not tacky. The Canadian Falls are much wider and have about four time the volume as do the US falls. But, the boats take you right into the base of both waterfalls.
Lastly, I would be remiss not to mention that the slope between the two falls is a huge nesting site for Ring-billed Gulls. One of these last images (below) will show hundreds of whitish dots – those are gulls.
The boardwalks at the base of the Bridal Veil Falls are misty and extensive.
There are many views from the Maid of the Mist. Those with rainbows are nice, those with the roar of the falls in your ears are nice, those that are very wet and windblown are less nice. Buying a ticket on the Maid s the Mist also allows access to the viewing tower. This is a nice place from which to take pictures.