During a family road trip in June, we took our five children, ages 11, 9, 7, 6 and 4, to spend a couple of days visiting the famous Niagara Falls. The drive is a little over 7 hours from DC metro area.
There are many hotels in the Niagara region but we stayed an hour north on at the Golden Hills State Park in Barker, New York. With our large family, I find it easier and sometimes more economical to rent a cabin at a state park. We did not mind the extra drive time because it was mostly along the Niagara Scenic Parkway.
There were several New York state parks closer to Niagara Falls but none had lodging with our own bathroom and kitchen. At Golden Hills, we rented the Thirty Mile Point lighthouse keeper’s apartment. It had three bedrooms, a separate living room, fully equipped kitchen, bathroom and views of Lake Ontario. Our family toured the lighthouse when it was open to the general public.
Day 1- Niagara Falls State Park and Whirlpool State Park
Most American side attractions, including the viewing areas, lie within the Niagara Falls State Park, America’s oldest state park. After a couple of turn around on the roads near the park, we found the entrance to the Niagara Falls State Park parking lot 1 off of Prospect Street. This lot is a few steps from the Niagara Falls Visitors Center and viewing location for the Falls. Entrance into the state park is free but you will pay to park.
We arrived on a weekday around 9 a.m. when many of the attractions open and easily found a spot. There are two more lots on Goat Island which can be accessed by vehicle on the American Rapids Bridge. On our drive, I noticed many private parking lots in the area but I did not find the prices to be so different to forgo the convenience of parking at the state park.
From the U.S. side, the American Falls can be viewed from walkways along Prospect Point Park behind the Niagara Falls Visitor Center. The kids loved watching the water falling over and feeling the mist. You almost felt as though you could reach out and touch the water but thankfully that would have been difficult. There were safety fences everywhere to prevent accidents. However, I did keep an eye on my 4-year old who has a tendency to be a bit more adventurous.
After a bunch of pictures and “ooos and ahhs”, we purchased our tickets for the Maid of the Mist boat tour at the ticket booths located in Prospect Point Park. I could not wait to take my children on this iconic boat tour. It is a must-do. Tickets are available online and onsite and are $18.25 for those 13 years and older, $10.65 for those 6-12 years and children age 5 and under are free with an accompanying adult. In fact, you will find that most attractions in the Niagara area are free for children age 5 and under. Our tickets gave us access to the boat dock for the Maid of the Mist and Niagara Falls Prospect Point Observation Tower, which we spent time both before and after the boat trip. Boat trips depart beginning at 9 a.m. from April to November. Closing times vary and the schedule is online.
Once we purchased our tickets, we boarded an elevator that took us to the landing. Prior to boarding the double-deck tour boat, we were given those famous souvenir blue ponchos to protect us from getting wet. If you chose not to wear it, do wear a rain jacket because you will get wet from the spray and so will your camera. The total tour was 20 minutes and departures were every 15 minutes. During our visit, we barely waited to board the boat. Based upon the number of line rail fences set-up, I suspect we lucked out due to our early morning arrival. The Maid of the Mist is both wheelchair and stroller accessible. Your child can remain in the stroller as you board the boat but then a friendly worker stores the stroller on board. You pick it up as you disembark.
Once the boat reached capacity, we were off. I have to say that the Maid of the Mist is such a fun and memorable way to experience the Falls. We passed by the base of the American Falls and onto the basin of the Horseshoe Falls. The boat got as close as safely possible to the Falls and we definitely felt the spray. It rained during our boat ride. Otherwise, I do not think our feet/shoes would have been so saturated. However, I am sure we would have been wet from the spray. I was glad we were wearing ponchos. Plus, they really added to the pictures!
My entire family started out on the boat’s upper level but my youngest two (ages 4 and 6) were scared. It was easy enough to bring them down to the lower level where they were protected a bit more from the rain and spray of the Falls and able to enjoy the ride. I do not think they would have been so scared if it was not raining. My older children enjoyed it very much. The boat ride was rather mild despite getting so close to the Falls.
However, it is a good idea to stand near the railing in case you need some stability. Two of my family members were hesitant to ride the boat due to past motion sickness. However, they did not have any issues. I wondered if they were distracted by the beauty of the Falls. It was a unique experience. If I rode the Maid of the Mist again, I would have gone to either the end of the boat on the top or bottom. They also happen to be the most popular spots on the boat probably because they offer the best views for the longest period of time.
There are additional points of interest at the Niagara State Park that we never had time to do. Hiking trails of various skill levels are located throughout the Niagara Gorge. A hiking map is available online. Goat Island is accessible by foot or automobile and is another prime spot to view the Falls. On Goat Island, you will find the Cave of the Winds attraction that leads hikers to a point beneath Bridal Veil Falls. Goat Island is home to the famous Top of the Falls restaurant, a full service, dine-in restaurant with panoramic waterfall views.
The Top of the Falls is not the only in-park dining option. Visitors can find ice cream to fish and chips, grilled sandwiches or quick snacks at one the many food stands and restaurants in the park. All in-park dining operates seasonally and more information can be found online. And you can bring a picnic lunch to enjoy in this surreal setting. Word of warning, we found the squirrels to be so comfortable around visitors that they stared at us, sat up and begged for food. It scared my kids and made me a bit nervous. However, the squirrels never got to close to us. It is hard to know if we would have encountered this at a picnic spot further away from the Visitors Center.
Restrooms are located throughout the park including both levels of the Niagara Falls Visitors Center. Tip: the bathrooms on the lower level were far less crowded. The visitors center also houses the Niagara Adventure Theater, gift shop, cafe grill and many brochures and maps of the local attractions.
After lunch, we drove a few miles north to the Whirlpool State Park, one of seven New York State Parks in the National Heritage Area. Located alongside the Niagara Gorge and Niagara River, it has two levels. At street level, we accessed the Upper Gorge Rim trail and its scenic overlooks of the views of the whirlpool and extreme rapids. My heart stopped when I saw the Whirlpool Aero Car, a Canadian side attraction, that was crossing over the gorge. This cable car has ferried thrill seekers since 1916.
At the river level, hikers can access the Whirlpool Rapids Trail to a point along the Whirlpool Rapids. This is a hike for the more adventurous and those with sturdy shoes. I would not bring a young child on this trail. It is worth noting that water entry is prohibited anywhere along the Niagara Gorge because of the currents and fast moving waters.
Whirlpool State Park also has a natural history room right by the picnic pavilion. We ducked into it to avoid the chilly wind during our visit. It turned out to be a nice surprise. The room was small but my kids had fun touching the different rocks, looking at the various displays and learning about the geology of Niagara. The park staff were knowledgeable and friendly. We saw several tour buses stop at the park, but I noticed the groups usually did not spend much time here. The restrooms and drinking fountains were located next to the pavilion. A playground is by the free parking lot. There were no food concessions at this park but an ice cream truck was parked outside the pavilion.
Day 2 – Niagara Power Vista
On our second day, we visited the Niagara Power Vista located a few miles north of Niagara Falls State Park. A lot of planning and thought went into this hi-tech visitor center which feels more like a science museum. It was a treasure trove of interactive exhibits that showed visitors the history and operations of hydroelectric power in the Niagara Region and showcased the geology of Niagara. At the reception desk, each family member received a Power Player badge. We activated them at the registration kiosks. The badges can be personalized with your own picture or an Avatar, and the number on the badge allows you to retrieve any images and video online after your visit.
Some of our family favorite exhibits included an interactive game where they pretended to operate a power grid during a storm. There were several stations the kids posed for a picture and it was super imposed upon a rock formation or any number of sites. And of course, our family’s all time favorite was the Power Up! simulator ride that took us from the sky and down into the Niagara River and along power lines that crossed the landscapes of New York State. The kids went on this as many times as they could before more visitors arrived. My kids left exhilarated and hopefully learned something about power. I left with a newly found respect for those who work to keep the lights on.
Our kids enjoyed it so much that we had to drag them out before lunchtime hunger kicked in. We arrived right at 9 a.m. and were almost the only ones in the center until 10 a.m. when camp groups and various tour buses arrived. An observation deck, overlooking the Niagara River, gave us a panoramic perspective of the Lower Niagara Region. There were no food concessions at the Power Vista however plenty of shady picnic tables. There are plenty of local restaurants in the surrounding area and some of them are listed on the tourist map at the information kiosk. The Power Vista is open year round from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Both admission and parking are free.
Other Niagara Falls Sites
With only two full days to visit this area, we picked the activities that would have the widest appeal to all our children. We easily could have stayed another day or two explore. If your stay is longer, it might be worth purchasing the Discover Passes that are available at the ticket booths outside of the Niagara Visitors Center and online. The passes provide a discounted all-in-one admission to a variety of attractions including Maid of the Mist, Cave of the Winds, Niagara Gorge Discovery Center and Aquarium of Niagara.
The Canadian side of the Falls is very popular. Many people say the view of Niagara Falls is better from the Canadian side. That may be true, but I don’t think you will feel that you missed out on anything if your trip stays within the United States. However, if you wish to visit Canada, both adults and children must have proof of US citizenship to cross over the border. The US Customs and Border Protection site lists specific requirements and documents which are accepted. The Rainbow Bridge is the most popular method to cross to the Canadian side. You can either walk or drive across it but will pay a fee to do either.
If you venture over to the Canadian side, they have their own version of Maid of the Mist, operated by Hornblower and everyone receives a red poncho. Queen Victoria Park is the prime place to view the Falls. It has manicured gardens, platforms offering views of both the American and Horseshoe Falls, and underground walkways leading into observation rooms that give the illusion of being within the falling waters. You can also take a horse and carriage ride through the park. For more information about these and other Canadian side attractions check out the Niagara Falls Canada official website.
We traveled around by both foot and car. Niagara Falls State Park is ADA compliant. I found the walking paths easy enough to maneuver a stroller. Lots of signs and lots of pedestrians can make driving the Niagara Falls downtown streets a little tricky. The Niagara Scenic Highway was easy to navigate with well-marked signs.
However, there are alternatives for those who prefer to leave the navigation to someone else. For sites within the Niagara Falls State Park, you can ride the vintage-style Niagara Scenic Trolley. This 3-mile route allows guests to hop-on/hop-off at all major attractions and viewing areas within the Park for the day for a small fee.
There are many more sites along the Niagara Scenic Parkway and nearby communities that are not within the Niagara State Park such as the Niagara Power Project Power Vista we visited. Many offer free parking. Some can be reached via the Niagara Gorge Upper Rim trail. Alternatively, you can ride the hop-on/hop-off Discover Niagara Shuttle. It connects riders to 15 destination sites along the 14-mile route from the “Falls to the Fort.” The shuttles serve downtown Niagara Falls, New York State Parks, Niagara University, Niagara Power Project Power Vista, Lewiston, Youngstown and Old Fort Niagara. Complimentary wi-fi on the shuttle connects to the Discover Niagara app that provides useful information. You can find out more information and download the app online.
Good to Know
- I found numerous websites with tourist information. My favorites were Discover Niagara and the official website for the Niagara Falls State Park.
- For directions to the Niagara Falls State Park, click here and detailed parking information for the state park click here.
- A .pdf of the Niagara Falls State Park map is online.
- There is a Junior Ranger program where kids can complete various activities at 14 different attractions to earn commemorative buttons and ultimately a badges.
- Bring a rain jacket that will keep you comfortable in the wind and protect you from the spray.
- If you and your children can last until 10 p.m., the Falls are illuminated nightly throughout the year and during the summer there is a nightly fireworks show, weather depending.
- Both adults and children must have proof of US citizenship to cross over the US-Canadian Border. The US Customs and Border Protection website lists specific requirements and documents which are accepted.
- Beginning on Monday July 17, 2017 the stairs into the Niagara Gorge at Devil’s Hole State Park will be closed as work to replace them begins. They are expected to be closed through Spring of 2018.