Niagara Falls (general info)
Niagara Falls consists of three separate waterfalls, located where Niagara River splits around Goat Island and Luna Island, and plunges about 170 ft. (51.8 m): Horseshoe Falls is the largest and most spectacular. Ninety-eight percent of Horseshoe Falls is on the Canadian side of the border. American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls are on the American side of Goat Island, smaller in size but still spectacular. This page describes general information about Niagara Falls. Please see my separate pages below for more pictures and info about each of these three waterfalls.
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of waterfalls around the world that are higher than Niagara Falls. It is not the height, but the width and volume of water that makes Niagara so spectacular. American and Bridal Veil Falls are about 1060 ft. (323 m) across, and the Horseshoe Falls is about 2600 ft. (793 m) across in width (approx. 3660 ft. / 1116 m total width). The amount of water going over the falls is controlled by dams, and much of it is diverted for hydro-electric power. From Apr-Oct, 100,000 cubic ft. per second (2832 m3/sec) go over Niagara Falls during the day, and 50,000 cfs (1416 m3/sec) at night. From Nov-Mar, 50,000 cfs go over the falls at all times. If there was no water diverted for power, the average flow over Niagara Falls would be about 212,000 cfs (6003 m3/sec). There is a noticeable difference in the flow between the day and night. One wonders how much more awesome Niagara Falls would be if it could be seen at full force, which is no longer possible because of the water diversion. Scott Ensminger has an interesting solution to improve Niagara Falls, and we encourage you to read about it here.
Given that the water flowing over Niagara is fairly constant throughout the year, I have made a calculation and determined that 67,100 cfs is the average volume of water going over Niagara over the course of a year. This calculation is based on the fact that 100,000 cfs is going over the falls for 7 months of the year, for 14 hours of the day. I calculated this figure down to the second, so it is the most accurate number that you will find. As you can see from the table below, during peak flow, both Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and Iguazu Falls in Brazil/Argentina are larger than Niagara. But if you consider average volume over the year (which is the proper measure in my opinion), Niagara Falls is larger than these two other famous waterfalls.However, there are other waterfalls in the world that are technically larger than Niagara Falls. Most significantly, Para Falls in Venezuela is 125,000 cfs. Not enough information is known about this waterfall to make a solid determination in comparison to Niagara Falls, but from what is known it is a very significant large waterfall and it can be said it probably is indeed larger than Niagara. Khone Falls in Laos is around 410,000 cfs, and stretches across the Mekong River for up to 14km in many different channels. I am not convinced that it should be considered larger than Niagara because it is mostly a series of cascades and rapids. The biggest drop is about 45 ft. in height, but many of the channels vary and do not have significant falls. Nonetheless, technically it is the widest and largest waterfall on the planet. Paulo Afonso Falls in Brazil has an average volume of 100,000 cfs, however it must be noted (sadly) that there is now a hydroelectric power plant upstream of Paulo Afonso Falls, and now much of the water over the waterfall is diverted. The 100,000 cfs amount was the average amount over the falls before the power plant was created; the average volume now over the falls is not known, and I suspect it is just a fraction of its former volume (and whether that actual volume now is more or less than Niagara is still to be determined). Inga Falls in the Congo has an average volume of 910,000 cfs, but I am not really sure about it. I have read some reports that it is just a series of rapids over a long distance, and other reports that it does drop significantly in one section, but this is not confirmed. There is also a hydroelectric facility here which significantly reduces the volume of the falls below the above number. In addition to these, Livingstone Chutes, and Wagenia (Boyoma) Falls in the Congo are larger, but these also are all really just a series of rapids over a long distance, and I personally would not consider them to be waterfalls. So based on all this information, I think we can make the conclusion to say (for now anyway) that Niagara Falls is the third largest waterfall in the world by average volume (after Khone and Para Falls).
What to do at Niagara?There are literally hundreds of things to spend your money on at Niagara Falls. You are going to need to decide which ones are most important to you. These are the things we did, and what we thought of them:
Maid of the Mist - This little boat takes you up past the American Falls right into the middle of the Horseshoe Falls. It sits there for about 10 minutes or so, while you experience the thunder of Horseshoe Falls roaring down all around you. You will get quite wet. This was easily the most memorable of all the things we did at Niagara. Surprisingly, because this is very much a tourist trap if there ever was one. They cram everyone in like cattle on this little boat. But ignore all the people around you, and try to get up at the front of the boat. You can truly experience the falls here like nothing else. The cost is about $11 U.S. ($13 Cdn). On the Cdn side, it is located at Clifton Hill; on the American side, it is located at Prospect Pt.
Prospect Pt. Observation Tower - You can get a good close-up view of the American Falls from this location, but it is not worth paying just to go up in the tower. If you want to go here, we recommend also going on the Maid of the Mist from Prospect Pt. as well. You can save money by combining the two fees.
Cave of the Winds - Located on Goat Island, a guide will lead you down right to the base of the American and Bridal Veil Falls. You can go up on the Hurricane deck and get completely drenched from the spray of the Bridal Veil Falls. This is a great experience.
Goat Island / Luna Island - Luna Island is the little island in between Bridal Veil and American Falls. An observation platform on the island lets you stand right at the brink of these two falls. It is a lovely walk around Goat Island. Go to Terrapin Pt. to get to the brink of Horseshoe Falls from the U.S. side, and also be sure to check out the Three Islands and see some of the rapids above the falls.
Journey Behind the Falls - On the Canadian side, this excursion takes you down on an elevator to a viewing platform near the base of Horseshoe Falls. A tunnel also leads you behind the falls to a couple portals where you can see the falls from behind. This is a somewhat interesting view, but it is not worth the high fee ($10 Cdn). For what you get for your money, we think this should be free, or at least only a minimal cost. There are many better things to spend your money on in Niagara.
Illumination Lights - At night, Niagara Falls are lit up with coloured lights, changing colour every few minutes. It is a really nice experience to go down to see the falls at night. The best views are from the Cdn side. On summer weekends, there are also fireworks at the falls.
Whirlpool - About two miles below Niagara Falls, the Niagara River rushes through a narrow channel creating huge rapids. It then hits a sharp bend in the river, where the fast rushing water reverses direction, creating a giant whirlpool. From the rim of the gorge it does not look like much, but up close it is an amazing sight (especially the rapids). We recommend taking the hike down to the bottom of the gorge from Whirlpool State Park on the U.S. side. There is no fee, and it is a great 5 mile (8 km) hike (RT). You can also get down to the Whirlpool by elevator on the Cdn side, but there is a fee (it is called the Whitewater Walk).
IMAX - In Niagara Falls Ontario is an IMAX theatre showing the Niagara Falls film throughout the day. The film is all right and not a complete waste of money, but we were quite disappointed. Some of the scenes in the film were quite lame, and a lot of information was left out of the film. The daredevil museum in the theatre (free) is interesting to see, however. If you really want to learn about the history of Niagara Falls, we highly recommend reading Pierre Bertons "Niagara - A History of the Falls".
Skylon Tower - We decided not to go up on the Skylon Tower, but we mention it here because it is probably worth the fee, and gives you a great view of the Niagara Falls from above (on a nice day).
Other Falls - If you have the time, there are some other waterfalls in the Niagara area. Obviously, they cannot compare with Niagara Falls, but there are some nice ones for waterfall enthusiasts to see. Be sure to check out some of these on our Ontario and New York pages.