Tour boats and a specially built “hurricane” deck take visitors as close as possible to some of North America’s greatest waterfalls.
By Richard Bauman
The Niagara River takes a big plunge on its way north from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, forming a collection of waterfalls on the Canada-United States border called Niagara Falls. People come from all around to view the spectacle from both sides of the Niagara Gorge. For a really close-up vantage point, from river level, take a ride on the Maid of the Mist tour boat or see the Cave of the Winds — preferably, do both. You’ll enjoy a grand panorama of the falls and experience some surprises, too.
What surprised me during my first trip aboard the Maid of the Mist wasn’t the engulfing rain-like mist from American Falls and Horseshoe Falls. It wasn’t the thundering sound of cascading water crashing onto the boulders at the base of the waterfalls. No, what I didn’t expect was the near gale-force wind produced by hundreds of thousands of gallons of water plunging nearly 200 feet from the top of the falls to the river below.
Even before you board the Maid of the Mist, you know you’re in for something out of the ordinary, because you’re handed a blue poncho as you walk down the ramp to the boat. You’ll want to don that gear as soon as you get on board.
Maid of the Mist boats are differentiated from one another by a Roman numeral designation following the name painted on the side of each boat. They depart from both the American and Canadian sides of the river. The routes they follow are nearly identical, and the sites to be seen are the same from either point of departure. A different company recently won the boat contract for departures from the Canadian side of the falls, and it is slated to take over in 2014. For 2012, at least, Maid of the Mist will continue to offer the service.
Departures from the New York side cruise a bit closer to American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls than boats from the Canadian side. That’s because the border between Canada and the United States is approximately in the middle of the river. Boats from the Canadian side go a bit deeper into the Horseshoe Falls basin than the American boats.
History Of The Maid Of The Mist
Some historical sources claim the Maid of the Mist excursion boats are the oldest tourist attractions in North America. That might be true, depending on how one defines “tourist attraction.” Beginning in 1846 the first Maid of the Mist was used to ferry people across the Niagara Gorge from the United States to Canada, and vice versa. It wasn’t the first boat to render such service, but it was the largest boat to do so, and it captured the patronage of those who didn’t feel safe in smaller boats.
Its life as a ferry craft lasted about two years. When the first international bridge across the gorge was completed, most people began using it rather than boats. Thus, the Maid of the Mist was transformed into a tourist attraction: a sight-seeing vessel for visitors to Niagara Falls.
In 1854 a new and larger Maid of the Mist, a steam-propelled paddle wheeler, was launched. In 1860, however, it was taken out of service and sold to a Canadian firm. The next Maid of the Mist was launched in June 1885. It was 70 feet long and more elegant than its predecessors. It may have been the third boat, but it was the first with a Roman numeral designation.
The Maid of the Mist II was added seven years later and, along with the Maid of the Mist I, carried passengers during tourist season to Horseshoe Falls until 1955. That year both boats, which were made of wood, were destroyed in a fire on the Canadian docks.
Two new, steel-hulled Maid of the Mists came into service in 1955 and 1956, respectively, and the “I” and “II” designations started all over again. The four boats in operation today — IV, V, VI and VII — were built more recently. Between opening day, which depends on the weather (typically late April to early May) and late October, the boats make dozens of trips daily, carrying passengers on 30-minute round-trip voyages to Horseshoe Falls.
Aboard The Maid Of The Mist
The beginning of a voyage aboard a Maid of the Mist vessel is calm, almost tranquil. That soon changes, however, as the boat first skims by the American Falls and you encounter the mist and wind created by the falling water, which is mild compared to what you’ll experience a few minutes later.
The boats are double-decked and can carry approximately 300 passengers. The upper deck is where you want to be for the best view of the falls and for taking pictures. The lower deck affords more protection from the wind and mist, but also somewhat limits your ability to see the falls and to take photos or videos.
Regardless of which deck you choose, if you will be using a camera during the voyage, keep it safe under your poncho or in a clear plastic storage bag at all times. The mist becomes more like a torrential rain, especially when the boat enters the Horseshoe Falls basin and then strains to get closer to Horseshoe Falls. The air fills with heavy mist, wetting faces, hair, eyeglasses, shoes, and everything else not covered by the poncho. Viewing the falls from the river up is like watching a never-ending falling white wall accompanied by continuous thunder.
After several minutes near the base of the falls, in the churning river and wind-driven mist, the captain turns the boat around and heads downriver to the dock. It’s a tranquil ride. The anticipation and excitement of the trip up the river is replaced by a sense of satisfaction that you’ve had a grand view of the falls from the bottom up. At the dock, you and your fellow passengers disembark and are replaced by another 300 people eager to take the 30-minute round-trip voyage to the storm at the base of Horseshoe Falls.
Cave Of The Winds
The Maid of the Mist takes you to within a few hundred feet of the base of American Falls and Horseshoe Falls, but if you want to get even closer to where the falling water meets the rocks, boulders, and river, take the Cave of the Winds trek. You will be near the bottom of Bridal Veil Falls, where the power of falling water, wind, and mist are mere feet away, thus much more intense and exciting.
The Cave of the Winds originally was an actual cavern just behind the falling water of Bridal Veil Falls. It was created by a ledge at the top of the gorge that protruded more than 100 feet. In 1901 the cavern was roughly 130 feet high, 100 feet wide, and 100 feet deep. By 1955 its depth had shrunk to just 30 feet because of rock falls and erosion. There was the real danger that the remaining overhang would collapse and injure visitors, so it was dynamited that year. Today the Cave of the Winds exists in name only. But the waterfall is what counts, anyway.
At the entrance to the Cave of the Winds you’re given a yellow poncho and a pair of special sandals to wear before you take the elevator down to a spot nearly 200 feet below the rim of the Niagara Gorge, and between Bridal Veil Falls and Horseshoe Falls. You’re practically at river level and take just a short walk out to the base of Bridal Veil Falls. You can ultimately get to within 20 feet of the waterfall.
Just as with the Maid of the Mist, keep your camera and anything else that needs to stay dry under your poncho or in a protected space.
A tour guide leads your group to the entrance of a series of redwood stairs, walkways, and platforms, all of which take you to the “Hurricane Deck.” That name pretty well describes what awaits. It is a very windy place (gusts up to 65 mph are common) where you can hear only the continuous roar of the falls — and enjoy an exhilarating experience.
At the Cave of the Winds you will get wet, and you might get soaked. Especially if you do as many visitors do — stand close to the rail in front of the falls and let the spray cascade over them, and have someone snap their picture as they “shower” in the fall’s water.
The Cave of the Winds excursion is surprisingly handicapped-friendly. A special deck about 150 feet from the base of Bridal Veil Falls lets those in wheelchairs, or otherwise unable to negotiate the stairs and platforms, still experience the falls close-up.
In broad daylight the Cave of the Winds tour is a heady experience. It’s even more awe-inspiring when seen at night. Likewise, a voyage aboard a Maid of the Mist boat after dark is something not soon forgotten.
Speaking of evenings, every night during the warm-weather months, Niagara Falls is illuminated by colored lights, and a free fireworks display is provided over the falls on Friday and Sunday nights from mid-May through September.
When you visit Niagara Falls, you’ll find many other things to see and do, too; some may be more appealing than others. But two surefire things worth the time and money are a trip aboard the Maid of the Mist and a visit to the Cave of the Winds.
To verify operating hours, tour schedules, and prices, contact:
Maid of the Mist
New York: (716) 284-8897
Ontario, Canada: (905) 358-5781
Cave of the Winds Tour
For general information about Niagara Falls, visit or call:
Canada: www.niagarafallstourism.com, (800) 563-2557
United States: www.niagarafallsstatepark.com, (716) 278-1796