Our weekend trip to Niagara Falls was very spontaneous and last-minute. We just moved to Chicago and had a free weekend. Why not visit Niagara Falls? Seeing Niagara Falls has been on my American Bucket List for quite awhile now! And, ten hours of driving is a lot closer than I ever lived to Niagara Falls, so there I was: booking my hotel just a week ahead, packing suitcases, and buying my favorite road-trip snacks!
Driving to Niagara Falls from Chicago
Is it even a good idea? Especially, if you only have one weekend.. Driving to Niagara Falls from Chicago is just about nine hours if you decide to take toll roads the whole way. But, that adds $60 round-trip to your weekend getaway. That’s why we decided to use tolls just half of the time (where it would save the most time for the lowest price.) We only used toll roads as we were going through Indiana to save some time and got to our hotel in Buffalo in about ten hours with a couple of gas station stops.
Niagara Falls State Park
A quick disclosure: many people say that a trip to the Canadian side offers a better view and more entertainment. This opinion is so popular that I even doubted if going just to the American side would be worth it. On this trip, we only visited the American side of the Falls and found plenty to do. All pictures and recommendations in this post are about the American side of Niagara Falls. And if you have any doubts about going, you should continue reading this article!
Best time to Visit Niagara Falls
The best time to visit Niagara Falls is in the Summer. June to August is peak season, and while the hotel prices are at its highest, it’s for a good reason. Average temperatures are in the low 80s. But, with mists and breezes from the waterfalls it feels a bit cooler.
We went to Niagara Falls in July, the weather was perfect: in the upper 70F most of the time. In the morning you could really feel the breeze from the falls that almost felt like rain. In the evening, it often rains in Niagara Falls because of the humidity in the area, but it usually doesn’t stay long.
Summer is a great time for road trips and vacations anywhere in the United States and abroad. Another reason a summer trip to Niagara Falls is a great idea are the nightly fireworks you can see over Niagara Falls in the summer months. See the full schedule here!
Worst Time to Visit
Niagara Falls State Park doesn’t close and there are no specific Niagara Falls open dates. You can see Niagara Falls “year-round, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week”. However, some of the attractions at Niagara Falls State Park are only open until October or November, such as Maid of the Mist and Cave of the Winds. Even some viewing areas may be closed during the winter months due to ice. Without doing at least one of those, the trip wouldn’t be complete. Because it gets pretty cold in the winter, I would recommend going to Niagara Falls in the summer or early fall!
The worst time to go is in January to February, the coldest time of the year in the area. Instead, visit one of the locations that’s more lovely in the winter!
What to Wear if You Go in the Summer
I wore a ridiculous long dress in the morning to take some Instagram-worthy pictures. But after being covered with sweat by lunch time, I changed into some jean shorts and a t-shirt, (a lot more appropriate for the trip!)
The most important thing to take with you when you visit Niagara Falls is a rain jacket and water-resistant shoes. If you are thinking about doing any of the adventures, like riding Maid of the Mist to the bottom of the falls or hiking near the falls, you will be absolutely soaked otherwise! To avoid any other packing questions, use this Ultimate Packing Checklist before you go!
Is Niagara Falls NY Free?
Yes, if you walk to Niagara Falls and just look at them from the top, it will be absolutely free. But, of course, you are going to want to see more. In fact, the Niagara Falls website says that you can park for free at several locations and ride a free shuttle to get around. When we arrived to the “free” location (Niagara Gorge Discovery Center), not only there was no free parking, the shuttle cost was $3 per ride per adult and just entering the Discovery Center was $3.
If you are planning a budget for your trip (I always am), use this easy Travel Budget Template I created to better manage your expenses!
Parking at Niagara Falls
Instead of trusting the Niagara Falls website, head to the Parking Lot 2 right next to the park for just $10 for the whole day. From that parking lot, you’re just minutes away from the best views of the falls, Cave of the Winds Entrance, and just a short walk from the Maid of the Mist Entrance. It was the cheapest parking lot we could find that was pretty much in the middle of the park!
Best Views at the US side of Niagara Falls
Some of the best view in the park are the Terrapin Point and the Nikola Tesla Monument on Goat Island. And, of course, to have a full experience of the falls you should do one of the experiences at the park. You can go to the Niagara Falls Observation Tower, hike the Cave of the Winds or ride the famous Maid of the Mist.
Cave of the Winds
Cave of the Winds is one of the most popular adventures of the Niagara Falls State park. It includes a hike on the wooden walkways for an “up-close & wet view of the Bridal Veil Falls.” You will get the famous yellow poncho and be able to get really close to the waterfall! The whole experience will cost you $20, but it’s worth it!
Maid of the Mist
Maid of the Mist is a boat ride you can take that goes next to all 3 of the falls: the American Falls, Bridal Vail and the Horseshoe Falls. After you are done with your boat trip, you can go up the rocks on a little hike next to the American Falls and go the Observation Tower. All of that is included in your boat ride for $20 per person! The boat ride is just $15 minutes, but you can hang around next to the falls for as long as you’d like!
One Day Itinerary – Things to Do at Niagara Falls
The best time to arrive to the Niagara Falls State Park is early in the morning. That way, the parking lot will have plenty of spaces and there won’t be as many people. As soon as you arrive, I recommend heading straight to the boat tour or the Cave of the Winds. If you go early, the lines won’t be as long.
Ride the Boat or Hike the Cave of the Winds in the Morning
The rainbow shows up early in the morning and the best way to see it is from the boat! We rode the Maid of the Mist and the experience can’t be compared to anything else. When you get so close to the falls, you can feel the mist like rain on your face. You can feel and hear the strength of the water and it gives you energy.
All I could think about was how the European explorers must have felt when they came upon these waterfalls. (As long as they didn’t discover them by going down the river)
Have Lunch and Visit the Aquarium
For lunch, I would recommend heading to town and going to one of the cafes in Niagara Falls. Some of the popular ones include Third Street Retreat Eatery and Pub, Kathi Roll or Michael’s Restaurant for some Italian food. After, I recommend spending the afternoon at the Aquarium to avoid the crowds and the heat.
If you have any questions about taking your dog to the park or grilling out at Niagara State Park, see this handy FAQ at the Niagara official Site.
Enjoy the Sunset and Fireworks
At the end of the day, visit the beautiful viewpoints of the park, including the Terrapin Point and enjoy the sunset over the falls. As I’ve mentioned, in the evenings you can also see the fireworks show above the falls, which is incredible! Here is the recipe for the perfect day at the Niagara Falls State Park.