frozen niagara falls on the american side

The Frozen Niagara Falls are a winter experience like no other

Each winter, New York’s border temperature drops to the point that you’ll see a frozen Niagara falls that creates a bizarre, but beautiful scene that should not be missed. 

The frozen Niagara Falls and Frozen Niagara River

There are two sides to the Niagara story – no, four sides. America and Canada, and summer and winter.

The Niagara River marks the border between New York and Ontario with a bridge that soars high above the surging yet almost completely frozen river below. Both sides have casinos, tourist traps, kitschy souvenir shops, and plenty to see. The Canadian side has the one thing America can’t claim – that iconic view you’ve always known as the Niagara Falls. Instead, it has the American falls, which though beautiful, lack the scale and strength of the Horseshoe Falls – so bring your passport and visa to avoid disappointment. Due to this, we focused our attention on the Canadian side. This meant missing the Erie Canal and Cave of Winds but gaining the absolute waterfront views of the Horseshoe Falls and, more importantly, a vantage point to see frozen Niagara falls. 

The ice flows past the frozen Niagara Falls

It’s going to get cold

It’s winter, and that means the weather is brutally cold. Half of the tourist experiences have been mothballed until summer re-emerges. There’s no Maiden of the Mist getting you right up to the face of the falls and getting annoyingly in the way of your photos, no zip-lining out over the river and no decent coffee in the general vicinity ( though we’re sure a local will direct you to their secret spot). The tourist information center is closed, and the place is a bit of a ghost town – which is awesome for us. There’s still the cave behind the falls, the Imax, the average looking amusement park, and Margaritaville open. You’ll also find every American chain within easy reach – a little too close to the border not to – and plenty of faceless, soulless sports bars. 

With the torrent from Horseshoe Falls, Niagara River never is completely frozen

The Frozen Niagara Falls 

Niagara’s unique position, bridging Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, makes for a picturesque isthmus between Canada and America. It’s at this point that Erie drains into Ontario in the most dramatic fashion. The falling water gushes over a 187ft drop pumping six million cubic feet over the crest every minute.

The frozen Niagara Falls and Frozen Niagara River
The American Falls are transformed into a frozen wonderland.

While everyone identifies the falls with images of the Horseshoe Falls, there are two others – Bridal Veil Falls, and the American Falls. In winter, the American Falls are restricted by the brutal cold, which freezes up much of the facade, yet Mother Nature and gravity ensure it still gets through in its frozen state it looks like Whoville from the Grinch. 

The frozen Niagara Falls and Frozen Niagara River at the Horseshoe Falls
You can get right up alongside the Horseshoe Falls and it’s incredible.

There’s no snow predicted, yet as we get closer to the barrier, we’re covered with snow. It’s not until later do we find out that it’s the mist immediately freezing as it hits an Arctic updraft. The sheer power of the Horseshoe Falls has to be seen, heard, and felt to appreciate fully. The volume and gravity force the water over the rocks to the churning river below. With all the ice, the clear water takes on an aqua hue, which adds to its beauty. 

The frozen Niagara Falls and Frozen Niagara River

The Skylon Tower 

The Skylon Tower is part of a somewhat dated shopping mall with a mini-bowling alley, and retro arcade machines – the kind of place that was cool in the early 90s and that have become uncool to the point that it’s missed the boat on being a cool retro arcade. It’s a weird time capsule made worse by the fact it’s empty bar two guys playing bowling with baseball size balls down a half size alley aiming at quarter size pins hanging on metal cables. Not going to lie, it would be perfect for the man cave. 

You can see what Niagara is like in summer
In summer, Niagara is full of activities but in winter, it’s all about the frozen falls.

Two elevator carriers shoot you up the exterior of the tower, offering epic views of the falls. But first, a cheesy green screen photo. Smile. Now, look scared. Now throw your arms in the air, looking startled. Next. Nope. The finished product is your choice of hammed up scenarios like floating over the Niagara Falls in a wooden keg. 

The Skylon Tower allows you to look down on the mighty frozen Niagara Falls
Take the elevator up for 360-degree views of Niagara.

Thunderbirds are go!

The yellow elevator doors are marked with a number that adds to the feel that you’re in an episode of the Thunderbirds – compounded by the appearance of the elevator carriage, which is a bright yellow pod crawling up the side of a tower.

Watch the frozen Niagara Falls come alive as the night falls
As the sun goes down, the Niagara Falls are transformed…

From inside the top of the tower, you can explore two of three levels; the third is a revolving restaurant where you are slowly rotated 360 degrees while you wine and dine. Your yellow thunderbird pod delivers you to the two other levels. One is inside, offering a warm haven to take in the spectacular views. A lower level provides direct access to the elements, with a safety barrier and grills providing relatively unrestricted views around the tower. The icy breezes swirl snow up from below and burn any exposed skin, but it’s worth it. As day turns to night, a light show illuminates the falls from within, providing a colorful red, white and blue glow. 

The frozen niagara falls at night become a light show
…into a beautiful light show.

Fallsview Casino 

Fallsview Casino is a modern casino built in the early 2000s. Like pretty much every major casino, it features an internal shopping mall of fashionable upscale boutiques, a food court, and eight restaurants. Avoiding the 24-hour cafe/ bar, our hunger pangs have us choosing between a fine-dining Chinese restaurant and a steakhouse. The Creek Chop House wins with its selection of dry-aged sirloin and tasty craft beers.

The Fallsview Casino is on the Canadian side of the border
The closest casino to the Horseshoe Falls is the Fallsview Casino.

Across from the chophouse, a large crowd is congregating to see tonight’s show. It’s 90s band, Live that is ironically playing live, but tickets are sold out. Instead, we head inside to play the slot machines. Fallsview is a large casino with a range of table games and virtual roulette and poker systems. There are canyons of slots, both older favorites and state-of-the-art ones like Game of Thrones and Anchorman. Tonight’s not our lucky night, though, so we leave with empty pockets and full bellies.

Fallsviews View casino foyer in Niagara, Canada

One last look at the frozen Niagara Falls 

Returning for another view of the frozen Niagara falls early the next morning, the sun briefly appears from behind the clouds to add a golden glow to the icy waters. Icy rain is falling hard and freezes as solid drops when it hits our thick coats. It’s like sleet, but unlike any we’ve experienced. It isn’t that we’ve been singled out by the rain gods. The icy downpour is from the mist rising from the churning falls being turned to ice in the sub-zero temperatures and falling back to earth as faux sleet.

Be sure to wear thick, weatherproof clothing

Rather than saturating our clothes, it leaves an icy layer that can be chipped off. It’s enough to deter a visit to the behind the falls experience, where you go right up to the base of the falls. We’ve seen the photos of people in bright red, blue or yellow plastic spray jackets and ponchos getting that perfect shot but to be honest; it’s freezing cold and as much as we usually go out of our way for a good shot, the conditions are just too brutal to get soaked. 

The Horseshoe Falls in Niagara
The Horseshoe Falls look magical in the early morning light.

Instead, we make our way back to the bus station and Buffalo, satisfied that we have been suitably awed by one of America’s most iconic sites of natural beauty, albeit best experienced from across the border. 

Our bus departs from Queen Street, a rather dated section of town.
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WHAT?

Niagara is a twin city straddling the American and Canadian borders. It is home to the dramatic Niagara Falls.

WHERE?

Niagara is on the northwest frontier of New York State and Ontario, right on the Niagara River.

HOW

Fly into Niagara Airport, Buffalo or Toronto. We took the Greyhound that services between Toronto and Buffalo. Rental cars are available from each airport. If you plan on crossing any borders, ensure you have applied for the appropriate electronic visas. They are cheap, and the process is painless.

Crossing the Border:

Crossing the border is relatively painless, assuming you’re not a bad hombre or carrying loads of illegal drugs, which we’re sure happens lots as weed is legal on the Canadian side of the border. Driving, there’s a tollway and checkpoint on the respective sides of the border.

Traveling via Greyhound, we have to disembark and enter the customs and border security agency office. You present your passport or green card and a print out of your ESTA. You’ll be asked a couple do casually pointed questions about where you’ve been and what you did or what you’re planning to do then have to put your bags through the X-ray machine. 

Tip: If you plan on using cabs or Ubers in Niagara, Ubers are not permitted to go across borders and will refuse service, but regular cabs can. 

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John Quinn
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John Quinn

Totally worth braving the cold. It’s an amazing display by nature. I enjoyed your commentary on the “facilities” located nearby. Very whimsical

Crystal
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It almost looks like little icebergs in the water. What a great trip! I think its definitely worth heading to Niagara Falls in the winter. There is something really cool about frozen waterfalls.