Frozen Fun: Enjoying Niagara Falls in Winter
In January, an intense and extended period of bitter cold weather embraced the Niagara Falls area. The deep freeze resulted in the falls becoming as much a wall of ice as a waterfall. So much so, that the national news media reported that the falls appeared to be frozen over. I will readily admit that it got our attention way down here in Southeast Texas.
Our interest in experiencing this frozen phenomenon was piqued enough that we started investigating flights, hotels and cars to see it with our own eyes. Family obligations meant we had to wait a couple of weeks after initially hearing about Niagara's icy conditions to make the trip. But, being that it was the heart of winter in historically frigid climes, we were reasonably confident that the environment would not change dramatically before we arrived.
We packed multiple sets of long underwear and several layers of outerwear and off we went as ice-hunting Texans to the frigid, frozen north. What we found at Niagara Falls was a scene that looked as though Jack Frost and Mr. Freeze had battled an epic 15 rounder with super-soaker freeze-blaster water guns. It was beautiful.
The emerald green caste of the Niagara River was outlined and framed in white by the snow and ice.
A frozen glaze coated nearby buildings, lights, walkways and ornamental fencing with a wintry spread.
People cloaked in their warmest wear huddled at water's edge to see and to be a part of the awesome setting.
A sign we saw was surely speaking the truth with its words of warning and wisdom:
Researchable historical data suggests that the falls have never completely frozen over in modern history. Even with the outward appearance of such an event, in years of the most brutal of winter weather, water flows behind and beneath the ice. But, if it looks like it's frozen and it acts like it's frozen and feels like it's frozen … well, it makes for a great story and captivating photos.
The water did flow rather freely during our one-day visit that happened a few weeks after the first news of this year's "frozen" falls. There were certainly accumulations of ice and the river bed below the falls was, for practical purposes, frozen. But, that day was not a minus 5 alarm freeze event that would qualify for an invasion of television news crews to report on the falls. That didn't stop it from being a very cool -- to say the least -- event.
How to Plan a Trip to See a Frozen Niagara
Check the Weather and Dress Warmly: First and foremost, check the weather forecast and plan your trip during the historically coldest times of the year. While the upcoming forecast is still below freezing at Niagara for this weekend and the low on Wednesday is predicted to be 7, March will generally bring a slight warming trend to the area. If you can't make it to Niagara ASAP and want to see a frozen-ish falls, put it on your calendar for next winter.
It can be very cold, windy and still misty in the winter, so pack your winter warmest.
January and February are likely your best bets for enjoying a frozen wonderland. Regardless of your timing, you might want to book your hotels with points now as several options are getting pricier when award chart changes kick in this month -- more on that in a minute.
Visit the US and Canada: We spent time on both sides of the falls, and recommend that strategy to others. We visited the American side during a moderately heavy snow shower and the weather event may help explain why Niagara Park was mostly deserted while we were there. It is actually a lovely park with an abundance of trees and extensive walkways that lead you to multiple up close and personal viewing points of all three sets of falls. If you visit in the winter, the crowds are likely much less than in the summer, allowing you to do and see more with ease. (Be sure and bring a credit card with no foreign transaction fees to the Canadian side.)
Thankfully, information centers with souvenirs, concessions and restrooms are available even in the winter. However, don't plan on a ride on the Maid of the Mist boat tour when there is ice coating the water. But there are two bridges cross the Niagara River to give you great visual access to the river as the water rushes toward the brink.
Journey Behind the Falls: To maximize the experience and to come as close as possible to the fury and the frost, we decided to check out the available attraction, Journey Behind the Falls. Winter rates of $11.50 for adults were in effect because the ice buildup had closed the primary observation decks. This activity is essentially a series of tunnels that extend as much as 150 feet behind the falls that give visitors portals to view, hear and feel its thunderous power. Even though the access was restricted due to the ice, we spent 30 to 45 minutes enjoying this unique feature that we highly recommend regardless of the season of your visit.
Visit on a Sunny Day, If You Can: As we returned to the Canadian side, the snow gave way to sunshine and the sunshine gave birth to the ever-ready afternoon rainbows at the bottom of Horseshoe Falls. So, if you have a couple of days in the area, choose the sunny one to go and view Niagara up close and personal.
See the Nighttime Light Show: As darkness approached, we started anticipating the nightly light show that illuminates the falls. LED lighting, that was installed in 2016, now provides the source of the magic. Banks of lights are affixed in multiple locations to give bright, colorful and entertaining panoramic light coverage to the entire sweep of the falls. Starting at dusk, the falls come alive with a programmed array of lights across the color spectrum. They change, they dance, they make you smile.
The light spectacular is readily visible from anywhere the falls can be seen and operates from dusk until an hour or two after midnight, depending on the season. There have been varying degrees of falls illumination since 1925 and they play an integral and important role in the overall visitor experience.
Where to Stay: There are many hotels to chose from close to the falls and most have some rooms that are advertised as "falls view." Now, this view is open to some interpretation and can come down to what your definition of "view" is. The rooms with the best view come at a premium price. Though thankfully, Niagara Falls hotel prices are generally less in the winter than in peak summer months, so price out cash and award prices to see which offers the better value.
A few years ago, we splurged for one night for such an accommodation at the Marriott Niagara Falls Fallsview Hotel & Spa. In the winter, paid rates can start at just $100 CAD, though award rates are a painful 50k Marriott points per night.
Fallsview rooms are 50,000 points plus $30 CAD per night or are priced higher with cash than standard rooms. Years ago, we did have a room on a high floor on the falls side and our view of the falls was memorable and remarkable and we considered the stay as a once-in-a-lifetime good investment.
We would recommend that, if you are interested in having the best observation angle, you need to be your own best investigative reporter and advocate. Marriott Fallsview, Embassy Suites Niagara Falls Fallsview (with per night awards ranging from 26k to 70k Hilton Honors points), Hilton Niagara Falls/Fallsview (from 25k to 70k points) and Sheraton on the Falls (Category 6, from 50k Marriott points per night) all consistently rank near the top in this category.
While we haven't stayed there, the Embassy Suites certainly seems to have the best location as it is close to the falls and offers unobstructed sight lines (and there's free breakfast). Some Niagara properties you may want to book now before they get pricier:
- Four Points by Sheraton Niagara Falls — Moving from a Category 3 Marriott to a Category 4
- Sheraton Niagara Falls —Moving from a Category 5 Marriott to a Category 6 (so use a 35k certificate now if you have one)
We were in the Niagara Falls area during the winter for less than a day as our goal was quite specific. We had already enjoyed much that the area has to offer in the warmer months. Niagara Falls in the winter proved to be an adventure that we are glad we followed through on. The smiles we left Niagara Falls with weren't just frozen on, they were real. And, when we are old(er) and rehashing events in our lives, we can recount to our great-grandchildren that time we saw Niagara Falls "frozen." They are going to love it. Safe travels!
Looking for other cold-weather travel ideas? Check out these posts:
- Visit an Ice Castle in Colorado Ski Country
- Skiing at 70 — Ski Tips for Seniors
- Fresh Tracks: What’s New and Noteworthy at Colorado Ski Resorts in 2019 for Families
- You Can Now Visit the World’s Largest Ice and Snow Festival
- Best Ski Resorts for Families in North America
- Unforgettable Alaska Winter Adventures for Families
- Why Crested Butte, Colorado, Is America’s Most Idyllic Family Ski Town