Niagara Falls – A Winter Wonderland!

American Falls & Niagara Falls, Ontario
American Falls & Niagara Falls, Ontario

Each year I teach a one-day workshop in winter photography at The Holden Arboretum, focusing on icicles and frozen waterfalls. We hike to Stebbins Gulch, a ravine cut in sandstone and shale, and photograph some impressive icicles and a 15-foot frozen waterfall in the Gulch. I also included a chapter on waterfalls in my book, A Photographer’s Guide to Ohio. Despite traveling thousands of miles around Ohio and other eastern U.S. states in search of photogenic waterfalls, I had never made a winter visit to Niagara Falls, the mother of all American waterfalls and one of the largest waterfalls in the world. Recently I drove to Niagara Falls, only a 3-1/2 hour drive from my hometown of Cuyahoga Falls in northeast Ohio, and spent a day exploring this monumental cascade.        

American Falls, Niagara Falls State Park
American Falls, Niagara Falls State Park

The best place to begin a visit is Niagara Falls State Park, which was opened in 1885 and is the oldest state park in the United States. I began my visit at the main Visitor Center, which charges $10 for the combined entrance/parking fee. Pick up a park guide here, check out the many exhibits in the Visitor Center, then walk down the stairs to access the trails to the edge of the American Falls, over which the waters of the Niagara River plunge for a height of 70-100 feet to the rocks above the river, which is 188 feet below the lip of the falls. Amazingly, only 10 percent of the flow from the Niagara River passes over the American Falls, the other 90 percent cascades over the much larger Horseshoe Falls on the Ontario side of the river.

Ice on Trees, Niagara Falls State Park
Ice on Trees, Niagara Falls State Park

The paths were snow covered and very slippery in places, and I was glad I had brought my Yak Trax to provide extra stability. The trees, fences, lamps and other structures near the falls were encased in ice, providing many photographic opportunities. For this trip, I used my 36-megapixel Nikon D800E SLR camera. I really didn’t need all the megapixels, but the D800E has a superb full-frame CMOS sensor with a very high dynamic range, and I wanted to capture the maximum amount of detail in the sunlit snow and ice. There were plenty of visitors enjoying the park, but the few dozen people there were a tiny fraction of the crowds that visit the Falls during the warmer months.

There are excellent views of the rim of the American Falls, which flow from east to west, from the Observation Tower close to the north edge of the American Falls. However, you are looking, more or less, along the rim of the falls and it is not possible to view the American Falls head-on from the United States side. For head-on vistas of both the American Falls and the much bigger Horseshoe Falls you’ll need to cross the nearby Rainbow Bridge to Ontario, Canada. Be sure to bring a valid passport, and leave any firearms you may own at home; you are not allowed to bring guns into Canada. For some reason, I always seem to get the third degree from the customs officials when I visit Canada, but after several minutes I managed to convince the guy that I was visiting purely for pleasure and he allowed me to drive through.

American Falls & Bridal Veil Falls from Niagara Parkway, Ontario
American Falls & Bridal Veil Falls from Niagara Parkway, Ontario

On the Canadian side of the Niagara River, you enjoy a frontal view of the American Falls as well as Bridal Veil Falls, which is the much smaller waterfall separated from the American Falls by Luna Island, which is closed in winter. There was a perfect mix of flowing water, ice and snow during my visit. Usually I prefer overcast lighting when photographing waterfalls, but the monumental scale of Niagara Falls means that you will often want to include some sky in your compositions, and a clear blue sky, which I enjoyed all day during my visit, is much better for scenic vistas of the falls. I used a tripod for the photos I made in Niagara Falls State Park, but along the Niagara Parkway in Canada, with image stabilization available on my Nikon lenses, I was able to handhold all of the photos with ease. Because I wanted to show the awesome power of the falling water I used a fast shutter speed, usually 1/125-second or 1/250-second, to  partially freeze the water, rather than a slow speed, which would have created an ethereal blur.

American Falls & Bridal Veil Falls Detail, Niagara Falls
American Falls & Bridal Veil Falls Detail, Niagara Falls

In the photo above, Bridal Veil Falls is the smaller waterfall on the right, separated from the American Falls by Luna Island.

Parking along the Niagara Falls Parkway is prohibited, although many drivers pulled over and parked for a quick photo or two, until they were moved on by the ever vigilant Niagara Falls Park rangers. If you want to take your time and stroll along the Parkway to visit the best viewpoints, you’ll need to park at the large parking area, where the fee is $10, next to the Visitor Center near the Horseshoe Falls, then walk through the building and down the escalator to doors that lead out to the walkway along the edge of the Niagara River.

Frozen Niagara River and Horseshoe Falls, Ontario
Frozen Niagara River and Horseshoe Falls, Ontario
Panorama of Rim of Horseshoe Falls
Panorama of Rim of Horseshoe Falls

The Horseshoe Falls carry 90 percent of the Niagara River’s flow, and they are an awesome sight at any time of year. During my visit, there was a continual spray of ice cold water near the Horseshoe Falls, and I needed to wipe the water droplets from the front of my lens before every photograph. The walkway is quite slippery, and several people fell during my visit, even though a salt truck drove along the walkway continually, spreading salt pellets on the concrete. Wear your Yak Trax here if you visit during an icy winter.

North Edge of Horseshoe Falls from Niagara Parkway, Ontario
North Edge of Horseshoe Falls from Niagara Parkway, Ontario

If you look at the more distant view of the Horseshoe Falls, above, you will notice part of a rainbow on the left side of the picture. During my visit, a gorgeous double rainbow appeared over the Niagara River below Horseshoe Falls. Most of the rainbow is shown in the photograph below.

Rainbow over Niagara River below Horseshoe Falls, Ontario
Rainbow over Niagara River below Horseshoe Falls, Ontario

I thought about staying for several more hours to view the falls lit up at night, but finally decided I preferred photographing Niagara Falls au naturel – at least during this first winter visit. I returned to the United States over the Rainbow Bridge and made a leisurely drive back home to Cuyahoga Falls, arriving around 9:30 pm.

In addition to the night lights on the falls, there are many other subjects to photograph here in winter, including the Niagara River above the falls and the funky architecture of the town of Niagara Falls, New York. Motel rooms are very reasonable during winter, and if you are so inclined you can test your gambling skills at a casino in the town and two more casinos in Niagara Falls, Ontario.

As I write these notes on Thursday, February 13, 2014 the Weather Channel is predicting much warmer temperatures next week, so if you would like to visit Niagara Falls at its winter best head there over the next few days to enjoy this winter wonderland of snow, ice and falling water.

Leave a Reply

Close Menu