• Photo: Songquan Deng / Shutterstock

Niagara Falls

20 mi north of Buffalo, 80 mi south of Toronto, 90 mi west of Rochester.

Niagara Falls has inspired artists for centuries. English painter William H. Bartlett, who visited here in the mid-1830s, noted that "you may dream of Niagara, but words will never describe it to you." Although cynics have called it everything from "water on the rocks" to "the second major disappointment of American married life" (Oscar Wilde)—most visitors are truly impressed. Missionary and explorer Louis Hennepin, whose books were widely read across Europe, described the falls in 1678 as "an incredible Cataract or Waterfall which has no equal." Nearly two centuries later, Charles Dickens declared, "I seemed to be lifted from the earth and to be looking into Heaven." Henry James recorded in 1883 how one stands there "gazing your fill at the most beautiful object in the world." The thundering cascades were dramatically immortalized by Hollywood in 1953, when Marilyn Monroe starred as a steamy siren, luring her jealous husband down to the crashing waters in the film Niagara. The film single-handedly spurred the modern-day popularity of the falls as a vacation destination.

The falls prompted the invention of alternating electric current, and they drive one of the world's largest hydroelectric developments. As with many other geographic features, Niagara's origins are glacial. Thousands of years ago the glaciers receded, diverting the waters of Lake Erie northward into Lake Ontario. (Before that, they had drained south; such are the fickle ways of nature.) There has been considerable erosion since, more than 7 mi in all, as the soft shale and sandstone of the escarpment have been washed away. Wisely, there have been major water diversions for a generating station (1954) and other developments (1954–63) that have spread the flow more evenly over the entire crest line of Horseshoe Falls. The erosion is now down to as little as 1 foot every decade. At this rate it will be some 130,000 years before the majestic cascade is reduced to an impressive rapids somewhere near present-day Buffalo, 20 mi to the south.

There are actually two cities called Niagara Falls—one on the U.S. side and the other immediately across the Niagara River in Canada. You can walk from one to the other across the Rainbow Bridge (bring your passport!). The view from Goat Island on the American side is a must, and the Cave of the Winds tour is excellent. Though the city of Niagara Falls is developing slowly, there’s little for tourists outside the Niagara Falls State Park boundaries and the city noticeably struggles with deterioration.

The malls, amusement parks, hotels, tacky souvenir shops, and flashy wax museums that surround the falls today (mainly on the Canadian side) attest to the region's maturation into a major tourist attraction. But despite the hordes of visitors jostling unceremoniously for the best photographic vantage point, the astounding beauty of the falls remains undiminished, and unending.

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