Most people drive or take a bus to Niagara Falls. However, there’s an alternate and stylish option: Three bridges across the Canada-USA international border can be crossed on a bicycle, opening up the whole region to bicycling day trips.
Located on the Niagara River which drains Lake Erie into Lake Ontario, the Niagara falls form the highest flow rate of any waterfall in the world, with a vertical drop of more than 50m (165 ft). Horseshoe Falls is the most powerful waterfall in North America, as measured by vertical height and also by flow rate. This is one of the top tourist attractions in USA and Canada.
The Canadian side of Niagara Falls offers a better view of the gigantic twin waterfalls on the Niagara river. Most tourism related infrastructure like bars and restaurants, entertainment venues and accommodation are located on the Canadian side. On weekends and holidays, it is not uncommon to see a large influx of tourists from USA. A majority of them drive across the international border, and the remaining few take the bus.
Canadian tourists may be interested to visit the American side of Niagara Falls to check out a different view of the falls and get a lot closer to it. I have done that numerous times.
Crossing the border on a bicycle
My favourite way of crossing the Canada – USA international border is on a bicycle. Checkout the adjacent (very useful) map. There are four bridges that cross the Niagara river and gorge, and three of them are open for cyclists:
1. Rainbow Bridge
This beautiful steel arch bridge is located in the heart of Niagara Falls and is the most popular point for pedestrians and cyclists to cross over. You need to pay $0.50 to cross this bridge (for a round trip). On the USA side, there are trails that lead you very close to the falls (yes, closer than the Canadian side) but you do not get a grand panoramic view. On the Canadian side, there is an extensive tourist infrastructure and a very memorable view of the American falls, the Bridal Veil Falls and the beautiful Horseshoe (Canadian) falls. A rainbow can often be seen, making perfect pictures.
Tip: Views of the falls from this bridge are simply breathtaking, and I suggest you visit the bridge even if you don’t want to enter the other country. A word of warning though (from personal experience): the bridge is not a tourist place and border control officials will scorn at you if you tell them that you are going to the bridge only for taking pictures. Just say that you are going to the other country (you can always turn back from the immigration office on the other side) and it will be fine. I’ve done this half a dozen times. 😉
2. Queenston-Lewiston bridge
This bridge is located about 10 km north of the Rainbow bridge and is a popular point for truck traffic. I have never biked across this bridge but I plan to do it later this year. Pedestrians are not allowed on this bridge.
↑ ‘Maid of the mist’ tour boat seen in the middle of the Canadian falls
3. Peace Bridge
The Peace Bridge, about 35km south of Niagara Falls, was named to commemorate peace between the United States and Canada after the countries fought a war at the same location. This bridge connects the Canadian town of Fort Erie, ON, with Buffalo, NY, one of the biggest cities in the American Rust belt.
I have vivid memories of crossing the Peace bridge on my bicycle back in 2008 because I was close to getting into a fatal accident. I was going to the Canadian embassy in Buffalo to get my immigration papers. On the Canadian side, there were clear bike paths leading to the bridge, but once I crossed over to the US side, I ended up directly on the Interstate Highway (I-194), much to my shock and dismay. As cars driving at over 100 km/h zoomed past me on my left side and new traffic merged from the right, I was trapped and had to wait on the highway shoulder for a gap. This is very risky and illegal (there was lot of honking)! I was desperately trying to get off the highway asap, but the next exit was quite far away; it certainly doesn’t feel so when you are in a car! I rode on the highway shoulder, a place that collects broken glass, garbage and debris which is a threat to the tires. By the time I exited the highway, I was pretty sure that I’d get pulled up and questioned. Thankfully I was safe and, on the bright side, right in the middle of downtown Buffalo.
I crossed this bridge again few days ago (2012) and was delighted to find safer infrastructure facilities for pedestrians and cyclists on the USA side. There is a special booth for border control, from where you end up on a side street in Buffalo. Checkout this announcement video and maps for details on the paths that bicycles should use. Bravo!
↑ Peace Bridge, seen from Buffalo, USA
4. Whirlpool Bridge
This bridge is about 3 km north of the Rainbow bridge and is open only for people who have a NEXUS card, which is a special permit for frequent travellers. This bridge is not available for pedestrians or cyclists.
↑ The USA side offers more intimate but a limited view of the American falls
These bridges are ideally positioned for touring the entire length of the Niagara river and gorge as shown in the map above. Bike trails connect all bridges together fully on the Canadian side, and partially on the USA side. One of the Niagara bicycle itineraries I have done is to bike on a loop between the Rainbow bridge and the Peace bridge, cycling through US and Canada both.