Planning to visit the American side of Niagara Falls and want to stick to a budget? Here are 20 free things to do in Niagara Falls NY that don’t require a passport. With so many beautiful sites to see and fun things to do, there’s no need to go into Canada at all!
When we were planning our trip to Niagara Falls State Park, so many of the suggestions we found for free things to do at Niagara Falls included mostly places to visit on the Canadian side of the falls – which is a problem if you don’t have a passport.
We had let our passports expire in January and we decided to go to Niagara Falls only 3 weeks before our trip. Since there wasn’t time to get new passports, we were limited to doing things on the American side of Niagara Falls. However, as we quickly discovered, there are a ton of beautiful views and fun things to do on the US side that don’t cost any money.
So, if you are planning a trip to Niagara Falls and will be sticking to the New York side, I wanted to share 20 free things to do at Niagara Falls on the American side. I hope this list is useful to you the next time you visit Niagara Falls New York!
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Free Parking at Niagara Falls State Park
Before I get to my list of free things to do, I wanted to mention where to find free parking at Niagara Falls State Park. There are 4 different parking lots at Niagara Falls, with 3 of them being pay lots. And they are expensive! This frugal mom balks at having to pay $10 to park her minivan for the day!
The free parking lot is at the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center. It’s about a mile walk from the Discovery Center to the falls. So it’s a great place to park if you don’t mind a walk.
The path is paved the entire way. As you walk along, you will be treated to some scenic vistas of the Niagara River, including a neat view of the underneath of the Rainbow Bridge.
If you want to take advantage of the free parking at Niagara Falls, but you don’t want to walk that far, you can buy an inexpensive trolley pass ($3 a person when we were there) that is good for a whole day. The trolley has stops at the Discovery Center and throughout the state park. You can ride the trolley as many times as you want throughout the day.
We also discovered that all parking lots are free after 9 pm – which is great if you are just heading over for the evening to see the fall illumination and fireworks.
Free Things to Do at Niagara Falls on the American side.
#1: Take in the beauty and raw power of the waterfalls.
There is no admission fee to enter Niagara Falls State Park and see the waterfalls.
Niagara Falls is actually a grouping of three waterfalls – each stunningly beautiful. The American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls are both fully on the American side and can be viewed from several spots throughout the state park. Horseshoe Falls straddles the US – Canada border and is best seen at Terrapin Point on Goat Island.
#2: View the nightly falls illumination
Niagara Falls is breathtaking during the day and equally stunning at night. Each night, the falls are lit up by hundreds of colored LED lights.
The light pattern changes every few minutes for a gorgeous light display. Sometimes the falls are lit in specific colors for certain charities or special events. For more information, be sure to check out the Niagara Falls Illumination Schedule.
#3 Oooh and Aaah at the Niagara Falls Fireworks Display
Seeing the falls lit up at night is beautiful, but seeing fireworks explode above them is truly breathtaking and makes for some great photo opps! Fireworks are set off daily during the summer and on the weekends during the spring and fall. For more information, check out the Niagara Falls fireworks display schedule.
The fireworks start at 10 pm, but I would recommend staking out a viewing spot well before that. We viewed the fireworks from Terrapin Point on Goat Island.
Other Free Things to Do at Niagara Falls State Park
#4: Take the bridge to 3 Sisters Islands
A lesser-known area of Niagara Falls State Park is 3 Sisters Islands. Three walking bridges link Goat Island to the 3 Sisters Islands. Along the way, there are signs posted to tell you some of the history.
It’s a peaceful place, a little off the beaten path, and away from most of the crowds. When you reach the last island, you will be treated to a great view of the Canadian Rapids as the water speeds along fast and furious on its way to the thundering Horseshoe Falls.
#5: Take in the exhibits at the Niagara Falls State Park Visitor’s Center
In addition to the gift shop and eateries, the Niagara Falls Visitor Center has several interactive exhibits and displays to help you learn more about the history of the falls. You will also want to take a stroll through the beautiful floral gardens surrounding the Visitor’s Center
#6: Take a Walking Tour of Niagara Falls State Park
Download the free Niagara Falls State Park Walking Tour App and take a self-guided tour of the entire state park and waterfall viewing areas. The app includes comprehensive information for 17 sites that includes historic photos, stories, and videos. The app is available for both Apple and Android devices.
The Niagara Falls State Park walking tour app is a great way to make sure you don’t miss any important spots – like the monument for inventor Nikola Tesla and the historical marker for Nik Wallenda who crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope without a safety harness in 2012.
#7: Tour the Schoellkopf Power Plant Ruins and take the elevator into the gorge
Close to the Niagara Falls Discovery Center is an unassuming building that pays tribute to the 1956 tragedy Schoellkopf Power Station #3. A series of rockslides caused the destruction of 2/3 of the power plant and resulted in the death of an employee.
You can learn all about this bit of Niagara Falls history by taking a self-guided tour of the ruins. Inside the building, pick up the self-guided tour brochure and proceed to take the elevator into the gorge to see the ruins and an up close view of the Niagara River. This is open seasonally.
#8: Take a picnic
Our family loves nothing more than to picnic in a beautiful location surrounded by nature. And you certainly can’t get much better than a picnic at Niagara Falls!
There are several great locations for picnicking in Niagara Falls State Park. There are picnic tables at the Niagara Falls Discovery Center overlooking the gorge. Goat Island also has several picnic areas in the wooded areas on the eastern end of the island.
Free Things to Do in Niagara Falls NY
#9 Hike in the Niagara River Gorge
Hiking the gorge is at the top of my list for free things to do in Niagara Falls, NY. There are numerous places where you can enter the Niagara River Gorge and do some hiking far away from the crowds surrounding the waterfalls. You will be rewarded with stunning scenery and gorgeous views that most visitors to Niagara Falls never see.
You can access the gorge hiking trails via the elevator at the Schoellkopf Power Plant Ruins, by following the Great Gorge Railway Trail that begins at the Discovery Center, or by taking the stone stairs at either Whirlpool State Park or Devil’s Hole State Park.
#10: Visit Whirlpool State Park
Whether you stay up on the rim, or you hike down into the gorge, Whirlpool State Park is an awesome place to see the Whirlpool for which the park is named and the Whirlpool Rapids.
The Niagara Whirlpool is located at a 90 degree bend in the Niagara River. The unique geography of the riverbed causes the water to whirl around before flowing on toward Lake Ontario. It is really a cool site to see.
The Whirlpool Rapids are Class VI Rapids and among the most dangerous in the United States. Be sure to read the informational sign about all the daredevils who have tried to brave the rapids over the years. If you are looking for free things to do near Niagara Falls, Whirlpool State Park is one to definitely add to your must-see list.
#11: Visit De Veaux Woods State Park
Right across the street from Whirlpool State Park is the lesser visited De Veaux Woods State Park. This pretty little park has a playground and several nature trails that go through a meadow and old growth woods.
#12: Visit Devil’s Hole State Park
Devil’s Hole State Park offers picnicking, hiking, and scenic overlooks. If you are adventurous, you can attempt to find the Devil’s Hole Cave for which the park was named.
At Devil’s Hole State Park, you can take the stone staircase down into the Niagara River Gorge for gorgeous views of the river, the Robert Moses Power Plant, and the rock strata of the gorge walls.
#13: Take a bike ride
The multi-use Robert Moses recreational trail is 3.2 miles long, running from the Niagara Falls Discovery Center to Devil’s Hole State Park. The entire length is paved, making it perfect for a family bike ride! You can get some awesome views of the Niagara River along the way.
#14: Pay tribute to a daredevil at Oakwood Cemetery
Although you may find it odd that a cemetery made my list of free things to do at Niagara Falls on the American side, Oakwood Cemetery has some interesting residents that played important roles in the history of Niagara Falls.
Oakwood Cemetery is the final resting place for Annie Edson Taylor – the first woman to go over Niagara Falls and survive. Others who have attempted to go over the falls are buried in Oakwood cemetery as well. You can learn all about them on the Daredevils of Niagara guided tour that is offered every Sunday in season.
#15 Explore the Das Haus German Heritage Museum
The Das Haus German Heritage Museum lets you explore a little bit of the Old Country and learn more about how German immigrants worked and lived in the Niagara Falls area. There is an 1843 log cabin, am 1844 hewn timber barn, and a geneaological research area for people wanting to learn more about their German heritage. Das Haus offers free admission, but welcomes donations.
Free things to do near Niagara Falls, New York
#16: Visit the Niagara Power Vista
If you are looking for free things to do near Niagara Falls, the Niagara Power Vista should be at the top of your list. The Power Vista is a fun and educational place that the whole family can enjoy. It has more that 50 interactive exhibits to help you learn all about hydroelectricity.
The Power Vista also has an observation deck perched 350 feet above the Niagara river where you can get unobstructed views of the gorge. The Power Vista is open 9 to 5 daily and has free admission and parking.
#17: Ride the Discover Niagara Shuttle
Running between the Niagara Falls Visitor Center and Old Fort Niagara, the Discover Niagara Shuttle is a great way to see some of the attractions in the Niagara Falls area outside of the state park. Riding the shuttle is free and you can hop on and hop off at any of the 17 stops along the way at your leisure.
#18: Go fishing on the Niagara River
The Niagara River is a fisherman’s playground with opportunities to catch salmon, trout, bass, walleye perch, and more. Good fishing spots abound both above the falls and below. Please note: New York state does require you to have a fishing license.
If you are planning on fishing during your trip to Niagara Falls, check out this map of public fishing access in the Niagara Falls region.
Fun fact: 80% of the fish that go over Niagara Falls survive the drop!
#19: Visit Stella Niagara Preserve
Stella Niagara Preserve encompasses 29 acres and has 1/4 mile of shoreline. It features walking trails, fishing access, and a place to put kayaks in the water. It’s a peaceful place to get away from the crowds for an hour or two while enjoying the beauty of the natural surroundings.
#20 Get some culture at the Castellani Art Museum
The last thing on the list of free things to do near Niagara Falls is a neat little art museum at Niagara University. The Castellani Art Museum features a collection of 5500 pieces of modern and contemporary art and plays host to traveling exhibits as well. Admission to the art museum is free, but they do accept donations.
Pin this list of free things to do at Niagara Falls on the American side for later:
Did I miss anything? If you know of any other free things to do in Niagara Falls NY, feel free to leave a comment below. Happy exploring!