5 Top Spots to Paddle and Bike Along the Erie Canalway Trail

New York’s Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor is an adventure-seekers dream. With more than 500 miles of interconnected canals, rivers, and lakes, and 365-miles of Canalway Trail, you can paddle or cycle your way across the entire Empire State.

You’ll find beautiful scenery, fascinating history, and truly unique cycling and paddling along the Erie Canal from Buffalo to Albany. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this living waterway adds distinctive flavor in the form of canal structures like locks and lift bridges, working tugs and other vessels, friendly vacationers in boats of all stripes, and canal communities that are intriguing and fun destinations.

And with more than 140 paddling access sites, as well as several boater-biker-hiker facilities that allow overnight camping at canal parks, it’s easier than ever to enjoy the waterway and trail. For cyclists, more than three-quarters of the Canalway Trail is off-road and relatively flat. On-road segments are well marked, making it easy to ride longer distances. For paddlers, it’s all about the experience of being on the oldest, continuously operating canal system in America. You’ll navigate century old locks, pass stunning stone aqueducts, paddle alongside tugboats and cruisers, and experience narrow flatwater stretches and wider river segments. You can also expect to see a diversity of birds and wildlife, unique geology, and varying terrain.

Pro tip: When you come, be sure to participate in the Canalway Challenge. Choose a personal mileage goal—15, 90, 180, or 360 miles—and track your progress on the water or trail to earn rewards, including discounts from EMS! Here are several best bet trips for cycling and paddling (listed west to east), guaranteed to take you on an unforgettable journey along the Erie Canal.

Picturesque Lockport. | Credit: Robert Dunn
Picturesque Lockport. | Credit: Robert Dunn

Buffalo to Rochester

Distance: 90 miles one-way
Recommended Activity: Cycling

This 90-mile stretch in western New York boasts some of the best cycling along the Erie Canal. Plan a long weekend, so you have time to poke around the many canal villages along this route, each with their own unique shops, restaurants, and cultural attractions. The trail is off-road and flat, so it’s great for families, as well as experienced cyclists. You can easily break the route into a series of day trips.

Along the way, be sure to make time to stop in Lockport. Here, you’ll find a staircase of five locks used in the 1800s alongside two towering locks that replaced them in 1918. Lockport’s canal historic district includes the Erie Canal Discovery Center, with fun canal exhibits for kids, as well boat tours, paddling rentals, a cave tour, and a zip line over the canal for the adventurous. There are good dining options nearby, including an urban winery and premium local ice cream.

Twilight on the Erie Canal in Fairport. | Credit: Keith Boas
Twilight on the Erie Canal in Fairport. | Credit: Keith Boas

Pittsford to Fairport (just east of Rochester)

Distance: 13 miles round-trip
Recommended Activity: Cycling

Here’s a short cycling trip that will give you a taste of all that the Erie Canal has to offer. It’s a 13-mile round trip that is entirely off road. Start at Schoen Place in Pittsford, a lively waterfront destination with numerous specialty shops and restaurants. Cycle east to Fairport, another popular summer spot for canal travelers. You’ll find lots of choices for food, ice cream, coffee, and craft beer on both ends, as well as in Bushnell’s Basin, which you’ll pass about 3 miles east from Pittsford. If you want to sample both cycling and paddling, cycle to Fairport and rent a kayak there to get out on the water for an hour or two.

Cycling over the Old Erie Canal in Dewitt. | Credit: Kristin Mosher
Cycling over the Old Erie Canal in Dewitt. | Credit: Kristin Mosher

Cycle the Old Erie Canal

Distance: 36 miles one-way
Recommended Activity: cycling

This cycling trip takes you along the section of the Erie Canal that was used throughout the 1800s, but was abandoned in 1918 when the canal was enlarged and the route moved north of Syracuse. The old canal still has water in it and will give you a firsthand sense of the scale and character of the canal that opened a continent. You’ll cycle east on the former towpath through the Old Erie Canal State Historic Park, which runs for 36 miles from DeWitt to Rome.

You can cycle this route in one day, but making it a two-day trip will leave more time for you to enjoy all there is to do along the way without rushing. Just 5 miles from the start, take a hike or swim at Green Lakes State Park, which boasts two deep, aquamarine glacial lakes. At 11 miles, visit Chittenango Landing Canal Boat Museum, where canal boats were once built and repaired. Further on in the Village of Canastota (mile 18), you’ll find everyone’s favorite cycling fuels: ice cream and craft beer. When you arrive at the endpoint in Rome, visit Fort Stanwix National Monument, and refuel again at one of several outstanding Italian restaurants.

The Erie Canal in Little Falls. |Credit: Bart Carrig
The Erie Canal in Little Falls. |Credit: Bart Carrig

Little Falls

Distance: 6.2 miles round-trip west or 10.6 miles one-way east
Recommended Activity: paddling

The town of Little Falls is a historic gem on the Erie Canal. It was once a hub for shipping local cheeses throughout the world. Now, it is home to antique and boutique shops and an arts center, and is known for its rock climbing, annual cheese festival, and boating and cycling opportunities.

You can rent a canoe or kayak at Little Falls Harbor or launch your own and paddle west to Lock E18 through a beautiful part of the Mohawk Valley. At Lock 18 you can paddle for some distance up the Mohawk River to get a sense of what the river looked like before it was canalized. You’ll travel with the current back to Little Falls for a 6.2 mile round trip.

You can also paddle east from Little Falls through the largest lock on the Erie Canal, Lock E17, stop at the home of Revolutionary War General Nicholas Herkimer, pass through Lock E16, and end at a place with warm showers at the Saint Johnsville Municipal Marina. This is a 10.62 mile one-way trip, best suited to experienced paddlers.

Paddlers in the Waterford Flight. | Credit: Stephanie Obkirchner
Paddlers in the Waterford Flight. | Credit: Stephanie Obkirchner

Waterford Flight

Distance: 2.7 miles one-way
Recommended Activity: paddling

Erie Canal Locks 2 through 6 make up the Waterford Flight, a set of five locks with a total lift of 169 feet in just over 1.5 miles. Until recently, these locks were the highest lift in the shortest span in the world. Paddling through the flight makes an outstanding half-day trip, with dramatic scenery, towering locks, and pleasant, easy paddling.

You can rent a kayak or launch your own at the Alcathy’s Boat Launch at the top of the Flight and take out at the Waterford Point Boat Ramp at the end. You’ll want to leave a vehicle or arrange for a ride at the take-out point to facilitate your return. This trip takes you through two guard gates, past the Waterford Canal Shops where canal boats are repaired, and through five locks. Each lock takes about 20 minutes. This is an excellent trip for beginner to experienced paddlers.

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