Photo: Stefanie Obkirchner/NPS

Overlooked Escape: Your Adventure Guide to the Erie Canal

No matter what your favorite outdoor activity is, you can likely do it near the canal.

Created to move cargo across New York from the Hudson River to Lake Erie, the Erie Canal made history by connecting the Atlantic to the Upper Midwest and beyond via the Great Lakes. While mules did the work pulling barges 15 miles at a time, nowadays the storied canal (and the entire Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor around it) has a much different reputation as an outdoor adventure hub, though one that you can still move through at a relaxed pace. Some visitors are drawn to the area’s notable food and drink scene, including wine country, others to historical sites like the George Eastman House or Women’s Rights National Historical Park, or natural highlights like the Finger Lakes. Whether it’s a love of history, tranquil waters, or adventure, locals and travelers alike come here to bike, walk, paddle, and fish in the unique waterway that cuts through towns and cities across upstate New York.

Ready to see for yourself? Here’s what to know, and what to do when you get here. 

History

Construction on the 363-mile canal across New York started in 1817. At the time, it was an engineering miracle that took workers more than eight years, using little more than human and animal power to dig the 4-foot-deep, 40-foot-wide canal through forests, across rivers on aqueducts, and up and down hills using more than 80 locks. When it finally opened in 1825, it connected not only Albany to Buffalo, but also merchants, farmers, loggers and more to the lands of the expanding American West and Midwest. Today, the waterway still connects the two cities, stretching across the state, though after expansion and rerouting in 1918, it now includes sections of lakes and the Mohawk River. The Erie Canal, its connecting canals, and some nearby land was folded into the National Park Service as the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor in 2000. 

Wildlife

The canal and surrounding areas are popular places for wildlife-spotting. Bird-watchers will likely see mallards, wood ducks, common mergansers, great blue herons, tree swallows, and even bald eagles. For fans of terrestrial creatures, the shorelines host white-tailed deer, mink, rabbits, foxes, and snapping turtles in ecosystems that include hardwood forests, wetlands, and floodplain forests. 

Recreating in the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor

No matter what your favorite outdoor activity is, you can likely do it near the canal.

Paddling 

What To Know: The Erie Canal’s calm water is ideal for paddling a kayak or canoe, and many sections, especially in the western parts of the state, have no-wake speed limits that make the water easily navigable even with other boat traffic. The canalway has 140 paddling access points across its length, making it easy to paddle out for a day-trip or section trip, or to paddle the entire length on a multi-day trip (no paddling permits necessary). There are designated campgrounds along the route, and many towns offer canalside facilities like potable water and bathrooms.

The canal has 35 locks that raise and lower boats as the surrounding topography changes, and paddlers can pass through them for free. It’s best, but not required, to call ahead (find the specific lock’s number from these online resources) to give the lock keeper time to prepare for your arrival by raising or lowering the water.

Where To Go: For a pleasant day-trip, launch your kayak or canoe from the Port of Fairport, in the center of the Village of Fairport, N.Y. Paddle west to Bushnell’s Basin. Take out at the docks, stopping at Abbott’s for a frozen custard or Seven Story Brewing for a canalside beer. Paddle back to Fairport for a round-trip just over 7.5 miles. 

Photo: Erie Canalway NHC

Biking

What To Know

The 365-mile Erie Canalway Trail, which runs from Buffalo to Albany, is 87% off-road and mixes sections of dirt, stone dust, and some asphalt perfect for gravel bikes, commuter bikes, and electric bikes, though skinny-tired road bikes may have issues on the looser surfaces. It passes through many towns with bike shops within a stone’s throw of the path, and some of which host helpful infrastructure like racks, pumps, and publicly accessible tools for fixing your bike along the way. Keep in mind: You’ll need to navigate the locks along the way, but most have accessible stairs or a pathway that can often be ridden easily, allowing you to stay on your bike.

Where To Go

Many riders tackle the trail in city-to-city stretches, particularly: Buffalo to Rochester; Rochester to Syracuse; and Syracuse to Albany. Many use the camping facilities at locks to keep their longer tours affordable. For a fun two- to three-day, 84-mile trip, start in Highland Park in downtown Rochester. Pedal eastward toward Syracuse and end at Reed Webster Park. Camp along the route, or look for affordable hotels in Palmyra, Lyons, Clyde, Port Byron, or Weedsport. 

Fishing

What To Know

The canal’s home to many fish species, including largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, pickerel, walleye, carp, and sunfish, among others. Be sure to get your New York State fishing license before casting; $25 for in-state residents and $50 for out-of-state, available online or at a licensed vendor. Beware, though, from late fall to mid-spring, the canal is drained for regular repairs. 

Where To Go

Much of the canal is fishable along the banks beside the walking and biking path. On the eastern side of the state, the Mohawk River constitutes part of the modern canal. In the town of Little Falls, N.Y., fish in the shadow of Lock 17, the canal’s highest lock. Check out Little Falls Marina-Rotary Park where you’ll find fishable docks, kayak and canoe rentals, as well as potable water and bathrooms. You’re likely to find largemouth and smallmouth bass as well as northern pike. For a bit of extra adventure, hop onto nearby Moss Island with impressive rock features popular with local climbers. 

Tips From Locals

Lock keepers (who maintain and operate the locks) are often happy to help with directions, recommendations, and sometimes even a bit of water, just be polite and respectful. 

Most of the locks operate from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., but locking through takes about 15 to 20 minutes; make sure you arrive with plenty of time to go through the lock before it closes for the day. 

If you’re traveling from an out-of-state body of water, be sure to clean the bottom of your boat to prevent the spread of invasive species. Though you don’t need to register your paddlecraft, Boat Stewards at some launches will help you with voluntary inspections.

Many paddlers and bike tourers on longer canal trips forgo cooking gear, opting to shop and eat at stores in towns along the canal's length. Additionally, while some towns have separate docks for motor- and houseboat travelers, they’ll often have water and electricity that paddlers can use.

More Info

eriecanalway.org

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.