The Erie Canalway Trail will run for 360 miles in upstate New York—from Buffalo in the west to Albany in the east—linking many other communities along the way, including Rochester, Syracuse, Rome, Utica, and Schenectady. The trail follows the Erie Canal, which opened in 1825.
As of 2016, nearly 280 miles of the trail are complete (almost 80% of the route) with a few remaining gaps. Some trail advocates are striving for the trail's completion by 2017, which would be the bicentennial of the canal's 1817 groundbreaking in Rome.
At the time of the canal's construction, railroads were just coming into vogue. The Mohawk and Hudson, New York’s first railroad, opened in 1831 and ran from Albany to Schenectady. At first, the railroads were seen as competition for the precious canal, so the state’s lawmakers only permitted trains to carry freight during the winter when the canal was closed. But this restriction was soon lifted and, by the late 1800s, trains had clearly won the battle of transportation supremacy. Today, about a third of the Erie Canalway Trail (more than 100 miles) is built on these former railways, largely consisting of the West Shore Line on the trail’s eastern end.
As most of the trail follows these canal and rail corridors, it is nearly level with an average grade of 1 percent. A few steeper grades and hill climbs can be found in the Mohawk Valley section on the trail's eastern half. The majority of the trail is surfaced in stone dust from crushed limestone. In these areas, wide, non-knobby tires are preferable and the use of a hybrid or mountain bike is recommended. The two longest paved sections are at either end of the trail: from Albany to Schenectady and from Buffalo to Pendleton. There are a few on-road gaps throughout the trail, but most are easily navigable with trail signage and road markings. The trickiest on-road gap, which may be more difficult for novice riders, is the section through Syracuse.
For those who want to cross-country ski, the western and central portions of the trail receive the most average snowfall. The trail is open year-round, but it's up to each municipality whether they wish to plow, so check with the local government if you plan to use the trail in the winter months, especially if you want to snowmobile, which is permitted in some of the more rural areas.
Equestrians are allowed, but only at the Old Erie Canal State Park between Syracuse and Rome. Horseback riding is not permitted anywhere else on the trail.
The western segment of the trail begins in downtown Buffalo and travels about 13 miles north to Tonawanda. Part of the route includes the Riverwalk along the Niagara River, which is quite scenic and provides access to two popular recreational amenities in Buffalo: LaSalle Park and Riverside Park, both offering athletic fields, places to picnic, and waterfront views. In Buffalo, you can also cross the river into Canada on the Peace Bridge.
Between North Tonawanda and Lyons, the Erie Canalway Trail continues nearly seamlessly for more than 100 miles. For history buffs, a worthwhile side trip in this section is the Buffalo Niagara Heritage Trail Museum (3755 Tonawanda Creek Road), located just off the trail in Amherst, a suburb of Buffalo. Costumed interpreters and tours of the buildings throughout this 35-acre historical village—including homes, a one-room school house, and working blacksmith shop—provide a tangible sense of 19th-century life here.
Plan to spend some time in Lockport as well. To accommodate the 600-foot elevation change from one end of the canal to the other, dozens of locks were built along the waterway. In the city’s famous “flight of five,” you’ll have the unique opportunity to see one of the few remaining original locks alongside a modern working lock.
Another unforgettable sight is watching one of the lift bridges raise and lower to accommodate the passage of a boat. Many of these low bridges can be found in the central part of the trail in the Rochester area. The bridges, which are just a few feet above the water, required passengers to duck as memorialized in the popular folksong, “Low Bridge, Everybody Down,” written in 1905.
On the south side of Rochester, you’ll find another of the trail’s gems: Genesee Valley Park. The 800-acre park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous landscape architect who helped create New York City’s Central Park. Recreational opportunities abound here, including golf, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, cross-country skiing, picnicking, softball, and soccer.
There’s a 30-mile gap in the trail between Lyons and Port Byron, where the trail picks up again. From Port Byron to the outskirts of Syracuse, the trail stretches about 20 miles. As the trail approaches Syracuse from the west, the Camillus Erie Canal Park is a notable attraction. The park includes the stunning Nine Mile Creek Aqueduct, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and Sims Store, a replica of a mid-19th-century store that serves as a museum and gift shop. Those interested in learning more of the corridor’s history, should also explore the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse.
There is a 12-mile gap in the trail across Syracuse, but the trail continues east of the city, where you'll soon come to Green Lakes State Park. The park, sprawling nearly 2,000 acres, makes for a pleasant excursion. It's centered around two beautiful blue-green lakes that are open for swimming and boating, and there are hiking and camping opportunities in the park’s lush forests.
This eastern section of the trail—spanning more than 50 miles through Chittenango (hometown of Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum), Oneida, Rome, and Utica—is one of its most picturesque with the Adirondacks to the north and the Catskills to the south. In the early 1800s, a critical component of the Erie Canal was its passage through Mohawk Valley, a natural break in the mountains that separated the busy Eastern Seaboard with the country’s developing interior. A popular stop here is Fort Stanwix, where you'll find American Revolution-era costumed guides who provide a glimpse of life in the 18th century.
A gap of about 20 miles lies between Utica and the final leg of the trail, which picks up in Little Falls. Between Little Falls and Albany, this section of the trail, also known as the Mohawk-Hudson Bikeway, stretches 39 miles and is paved with some on-road connections.
In Schenectady, you’ll enjoy the tree-lined Stockade Historic District with restored Victorian period homes and churches along Union Street. Continuing east, the trail goes through the town of Colonie, which offers a pleasantly wooded interlude, with undulating lowlands and small hillsides. Here, you’ll get a view of the pristine Mohawk River and its wetlands at Delphus Kill. As the trail approaches its end in Albany, it runs through scenic woodlands along the Hudson River and heads through the city’s popular Corning Riverfront Preserve.
As the Erie Canalway Trail passes through more than 200 communities, there are a considerable number of access points and places to park. A comprehensive guidebook, including detailed information on the trail, parking, attractions, lodging, shops and other services, is available from Parks & Trails New York (518.434.1583).