The route of the Erie Canalway Trail runs 365 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. As of 2013, 77 percent of the trail is complete with a few remaining gaps.
The trail follows the Erie Canal, which opened in 1825. At the time, 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.
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.
A short gap of about a tenth of a mile separates this section from the next and can be navigated on-road. From Ellicott Creek in Tonawanda, the Erie Canalway Trail continues more than 100 miles east through Lockport, Rochester, and Newark to Lyons with some on-road connections.
Along the way, be sure to make a stop in Lockport. 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 from Lyons to Port Byron, where the trail picks up again. This 36-mile section of the Erie Canalway Trail heads east from Port Byron to Utica. Note that there are two large gaps in this section of the trail; the first stretches 12 miles across Syracuse and the second is a 6-mile gap in Rome.
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.
East of Syracuse, a worthwhile side trip is Green Lakes State Park. The park sprawls nearly 2,000 acres and is centered around two beautiful blue-green lakes, Green Lake and Round Lake. Swimming and boating are permitted from its beaches and there are hiking and camping opportunities in the park’s lush forests.
In the early 1800s, a critical component of the Erie Canal was its passage through the Mohawk Valley, a natural break in the mountains that separated the busy Eastern Seaboard with the country’s developing interior. With the Adirondacks to the north and the Catskills to the south, this eastern section of the trail is one of its most picturesque. Rome, one of the valley’s most prominent cities, is where ground was first broken for the canal in 1817. 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.
About 20 miles lie between Utica and the final eastern 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).