Erie Canal Bike Tour

My goal for 2022 is to ride my bike the entire 360 miles of the Erie Canalway Trail from Buffalo to Albany. 

If you haven’t given any thought about the Erie Canal since middle school history class, that’s understandable. Two hundred years ago an enormous ditch was dug to connect the Hudson River to Lake Erie. Luckily for bicyclists the canal was built with a generous towpath. While the original idea was for mules or horses to pull barges (filled with lumber, coal or hay), it also works great for bikes. 

City of Syracuse, Lithographic view of Clinton Square, 1841
City of Syracuse, Lithographic view of Clinton Square, 1841

The Erie Canalway Trail is a total of 360 miles from end to end and connects every major city in upstate New York. The vast majority of the route (~85%) is a multi-use trail which has a mix of paved and stone dust surfaces. Elevation change is modest along the route since barges don’t like to climb or descend. There are 35 locks on the canal which are operated by the New York State Canal Corporation. The bike trail follows current and historic segments of the Erie Canal.

I have scouted out sections of the trail in Buffalo, Rochester, and near Syracuse. These segments were in excellent condition. A 36-mile segment of the trail is a state park. In 2017, on the bicentennial of the canal’s construction, the state announced a $200 million investment to establish the Empire State Trail which is a larger network that includes the Erie Canalway Trail. I understand that this funding has helped to get more of the route to a multi-use trail, especially in urban areas.

My vision is to ride from Buffalo to Albany over four days. This puts the prevailing wind at my back and keeps the average mileage around 90 miles per day. While camping is allowed at any lock along the trail, the idea of rolling up to a campsite and pitching a tent after a full day is not appealing. I am looking into hotels, motels, and airbnbs.

Buffalo is the western terminus of the Erie Canal and should make a great point of departure. The trail starts in the suddenly hip Canalside district where the original canal met the Niagara River. Buffalo is the largest city on the trail.

Rochester is almost 90 miles from Buffalo and practically the entire route is on a trail (mostly stone dust). The route runs along the southern edge of the city through a suburban area. The original canal ran through downtown Rochester and crossed the Genesee River on an aqueduct until 1918.

Syracuse is another roughly 90 miles to the east. While a lot of the day will be on a stone dust trail, a fair portion is on the road in the area around the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. The trail leads past the NY State Fairgrounds, along Onondaga Lake before arriving in downtown Syracuse. As far as rust belt metros go, Syracuse is not half as bad as its reputation. 

Almost all the route for the next 60 miles east of Syracuse is on a trail. Unfortunately, the next overnight stop is less obvious. Stopping in Little Falls will keeps the pace of 90 miles per day. 

Lock 17, Little Falls, 1921

The final leg of the trail follows the Mohawk River closely and is nearly all asphalt trail from Canajoharie to Albany. I’ve never explored this area but I understand that this section of trail is very scenic, at least until you get near Schenectady. The trail ends along the Hudson River near downtown Albany.

Here are maps for each day:

I have been using the latest Cycling the Erie Canal Guidebook from Parks and Trails New York which is a wealth of information including bike shops, restaurants, attractions, and lodging along the trail. There are lots of other resources available through the National Heritage Corridor

To get back west I will take Amtrak. For a meager $20 your bike can ride along with you from Albany back to Buffalo and you don’t have to put it in a box. This seems like a very civilized way to travel at any rate. 

I joined the Canalway Challenge and plan to document my journey as it unfolds.