I went biking along the Erie Canal last month, but it wasn’t what I was originally planning for. I learned a lot when I wasn’t on two wheels, however, and you can read about that in this month’s Perceptive Travel issue: Booms, Busts, and Rebirths on the Erie Canal.
Someday I want to cycle the Erie Canal on a long, multi-day bike ride along the Canalway Trail, which goes for 360 miles. Maybe I’ll do the whole thing, who knows, but if I do all that or just a portion it will definitely not be in May. It turns out that in Upstate New York, any time outside of the actual three summer months of the year could mean cold and rain. I got both in abundance. On two days the bank signs in Rochester and Syracuse said 42 degrees…in the middle of the day in mid-May.
My original plan was to cycle between Rochester and Syracuse, stopping one night on the way. My local tourism contact warned me that wasn’t a great idea, however, on account of unpredictable weather and the logistics of getting the bike back afterwards. Plus it turns out the Canalway Trail really bypasses both those city centers anyway.
So I just went on a one-day ride outside of Rochester, hitting the cool towns of Pittsford and Fairport, the latter where I picked up a nice hybrid bike to rent for the day from RV&E Bike and Skate. They’re a block from the old Erie Canal, with a bridge that goes up when a large boat needs to go underneath.
The Erie Canal Bike Trail System
The Canalway Trail extends 360 miles if you want to be an “end-to-ender” who does the whole route the barges used to travel. You only rise 566 feet in elevation that whole time if you’re heading west, or go down that much if you’re headed east. So you don’t have to be in ripped shape to cycle along the canal route and it is a good trail for families on shorter jaunts since it’s off-road and safe.
The Erie Canal moved several times in its history. In some cases it got rerouted to go through a lake or link up to an existing river, so the “canal trail” doesn’t always follow the canal route. In some cases there are multiple canal routes depending on which period we’re talking about. This thing opened in 1825, after all.
Regardless, stretches of it do follow the original route from the pre-train, pre-auto days and paths go through towns that started up back then. You’re riding beside the water (sometimes on the Erie Canal towpath where mules used to walk, pulling the barges). You can watch the boats glide by, mostly pleasure boats these days, and pull off for a picnic or a beer when you want.
The key characteristic is, the entire stretch is bike-friendly and almost completely off-road. So you can cycle the Erie Canal trails from Buffalo all the way to Albany and only rarely have to share the space with autos–mostly just on city bike paths around Albany and Syracuse. For most stretches you only have to share the road with cars when it’s time to get off the trail to get to a restaurant or hotel. There’s a complete interactive map of the whole trail system here.
If you cycle the Erie Canal bike paths on your own, it’s pretty much impossible to get lost and there are plenty of places to stay, eat, and drink along the way. There are only a few stretches where you’re truly out in the wilderness, but of course that’s when you’ll probably see the most wildlife.
This is a great trail system for people who want to cover a lot of ground, but without killing themselves going up and down steep hills. Nearly the entire system is flat and well-maintained, though it’s best to do on a hybrid bike since many surfaces are packed fine gravel or “stone dust,” not asphalt. The exception is Schenectady to Albany along the Mohawk River, which is mostly paved. So do that part if you only have a road bike.
Logistics of Biking the Erie Canal Trail
The main issue for most people is, how do you get back? If you’re not going to retrace the path and come back the the same way, you’re going to have to get yourself and you bike back to where you started. Even if you rent one, you have to return it to where you picked it up. If you brought your own bike on the back of a car, how do you reconnect to where that car is sitting?
Here are a few options to consider.
1) Take the train. Amtrak runs regular service between Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo, with several stops in between. So even if you rode the entire length of the canal route, you could take the train back to where you started. There’s limited cargo space for bikes though–usually six are allowed per train—so you have to plan ahead. The fee for the New York route is listed as “$20 or less.” See more info here.
2) Take a tour. Any kind of organized bike tour you go on will include transportation to get you back if it’s not a round-trip ride. (They’ll also haul your luggage, so you can bike without panniers or a backpack.)
3) Buy and sell a bike. As mentioned before, these trails are not very challenging, so you could buy a used bike on one end, sell it on the other end, and probably spend less than you would just renting one. Even if you only sell it for half what you paid.
If the idea of doing this on your own and having to get by with just two or three outfits you carry in a pannier bag doesn’t get you excited, you can book an organized Erie Canal tour. See this GoBikeErie company’s site for some sample bike tour itineraries and prices. Classic Adventures is another option, a company that specializes in cycling tours.
If you’re a serious cyclist and want to join a lot of others for the ride, there’s an organized event in early July each year where 600+ participants ride the whole trail from Buffalo to Albany in eight days. They set up tent camping and shower facilities in designated places and day’s ride is a not-too-taxing 40 to 60 miles. A shuttle ride back for you and your bike is included in the price.
Check Priceline or Expedia for places to stay along the way once you’ve mapped out a rout and if you’d prefer to do your planning with a book you can hold, here’s a 152-page one that covers the whole system, put out by the same people that maintain CycletheErieCanal.org linked a few times in this article.
If you want to find brewpubs along the Erie Canal, it’ll take a little digging, but I know there are breweries near the cycling paths in Pittsford, Fairport, Canastoga, and Macedon.