Bicycle the Erie Canalway Trail 
by Sue Freeman

Imagine a bicycle heaven. A wide, flat trail that stretches for miles, far from speeding cars. Some of it paved; some with a hard packed cinder base providing an easy pedaling surface. Lots of access points for convenient entry and exit. Plenty to see and do along the way, ranging from historical artifacts to ice cream parlors. Does this sound familiar? It should. Bicycle heaven is a trail, officially called the Erie Canalway Trail, but more commonly known as the towpath, that stretches from Palmyra west to Lockport along the Erie Canal. It covers 85 miles and passes five working locks, loads of history, and many opportunities for adventure along its route.

The 363-mile Erie Canal was opened with great ceremony in 1825. Dubbed variously "The Grand Canal," "Clinton’s Folly," "Clinton’s Ditch," and "The Big Ditch," the Erie Canal has been recognized as one of the great engineering feats of its day. With little technical knowledge or precedent to guide them, workers surveyed, blasted, and dug across New York State. They hewed through the hardest of solid rock, dug in infested marshes, devised and erected aqueducts to carry the canal across interrupting valleys and rivers, and constructed 83 locks to carry vessels through the variations in water height – one great set of locks rising nearly as high as the majestic falls of Niagara.

By connecting the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes, the Erie Canal opened the West and initiated a great surge of commerce. Many communities that sprang up along the new canal still carry their "port" names today, such as Lockport, Brockport, Spencerport, and Fairport. Those were the glorious days of life at a snail’s pace as horses and mules towed boats along the canal at four miles per hour taking just under six days to make the trip from Albany to Buffalo. The packet boats, dandy drivers with stovepipe hats, mule teams, and "hoggee" mule drivers are long gone. The canal was also widened, deepened, and rerouted over the years. In 1917 the enhanced canal was called the Barge Canal. Today, defaulting to its original name, the Erie Canal and its towpath are used almost exclusively for recreation.

Some day soon, the Erie Canalway Trail will be a 524-mile bicycle path across New York State that follows the towpaths of the existing and previous routes of the Erie Canal. The New York State Canal Corporation in conjunction with the New York Parks and Conservation Association, The National Park Services Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program, local and state government agencies, and local volunteers are making it happen.

At present, a total of 220 miles of trail are open and available for public use. We’re fortunate to have the 85-mile stretch between Lockport and Palmyra run through our neighborhoods. Heading further east, another 22 miles are available from Port Byron to Camillus. This segment follows a towpath of the abandoned Erie Canal; its route before the straightening and widening which resulted in the current canal

The Erie Canalway Trail may be a long trail, but it’s one of the easiest trails to follow. When in doubt, just choose a path close to the canal. On one side, you’re likely to see boats - both recreational and tour boats regularly ply these waters during the summer months. On the other side, you’ll probably see trains. In many places active railroad tracks parallel the towpath, giving a bicycle rider lots to look at.

Try these ideas as you explore bicycle heaven:

Quick Exercise

If time is in short supply and you’re looking for a quick way to get inexpensive exercise, head to the segment of the Erie Canalway Trail nearest your home. With multiple road crossings and parking areas built all along the trail, it’s easy to find a convenient entry point. The beauty of the Erie Canalway Trail is that it winds through populated areas and is accessible to many of us with already packed schedules.

Earn That Ice Cream

Goal driven exercisers can get out and work up a sweat, then stop for an ice cream cone to reward their initiative. In this respect, the Erie Canalway Trail serves us well. Many ice cream shops are located along or very near the trail.

View History

If you keep your eyes open and know what to look for, a ride along the Erie Canalway Trail can transport you back in time. Aqueducts were built at multiple places to carry the canal over existing waterways. These abandoned wooden troughs supported by U-shaped stone structures are visible today. The aqueduct in Aqueduct Park, Palymra carried the canal over Ganargua Creek. Another, which is being rebuilt to carry water, is at Camillus Erie Canal Park, Camillus. It carries the canal over Nine Mile Creek.

Heading west from Medina, you’ll find Culvert Road which runs under the canal. The only road under the canal on the whole canal system. Cement canal walls are the only indication you have of the culvert under the trail. Park your bike and walk down the embankment to road level and walk beneath the canal if you dare.

In Bushnell’s Basin, the canal traverses the Irondequoit Valley. Seventy-foot high banks had to be built to span this valley. This became known as the Great Embankment. At the bottom of the valley, Irondequoit Creek still flows under the canal.

At several places along the canal you’ll see big black iron structures. These are guard gates that can be closed to drain the canal in winter or to stop a flood in case of a breech in the canal walls. This occurred in 1974 when the floor of the canal burst through to a sewer tunnel that was being dug under the canal. Water flooded into Bushnell’s Basin and devastated many homes before the guard gates could be closed. 

Weekend Get-Away

Could there be a better combination than this? Ride your bike along an easy-to-pedal, scenic path. Dine in a small town restaurant. Sleep overnight in a distinctive Bed and Breakfast, then awake to a gourmet breakfast. Hop back on your bike and pedal home. It’s the perfect combination of exercise, fresh air, and a pampering, rejuvenating weekend. On Monday you’re ready to conquer the world again.

Wildlife Viewing

Schoen Place, Pittsford has become the permanent home for ducks and geese of all varieties. Ride to Pittsford to see ducklings in spring or to get an up-close view of the birds any time of year.

View the Locks and Lift Bridges

And, most fun of all is the spectator sport of watching boats travel through the locks. Lock 30 is in Macedon, Lock 32 in Pittsford, Lock 33 in Henrietta. Then there’s a long flat stretch before reaching Locks 34 and 35 in Lockport which carry boats up the Niagara Escarpment to Lake Erie.

Or maybe you’re a lift bridge person. Fairport has the only sloping lift bridge along the canal. But it’s equally enchanting to watch the bridges in Spencerport, Adams Basin, Brockport, Holley, Medina, and Lockport as they arch skyward allowing boats to pass.

Whatever your pleasure, there’s no time like the present to hop on your bicycle and explore our very own bicycle heaven.

The Sam Patch is one of several cruise 
boats that ply the Erie Canal waters

Ice Cream Shops near the Erie Canalway Trail:

        Brockport: Seaward Candies serves ice cream 
            (on canal, East side of Main St.).
        Rochester: Keith’s Kustard, Brooks Avenue opposite the airport 
             (Note: Keith's is about 0.5 mile from trail)
        Bushnell’s Basin: Abbott’s, across the Marsh Road bridge
        Pittsford: Bill Wahl’s Ice Cream, Schoen Place
        Fairport: Lickety Splits, Box Factory Building

Bed and Breakfasts near the Erie Canalway Trail:

Syracuse: B&B Wellington, 707 Danforth Street, 315-474-3641
Camillus: Green Gate Inn, 2 Genesee Street, 315-672-9276
Weedsport: The Mansard B&B, 315-834-2262
Palmyra: Liberty House B&B, 131 W. Main St. (0.25 mi. from canal), 315-597-0011
Palmyra: Canaltown B&B, 119 Canandaigua St. 315-597-5553
Fairport: Twenty Woodlawn B&B, 20 Woodlawn Ave., Fairport 585-377-8224 (0.4 mi. from canal)
Bushnell’s Basin: Oliver Loud’s Country Inn, 1474 Marsh Road (on canal, across Marsh Road bridge, 585-248-5200
Adams Basin: Adams Basin Inn, 425 Washington Street (on canal), 585-352-3999
Brockport: Portico B&B, 3741 Lake Road North (0.5-mile north on Route 19), 585-637-0220
Brockport: Victorian B&B, 320 Main Street (4 blocks south of canal), 585-637-9901
Holley: Rosewood Bed & Breakfast, 68 Geddes Street (4 blocks south of canal), 716-638-6186
Albion: Friendship Manor B&B, 349 S. Main St. (less than 1 mile south of canal), 716-589-2983
Middleport: Canal Country Inn, 4021 Peet Street (on canal), 716-735-7572
Gasport: Country Cottage, 7745 Rochester Road (1 block from canal), 716-772-2251
Lockport: Hambleton House B&B, 130 Pine Street (2 blocks south of canal), 716-439-9507

Canal History Museums along the Erie Canalway Trail:

Lockport: New York State Erie Canal Museum, in the old hydraulic powerhouse at the flight of locks
Camillus: Sim’s Museum and Store, Devoe Road

Sue Freeman is the co-author of two books on area bicycle trails including the Erie Canalway Trail. 
Take Your Bike! Family Rides in the Rochester Area
Take Your Bike! Family Rides in the Finger Lakes and Genesee Valley Region
can be ordered by calling 1-800-431-1579 (Mon-Fri   7am-5:30pm EST)
or through web site

The free brochure "Inn to Inn Touring along the Erie Canalway Trail" provides trip planning information. To Obtain a copy, send a self-addressed, stamped #10 envelope to: Footprint Press, PO Box 645, Fishers, NY 14453

To Footprint Press