The Erie Canal is one of America’s great underappreciated waterways. The 363 miles of historic waterway were very important in driving the growth of many towns near the canal, such as Buffalo at the western canal exit. Many immigrants who arrived into New York from lands afar travelled on the canal to make their way to that prosperity they had hoped to find. But today, the canal is purely a recreational pursuit, and a grand one at that. There are now 524 miles of navigable waterways over four canal systems from Lake Champlain to Buffalo.
The best way to experience the Erie canal is to rent a hire boat from kind folks like Mid-Lakes Navigation and find out for yourself what the Erie Canal lifestyle is like. Here are some of the great places to stop and explore along the Erie Canal.
Where is the Erie Canal? “A” through “I” take us through the canal,
then heading down the Hudson River takes you to New York, NY (”J”).
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We’ve previously smashed through the impressions that Buffalo is a cold, drab place – in fact, there’s plenty of Buffalo Sightseeing to be had. The canal terminates here in Buffalo, emptying out into one of the great lakes, Lake Erie. Buffalo’s marina area is currently undergoing regeneration, like many parts of Buffalo, now that locals realise the value in having an easy-to-access and liveable waterfront. From here you can admire Buffalo’s wonderful architecture, but be sure to spare some time to head into town to experience the city’s neighbourhoods, like Elmwood Village.
Lockport is the fastest growing town in New York State. Like many of the villages and towns along the canal, it’s a picture-perfect example of Americana. It also contains one of the greatest engineering feats of all time – the Flight of Five locks. When canal-building reached Lockport in the 1820’s, the builders (none of whom was a professional engineer) came to the glacial Niagara Escarpment – a 60 foot wall of solid granite. So they blasted through and created a set of five locks, up and down. Today’s huge 50ft deep Locks 34 & 35 are world famous – you can watch them from Tom’s Diner on Main Street. Or tour wineries, visit art galleries, take a boat tour or visit the spooky Lockport Caves.
Like Lockport and its neighbour, the university town of Brockport, The Erie Canal flows right through the middle of Spencerport. In the 19th century, this was a popular spot for drivers headed west to change tired mules before the last 12-mile pull along the canal to Rochester. Today it’s a picturesque, modern village with a wide path to walk along the canal side and a variety of gift shops, boutiques, and restaurants. Canal Days takes place the last weekend in July. The Hilton Apple Fest is on the first weekend of October. Like most docking spots on the canal, it has electricity, pumping stations, and facilities just for boat travellers.
If you’re on the Erie Canal, be sure to spare a moment to drift off course, take a turn onto the Genesee River and park yourself in downtown Rochester in historic Corn Hill, where you’ll find many of our suggestions for the best restaurants in Rochester. But please give yourself some time to properly explore all of the options for Rochester sightseeing – from the world’s preeminent photography museum, George Eastman House, to live music and the great outdoors, you’ll not want to leave – but alas, your boat awaits.
If we had to call a place on the Erie Canal home, it would be the village of Fairport. Nestled between the two bridges (one is a lift bridge that is part of Main Street) that cross the waters is a vibrant waterside community complete with bars and restaurants, shopping (both practical and souvenir-style), and people who really appreciate the canal for what it is – recreation, tourism, history. Don’t miss Lickety Splits – it’s some of the best ice cream in New York state, and you’ll need it after all that hard work piloting the boat!
Palmyra’s pretty canal park dock leads to a town where you can walk to whatever you fancy, which is important if you’re travelling by boat. The Muddy Waters Café is a great little coffee and lunch bar on the canal — or walk two blocks into town for supplies on its 19th century Main Street. If you like quirky museums, Palmyra’s your town. A local merchant walked away from his family-owned (1826) general store in 1940, and it sat exactly as he left it for decades, complete with eggs that petrified in their case. Now it’s a 3-story museum with the spooky family quarters above. Nearby Palmyra is the sacred ground of the Mormon Church’s beginnings.
Syracuse is well known as a university town, but it’s also known as the City of Festivals – Germany, Scotland, Italy, Greece and Ireland are just a few of the countries that get their own events, as well as jazz festivals, blues festivals sprinkled throughout the year. The official museum of the Erie Canal is in downtown Syracuse.
The city of Little Falls on the eastern portion of the Erie Canal is one of those places that come as a surprise. Nestled in between steep, rocky hills (home to one of the highest, tallest canal locks in the world), it may feel like you’re in Bavaria. It’s a great place for the outdoorsy – rock climbing and kayaking are popular. If you’re feeling New Age, you can mine for crystals. It’s down-home enough for a great breakfast plate, or there’s a French restaurant and Garlic Festival to satisfy your gourmet palate. Not to mention the shops along the canal path.
The Champlain Canal – Waterford and Whitehall
The Champlain Canal connects the Hudson River to Lake Champlain. This part of the eastern canal system officially begins at Waterford, near the historic Saratoga Springs/ Albany area. Waterford is a great place to see all types of canal boats and annually hosts the famous Tugboat Roundup festival. (Not only do the tugs show off, they have tugs- of- war contests.)
The 60 mile long Champlain Canal follows the Hudson River upstream, where it branches off toward Whitehall. Whitehall lies at the base of beautiful Lake Champlain and is the Birthplace of the U. S. Navy – where men under the command of Benedict Arnold constructed America’s first ships for use in battle. It’s got a maritime feeling and plenty of restaurants to satisfy a hungry sailor (or just a happy visitor). Keep going north on Lake Chaplain, and you’ll find your way to Montreal, Canada and the Saint Lawrence Seaway.
New York, New York
A world away from where we started in Buffalo, we find ourselves at the city that defines New York state for many travellers, New York City. The canal drops you off right into the Hudson River, which will eventually (after a very, very long trip) drop you off in New York, NY. You may just drift along in the harbour and admire the view – it might be one of the world’s greatest. The question is, though, whether you’ll head into the city to explore its hustle and bustle, or if you’ll quietly turn your craft around and retreat back into the relaxing solitude of the Erie Canal.
If You Go
If you do plan on doing any serious exploration of the Erie Canal by boat, give yourself lots of extra time. It takes weeks to travel the entire canal. A super information resource for what’s on the canal is The Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor. Keep in mind the canal is closed and drained in winter, although the bike paths and towns along the route are still open for business.
Come and visit. You’ll be amazed at how slow you travel – bridges, locks, and speed limits (10mph) all conspire to make sure you slow down and see the world go by. And that’s not such a bad thing.