The world-famous Erie Canal , in New York State, lets you experience history, recreation, and the very best that small-town America has to offer. Stretching almost 350 miles (540 km) from Buffalo to Albany, up and down 35 locks, under countless bridges, and through dozens of picturesque communities, the Canal was America's first superhighway and the crown jewel of the Empire State.
Whether you choose to take a serene cruise through the locks and under the bridges, pedal your way along the canal's towpath, or just enjoy a leisurely stroll, you'll be traveling in the figurative footsteps of America's earliest pioneers, immigrants, and entrepreneurs. The canal links attractions both modern and historic, so there's something new around every bend.
In the colonial era, there was one big obstacle that kept American civilization from expanding westward from the coast: the Appalachian Mountains. While hardly impassable, the rugged mountains were not conducive to transport of goods, and no waterways crossed the divide; waters flowed east to the Atlantic and west to the Mississippi, with no connections between.
But there was one break in the Appalachians, and it was in New York's territory. Geology and glacier had combined to create a valley between the Appalachian Catskills and the separate Adirondacks to the north, and the Mohawk River flowed through it, eastward into the Hudson, and from there to New York City's Atlantic harbor. As early as the 1790s, there was talk of constructing a canal between Lake Ontario and the Mohawk River, bypassing the then-unnavigable St. Lawrence River and routing sea traffic through New York City.
Entrepreneurs like Jesse Hawley started pushing the idea after 1800. Hawley envisioned great fields of grain in western New York, and after he went broke trying to find a way to ship it eastward, he spent his time in debtor's prison researching and writing up a canal plan. Hawley's plans were derided by some, but others found them to have great potential.
In 1809, the state sent a delegation to Washington. Led by DeWitt Clinton, they pleaded for funding for a canal that would connect east with west. President Jefferson scoffed at the expense, certain it would sink the fledgling nation into an unrecoverable debt. But the dream didn't die. The state formed an Erie Canal Commission, and Clinton was a prominent member, traversing the state to study possible routes.
After the War of 1812, momentum built again for a canal. In March 1817, after New York's governor resigned to become Vice President, DeWitt Clinton was nominated to replace him. In April of that year, the Legislature voted to approve a trial section of the canal. Clinton, who had no election opponent, was sworn in on July 1, and on July 4—Independence Day—the first shovel was put to earth at Rome. Before the year was up, Governor Clinton had secured seven million dollars from the legislature for construction of the canal across the state. The canal would extend not from Lake Ontario but all the way from Lake Erie, which would also bypass the massive obstacle of Niagara Falls, connecting the upper Great Lakes to the Atlantic without a single portage.
It must be understood that in this time, there were very few settlers in New York State west of Rome. A few sturdy pioneers had set up flour mills at Rochesterville on the Genesee River, but the cities of Batavia and Canandaigua were the only major population centers, each the home of a land office selling plots throughout the region. The canal would change everything.
That was hardly a foregone conclusion, though. The plan still had its detractors, who dubbed the waterway "Clinton's Ditch" and feared the state would never recoup the cost. The constructors of the canal encountered problems galore, encouraging the opponents. But one by one, engineering difficulties were overcome. Immigrants flocked to New York to work on the canal. Expert engineers were brought in from the Netherlands to strengthen the walls; stonemasons from Germany came to build the locks. The Irondequoit valley was bridged with a Great Embankment; the Genesee River was crossed with an aqueduct; the Niagara Escarpment was climbed with a flight of five locks. Slowly but surely, the great canal took shape.
In October 1825, work was completed, and a cannonade rang out across the entire state, taking 90 minutes to sound from Buffalo to New York City. A triumphant Governor Clinton—he had actually left office in 1823, remaining Canal Commissioner, but he was re-elected in 1824 after his political opponents had him removed from his position as Commissioner—sailed from Buffalo to New York, carrying water from Lake Erie to perform a ceremonial "wedding of the waters."
The original canal was just 40 feet wide and four feet deep, with almost 100 locks. It stretched 353 miles (584 km) and descended 565 feet (169 m) from Buffalo to Albany. It was one of the wonders of the then-modern world, and it was an immediate success. It opened up the entire Great Lakes area to expansion, especially western New York, and led to the emergence of Buffalo and Rochester as dominant cities in the region. Rochester, in fact, became America's first boomtown, as its flour mills now had easy access to Atlantic ports.
The canal was such a success that by 1834 it was already being widened and deepened. By 1862, the canal was 70 feet wide and seven feet deep. Feeder canals were constructed: the Cayuga-Seneca Canal connecting to the Finger Lakes, the Champlain Canal to Lake Champlain, the Oswego Canal to Lake Ontario, the Genesee Valley Canal to the Allegheny River at Olean, the Chenango Canal to the Susequehanna at Binghamton. In 1855, at its peak, the canal system carried 33,000 shipments, and by the time tolls were abolished, in 1882, the canal had taken in over $120 million dollars.
By the middle of the 19th Century, though, railroads had begun to take over many of the shipping duties that were formerly the province of waterways. Traffic on the canals declined; the water route between the Mississippi basin and the Erie Canal (via Olean) was never completed because a railway took over the job. The Canal had done its job, but its decline was inevitable.
Between 1905 and 1918, the remaining canals, including the Erie, were enlarged again, with significant rerouting to make use of existing waterways. New flood-control techniques obviated the need to bypass natural waterways, so the rerouted and renamed New York State Barge Canal made use of waterways like the Mohawk River and Oneida Lake, and bypassed busy downtowns in Syracuse and Rochester. The expansion was much-needed to accommodate bigger barges, but it also came at a time when the automobile was starting to become a viable means of intercity transportation.
In 1959, the St. Lawrence Seaway was opened, allowing gigantic ocean-going vessels to traverse the entirety of the Great Lakes, and that was the death knell for commercial traffic on the Canal. Today, only a handful of commercial vessels travel the Canal each year. But with the loss of commercial traffic came a rise in pleasure boating. The post-WWII baby boom and migration to suburbia resulted in a growing middle class, with free time and disposable income.
Now, the Canal—once again known as the Erie Canal—is almost entirely used for recreation. At almost 350 miles (540 km) long, 120 feet (37 m) wide, and 12 feet (3.7 m) deep, it remains a feather in New York's cap, and still provides an economic boost by way of tourism. Its operations are largely funded by tolls on the New York State Thruway, leaving pleasure boaters free to traverse its length and take in the many sights along the way.
The Erie Canalway Trail  runs alongside the canal, in most places making use of what was once the canal's towpath. It's open for walking, jogging, biking, and cross-country skiing, and is very popular near population centers, where the path is usually paved. Many stretches, especially between villages, have crushed stone instead of pavement. The trail is not yet entirely complete; as of 2012, there are five gaps of various lengths that require you to use nearby streets instead of the off-road canal path.
The towns, villages, and cities through which the Canal passes have been designated as the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor. The Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor Visitor Center is in Waterford, at Lock 2 near the confluence of the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers.
Whether you're walking, biking, or boating, you'll want to plan your route ahead of time. Sure, you could just pick a starting point and go, but you risk running out of energy (or gas) far from civilization. Know the distance between major access points, and know how far your body (or gas tank) will let you go before you need to stop.
Even more importantly, if you're going to spend multiple days traveling the canal, you're going to need to know ahead of time where you can stop for the night. Even on a boat, you can't just drop anchor anywhere. Know your daily range and find docks and/or accommodations spaced at most that far apart—then remember to call ahead to make sure you're not left stranded due to closures or capacity issues.
Some sections of the Canalway Trail allow snowmobiles, some allow horseback riding, and some allow inline skating. Many allow a combination of the three, and it's almost impossible to tell which are which just by looking. Plan ahead and make sure your chosen conveyance is allowed on the section of trail you want to use.
If all you want to do is tool around for an hour or two and return to your launch point, you've got lots of options. Most any community of any size along the canal has a boat ramp with a few parking spaces. Several even have marinas where you can rent canoes, kayaks, or (in some cases) larger boats. There's no fee for using the canal under these circumstances; you just need a boat and maybe some fuel.
However, if you're going to go any significant distance along the canal, you'll eventually find yourself needing to go under a lift bridge or through a lock. If that's the case, you'll need to purchase a permit. Two-day, ten-day, and all-season passes are available, and the price varies based on the length of your vessel. Permit fees as of 2012:
You can purchase permits ahead of time by mail, or in person at any Canal Corporation Sectional Office; many of these offices are located next to locks or bridges, but not every lock or bridge has one. The canal web site  has a list of offices, and forms for mailing.
The canal is open for boating from early May through mid-November, opening at 7AM and closing between 5PM and 10PM depending on season. Call toll-free 1-800-4CANAL4 (422-6254) for canal information and conditions.
A number of locations along the canal rent bicycles, usually by the day or half-day, but if you're planning a multi-day trip, you'll want your own bike—one sized to you and comfortable for long rides. The Erie Canalway Trail is open year-round, from dawn to dusk, but you're not going want to try to bike it when there's snow on the ground; the trails are not routinely (if ever) cleared of snow.
There are some paved sections, but the majority of the trail is compacted crushed limestone. It's smooth and quite bikeable, but racing bikes may have trouble; stick to mountain bikes, or a bike with wider (and non-knobby) tires.
As noted, the Erie Canalway Trail is open year-round from dawn to dusk, but it'll be slow going on foot when there's snow on the ground. You'll want snowshoes or cross-country skis in the wintertime. The rest of the year, you'll be fine with a good pair of walking or running shoes; hiking boots should not be necessary.
Keep in mind there will be bicyclists coming up behind you a lot. Be ready to move quickly to one side or the other.
The Erie Canal's termini are near Buffalo and Albany, but that's only really important if you're aiming to do an end-to-end trip. If all you want to do is enjoy a few hours or a couple of days on the canal, you have a number of possible entry points.
The four upstate international airports are well spaced along the canal's route. None is what you'd call "major", but each has several flights daily to and from the major domestic hubs and other regional hubs.
The canal starts just north of Buffalo between Tonawanda and North Tonawanda, where the canalized Tonawanda Creek flows into the Niagara River. It's only a mile or two downstream (north) from Lake Erie, so you have easy access from any of the upper Great Lakes. Even from Lake Ontario, you can get to Lake Erie via the Welland Canal  — but since it costs almost $200 to transit its eight locks, and commercial traffic takes priority, you're probably better off entering the canal system at Oswego . The Oswego Canal connects Lake Ontario to the Erie Canal in the Syracuse suburbs.
On the opposite end, the canal empties into the Hudson River, which is actually a long sea-level estuary, and quite navigable all the way north from New York City without even so much as a lock. The Champlain Canal also connects into the Hudson River nearby.
If your boat is already on Seneca Lake or Cayuga Lake (two of the Finger Lakes), you can take the Cayuga-Seneca Canal to get to the Erie.
Interstate 90, the New York State Thruway, parallels the canal from Buffalo to Albany. Although it's a toll road, the Thruway provides the easiest access to the canalside communities. From Buffalo west to Utica, the canal is up to 15 miles north of the Thruway; east of Utica, the two run almost adjacent to each other.
Once you get off the Thruway, you'll need to make your way to a boat launch (or other access point, if you're not boating). See individual articles for your destination for details.
Most of the boat launches along the canal have minimal parking; you probably don't want to leave a vehicle there overnight. They're designed primarily for day-boaters. For longer trips, you'll want to secure longer-term parking, which is more often found at the larger communities along the route.
By bike or by foot
Access to the Erie Canalway Trail (mostly known to locals as the "canal path") is fairly simple and not hard to find, though it's rarely well signed. You can access the path from just about any street that crosses the canal; in many villages it connects right up with the sidewalk network. Do be careful about crossing private land, though; in many places homes have canalside frontage that the homeowners guard jealously. If you stick to sidewalks and trails, though, you'll be fine.
This itinerary starts in Buffalo and goes east to Albany, but the opposite direction works just as well!
The Niagara Frontier is the northwestern corner of New York, just across the Niagara River from Ontario, Canada. Anchored by Buffalo, the state's second-largest city, the region's biggest tourist draw is Niagara Falls. Buffalo has much to recommend it, and the communities that have sprung up alongside the canal are steeped in history and rural charm.
Strictly speaking, the modern Erie Canal doesn't go through Buffalo. But it did, once upon a time, and the legacy of that former status remains strong in the Queen City. Today, you can revisit that legacy in a very small but significant way. Instead of boating down the Niagara River, head up the Buffalo River for about half a mile. There, in the shadow of the Buffalo Skyway (New York State Route 5), you'll find the Buffalo Commercial Slip. This recently re-excavated and re-watered inlet was once the western terminus of the Erie Canal. There's not much to do here now than just look around and imagine what it looked like in the 19th century, but the city is working on revitalizing the surrounding area.
While you're in Buffalo—whether you've arrived by boat, plane, or car—you'd be remiss not to explore the city and see the sights. If you've been to the Commercial Slip, you've probably already seen the three historic warships docked on the waterfront near the mouth of the river; that's the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park and it's well worth checking out. Other city highlights include the Buffalo Zoo, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Tifft Nature Preserve, and the extensive array of well preserved architectural gems that dot the cityscape. Buffalo is also home to some great sports teams—the baseball park and hockey arena are within a stone's throw of the Commercial Slip—and a plethora of annual festivals.
Once you're done exploring what Buffalo has to offer, you're ready to start your canal journey. If you're boating, head north on the Niagara River (being sure to take the eastern channel around Grand Island) to Tonawanda Creek. If you're driving, take I-190 or I-90 north to I-290, then take exit 1 or 2.
North Tonawanda and Tonawanda
The modern canal starts out as Tonawanda Creek, which constitutes the border between Erie County and Niagara County. South of the border are the city and town of Tonawanda, part of Buffalo's Northtowns; to the north is the appropriately named North Tonawanda, in Niagara County. Together, they're "The Tonawandas" .
Right at the mouth of the creek, in North Tonawanda, there's a small island called Tonawanda Island. (No, not the big one! That's Grand Island. Tonawanda Island is less than a mile long and about 1,000 feet wide.) There are a number of marinas in the channel that separates the island from the mainland, so this might make a great place to start your boat journey. If you're hungry, The Shores Waterfront Restaurant and Marina  has pretty good sandwiches and seafood in a cozy but scenic atmosphere—and you can dock your boat right outside.
There are three boat launches on this section of the creek, getting larger as you go inland. The third, the West Canal Marina , is a little over five miles in; it's part of a 27-acre park, with tons of parking and four ramps.
If you have time to explore The Tonawandas, your can't-miss attraction is the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum  in North Tonawanda. Almost half of the country's remaining antique hand-carved carousels were built right here.
This should go without saying, but always wear a life jacket while you are boating on the canal. It may only be 12 feet deep, but that's more than enough depth to drown in.
Swimming in the canal is not an uncommon pastime for local school kids, but it's not recommended. In these rural communities, help is rarely close enough to save someone who gets into trouble. There can be a surprisingly strong current in some places, not to mention underwater hazards of various sorts. And, quite frankly, the water quality is poor.