Take An Epic Family Bike Ride Through 200 Years of American History
With over 360 miles of mellow, accessible, protected bike paths, you can explore the eighth wonder of the world: the Erie Canal.
A few years ago, I paddled the Erie Canal across New York state, from Albany to Buffalo, camping along the way. Because I was going the “wrong” direction — that is, against the gentle but prevailing current — the trip took considerably longer than I expected. I arrived in Buffalo 15 pounds lighter, very sunburned, and totally ecstatic. Along the way, all the very real discomforts of a self-propelled trip through an unfamiliar landscape were more than offset by the astounding generosity of the people who live and work along the canal — families, lock keepers, all the official and unofficial ambassadors in the canal’s historic towns. I never felt lonely, or even on my own, thanks to the many people who looked out for me.
Now I remember every mile of that trip fondly, but in my darkest, sun-blasted moments paddling upstream, I’d catch sight of cyclists zipping effortlessly along the towpath — as if flying through the trees — and be filled with bitter envy and awe. Propelling yourself 360 miles by boat or bike is never effortless, of course, but their adventure, running in parallel to mine, looked like pure joy.
Now that I’m a parent — one newly armed with a helmet and bike seat for our 2-year-old — I fully plan to return to the Erie Canal, to do the whole trip in reverse — from Buffalo to Albany — and by bike. While we plan to camp along the way, we could also take refuge for a night (or more) in one of the many lovely B&Bs and hotels and Airbnbs along the way. This is an adventure that can be as long — all 360 miles — or as short as you like, and it can be somewhat rugged or not at all.
The Erie Canal, which opened in its entirety in 1825 and has been in continuous operation ever since, has to be one of the most under-appreciated destinations in the United States. Once the eighth wonder of the world, it’s still a marvel, if of a different kind. Dug by hand over eight years from Albany and Buffalo, the canal set in motion much of recent American history, good and bad, from the westward expansion of settlers and the global wealth of New York City to world-changing social and religious movements. (New York’s canals became important routes on the Underground Railroad, and the Women’s Movement took root on its banks.) For a long time, towns along the canal supplied the world with the raw materials of “civilization,” from guns and timber to textiles, peppermint oil, and glass. That is, until the opening of an alternate route to the Atlantic via the St. Lawrence Seaway — and other global changes — led eventually to the shuttering of factories and warehouses, intergenerational job loss on an epic scale, and decades of very tough times for many in the region.
The Erie Canal Cycleway is part of a state-wide effort — fueled and sustained primarily by the passionate people who live along the canal and care about it — to revitalize this “heritage corridor” as a tourism destination. The canal’s 57 locks still lower and lift boats — everything from kayaks to demasted sailboats bound for the Caribbean — but the best way to conquer the canal, for most families, is probably the 360-mile bike ride from Buffalo to Albany, which passes through industrial ruins, wild places, and cool and welcoming towns like Amsterdam, Lyons, Brockport, Lockport, Rochester, Syracuse — all of them, really. (The trail is a work in progress: 87% complete, roughly half of the trail is paved, and the other half gravel and dirt. It’s the East-West portion of the 750-mile Empire State Trail.)
Cycling for days along old industrial canals, largely retired from commercial service and winding their way through the wreckage and renaissance of the manufacturing hubs they once served, may not fall immediately in line with your idea of a relaxing family vacation. But it offers something exceedingly rare in the United States — hundreds of miles of level, protected bike paths that are open to all skill levels and every pace of travel. It’s a genuine adventure and one within reach.
There are many very helpful resources online from the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor and others — from cycle-adventure outfitters to the organizers of the annual Cycle the Erie Canal Bike Tour, held each July, where over eight days, hundreds of riders make the journey from Buffalo to Albany together.
Cyclists can camp in state parks, town parks, private campgrounds, marinas, and at a few of the more remote locks. There are fewer camping spots in the world that are cooler or more fun for kids who are curious about how things work. They can watch the locks open, close, lift and lower under the eye of lock keepers, most of whom are personally and professionally enthusiastic about the history and engineering of the locks and happy to share what they know. You can find an interactive map of camping options here.
Most of the towns along the way also have hotels, motels, and others kinds of lodging; this is a good place to start.
And most important is to read up on the Erie Canal before you go so you can stop in a state of proper awe to view the ruins of the aqueduct that once carried boats over the river and appreciate the hidden, half-secret historical marvels all along the way. Before you go, visit the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor’s helpful list of heritage sites here. And along the way, be sure to stop at the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse.