Cycling the Erie Canal Trail

October 20, 2019 Adventure

Several years back, in 2008 to be precise, we traveled to New England for a vacation filled with exploration in the outdoors. Our journey took us to both the Adirondacks in New York and the White Mountains in New Hampshire. We climbed Mount Marcy in the ADK and Mount Washington in the White’s Presidential Range; both the high points in their respective state. However, one of the highlights of this trip was an early stop early in Rochester, NY to visit friends. While in town, our friends treated us to a visit at George Eastman Museum and a leisurely stroll along the Erie Canal. It occurred to me on that very day that sometime in the future I would return to either kayak or cycle the entire length of the Erie Canal.

Well, those plans didn’t materialize for another eleven years. This summer, we decided it was finally time to explore the Erie Canal Trail in its entirety. We planned a west-to-east journey that would begin in Buffalo and end in Albany. Since this was our first major touring expedition by bicycle, we decided to spend our nights in hotels as opposed to adding the weight of tent and sleeping bags to our load. Moreover, barring any major incremental weather, it was our goal to accomplish the trip in seven days.

We began our trip on Saturday, September 24 in downtown Buffalo. While the journey out of downtown from Canalside was a little confusing, the beautiful weather and excitement kept our spirits high. Unfortunately, the trail in the city was rough, a trend we would discover every time we rolled through a major urban city, and we experienced our first flat shortly after mile 10. After some quick work, we carried on and soon arrived in Tonawanda. It was here that our journey truly began to get exciting. The towpath of crushed limestone began and meandered through Lockport, Gasport, Middleport, and Albion. We completed a total 64 miles on day one.

Distances from North Tonawanda.
The Canalway Trail signpost.
An underwater tunnel crossing below the Erie Canal.

Day two on the trail was a much shorter 38 miles from Albion to Rochester. The highlight on this bucolic portion was a stop in Brockport. For a Sunday morning, this quaint small town was hopping. We visited an independent bookstore, cafe, and walked the lively Main Street. A small farmer’s market catered to the locals and scores of other cyclists were relaxing and enjoying a post-ride cup of coffee. After our brief stop, we carried on to Rochester. Naturally, we stopped here for the day to visit our friends who turned us on to the Erie Canal over a decade earlier. Rochester is always a great city to explore. Some highlights of our visit were an incredible vegetarian lunch at Owl House Rochester and a stop at Mount Hope Cemetery to visit the final resting places of both Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass.

Boats along the Canal.
Enjoying another day on the towpath.
Entering Rochester.
Gravesite of Frederick Douglass.
Resting place of Susan B. Anthony.

Day three took us from Rochester to Palmyra. It was another short day of riding (total of 32 miles) since we departed late from Rochester. Our stop in Pittsford was the highlight of the day. We grabbed lunch and ice cream at the Pittsford Dairy, which was a treat! While we arrived in Palmyra relatively earlier in the evening, we were a bit too tired to explore the small town. Palmyra was the birthplace of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Latter Day Saints. There are many sights around town commemorating him and the religion he founded. Needless to say, we didn’t get around to exploring these sites.

A tour boat along the Erie Canal.

Our fourth day on the trail was a bit of a challenge. We traded the bucolic towpath for a full-day of riding along roads through the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. The scenery was beautiful and the traffic along the roads was light. However, we navigated a steady headwind that gave us quite the workout on the 70 mile trip. We arrived in Syracuse in the evening and stayed at a hotel in the hip Armory Square Park part of town. After the tough ride we were knackered. We enjoyed a great dinner and some drinks at Pastabilities before calling it a night.

The halfway point along the trail.

And then, day five happened. You know before you begin a trip like this that at some point you’re going to experience undesirable weather. Well, this was our day of it. We departed Syracuse early in the morning during a light rain. Over the next several hours the light rain turned into a downpour. Throw in mud from the trail, another flat tire, and 64.5 miles of pedaling with our heads down and you’ve got a taste of our misery. A hot shower and a huge pasta dinner awaited us when we finally arrived in Utica. We spent the night at the historic Rosemont Inn Bed & Breakfast.

Fixing another flat.

We were pleased to see the weather clearing up on the morning of day six. While there were some sites worth exploring in Utica, we decided to skip them altogether and instead began our 70 mile journey to Amsterdam. The day got off to a great start. The sun broke through the clouds, the temperature was perfect for riding, and the scenery was brilliant (we were in the foothills of the Adirondacks). It was shortly after finishing lunch in Little Falls when things took a turn for the worse. As we pulled out of the parking lot after eating lunch, I noticed something was not right with my bike. As I glanced down I was dismayed to discover my rear derailleur hanger was broken off my bike. We pulled into a gas station and assessed the situation. The bad news was there were no bike shops anywhere nearby. What’s more, there was no way we could fix this broken part. So, after exploring the few options we had, it became apparent that I would have to remove the part, modify my chain, and try to finish the day in fixed gear. Oh, it was brutal! I don’t mind riding fixed, but the problem was that the chain kept slipping into a half gear. This made pedaling incredibly hard. Imagine riding a stationary bike with the tension torqued high for 40 miles. Well, there you have it! We arrived in Amsterdam at dusk. We quickly checked in to the Amsterdam Castle and headed to a local bar for a feast of food and beer.

Broken rear derailleur hanger. Bummer.
A carabiner and a fixed gear.
Tired, but happy.

Day seven. We began the day in Amsterdam by exploring our options: continue on riding or try to locate a shop that could help find a solution. We found a shop in town that catered to adult tricycles. Hmm, not what we had in mind, but it was our only option. So, we headed over to Spike’s Trikes and met the proprietor, Bernie, who lived in the house adjacent to the shop. Bernie and his friends were out front preparing some bikes for a ride that day. They were a motley crew with a great sense of humor. Bernie quickly came up with a DIY solution to build a custom pulley to help apply the right tension to my chain. Brilliant! After about 1.5 hours of hanging with Bernie at his shop, we were off to complete our journey to Albany!

The man who changed my perception of trike riders!

The final 56 miles into Albany was enjoyable. Riding the streets of Schenectady and Cohoes and enjoying the beautiful historic architecture was definitely a highlight of the day. As was arriving at the trail terminus in Albany! After approximately 390 miles and seven days on the Erie Canal, we had arrived at the end. A celebratory dinner and drinks rounded off our evening.

Onward to Albany,

All in all, this trip was a rewarding and memorable experience! I’m so glad we were able to do it this summer. Also, despite one day of bad weather, the remainder of the trip involved beautiful weather with sunny skies. Based on the great experience, we’re already planning some tours for 2020!

Downtown Albany at night.
New York State Capitol.