The New York State Canal system of waterways and trails provides a unique opportunity for hikers, bikers, and boaters to experience unparalleled history and stunning nature up close throughout upstate New York.
Flowing 524 miles from Buffalo, including routes up to Oswego and through the Cayuga-Seneca area, to Albany, where it then reaches up to Lake Champlain, the canals form the backbone of the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor and connect hundreds of unique and historic communities. These canalside cities, towns and villages offer a wealth of iconic cultural and historic sites, quaint main streets, charming shops, and great food for travelers to explore and enjoy throughout the seasons.
The scenic vistas, calm waters, and tranquil trails can be explored through On the Canals, a year-round program of free activities along the waterways and trails, sponsored by the New York State Canal Corporation. From kayaking, biking and hiking, to birding, and fishing there is something for everyone to enjoy.
Originally published June 24, 2022
Art and History Meet Along the Canal (Central New York)
There are few New York State vistas more scenic than those along the Erie Canal. This summer, you can capture that beauty when you sign up for canal painting “en plein air” (French for “out of doors”). Each two-hour session will include all the art supplies you’ll need as well as step-by-step instructions from artist Gail Talmadge to help you create a masterpiece to be proud of. After channeling your creative side and painting the view from the Mohawk Valley Gateway Overlook Bridge (pictured), walk the full length of the 511-foot bridge, which crosses the Mohawk River and connects the north and south sides of historic Amsterdam. Advanced registration is required for Canal Painting En Plein Air. Various sessions are offered for different age groups.
Visit the nearby Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site to check out the exhibit on Erie Canal stores at Yankee Hill, the ruins of Schoharie Aqueduct, and 18th century canal-related artifacts at Fort Hunter. Dig deeper into the region’s history at Old Fort Johnson, a limestone house built in 1749 and seized when British owner Sir William Johnson fled the region at the start of the American Revolution.
Historic Cruises and Canalway Bike Rides (Central New York)
This June, Erie Canal Cruises in Herkimer will take you on a free land and sea tour of Lock 18. Kick things off with a bus ride to the historic power house featuring the original equipment used to generate power that operated the local in 1918, followed by a short walk on the Canalway Trail to the original Erie Canal prism, and finish off with a boat ride through Lock 18. You can also opt for a sightseeing cruise through the Mohawk Valley to experience the thrill of being raised and lowered over 20 feet in an Erie Canal lock and pass through one of the oldest surviving churches in the state. Learn more about Erie Canal excursions in Central New York here.
For anyone interested in local history, tour Fort Stanwix National Monument (pictured), a recreated fortress originally built in 1758 as a defense against the French Army in Canada. And Rome’s Industrial Revolution-era reputation as the Copper City lives on at local businesses. Debrief over a coffee at Copperccino’s or unwind with a cold one at Copper City Brewing Company, Rome’s first microbrewery since Prohibition. If you want to continue connecting the dots of history, visit Saranac/F.X. Matt Brewery in Utica, established in 1878 and known as the brewery that sold the first beer (a Utica Club) after the repeal of Prohibition. Utica is also significant to the Erie Canal; its first section, which opened in 1819, extended for 15 miles from Rome to Utica. When in Rome, tap into your creative side by joining a free On the Canals outdoor painting session on the Erie Canalway Trail near Bellamy Harbor Park in August and September.
Waterfront Fun in Buffalo and Flight of Five in Lockport (Greater Niagara)
Explore Canalside Buffalo, the historic terminus of the Erie Canal, and the recently revitalized waterfront strategically located on Lake Erie. Head out on the water and join Elevator Alley Kayak on a guided tour of the Buffalo River upstream towards Tift Nature Preserve or downstream to Canalside and Naval Park. If cycling is more your speed, bring your bike and join Slow Roll Buffalo for a special Juneteenth ride or 10-mile trek tracing the history of jazz in Buffalo with stops at Canalside and the Colored Musicians Club.
Since you’re in the land of canals, don’t miss the Locks Heritage District in Lockport. Get oriented and take a virtual boat ride at the Erie Canal Discovery Center, and then it’s on to the Flight of Five Locks, the largest intact section of the Erie Canal. Take a narrated walking tour and then watch a demonstration of the five locks in action. Lastly, the Locks District Museum highlights the advancement of the technology of tools and equipment since the Erie Canal’s heyday.
If you’re in search of a charming place to wrap up your visit, check out the specialty shops and restaurants in Lewiston. A few dining options include upscale Italian at Casa Antica, gourmet burgers at Cask + Cow, and tender fall-off-the-bone barbecue at Brickyard Pub & BBQ.
For a real treat, head over to Tonawanda where you can journey along the upper Niagara River aboard the "Queen of Peace" as Niagara River Cruises hosts a series of free On the Canals themed cruises featuring live music, comedy acts, and more!
New ways to explore the beauty of the Champlain (Capital-Saratoga)
Schuylerville is one of New York’s most historic towns and sits alongside the Champlain Canal, boasting countless opportunities to learn about how the town and its residents shaped the history of our country. Downtown has numerous art galleries, shops, and restaurants where you can enjoy a leisurely lunch or dinner. The Basin Grill is the place for fresh seafood while Amigos Cantina will satisfy your Mexican cuisine craving.
If you like history and recreational activities along the river, Schuylerville is the place to visit. Join a free On the Canals cruise through history aboard the Caldwell Belle (an authentic chain driven sternwheel paddle boat) to enjoy the natural sights and wildlife that the Champlain Canal and Hudson River provide. Or ride your bike up to Champlain Canal Lock 6 and then catch a ride back on the Caldwell Belle on a special tour commemorating the Champlain Canal Bicentennial and the 50th birthday of the Caldwell Belle.
To explore Schuylerville more deeply, spend the day at Hudson Crossing Park where you’ll find picnic facilities, a play garden for kids, a kayak launch, and nature trails with sculptures scattered among the trees. A few miles to the south, visit Saratoga National Historical Park, which was the site of two major battles of the Revolutionary War. The Philip Schuyler Country Estate is also inside the park and open seasonally for visitors who’d like to learn more about Schuylerville’s origins.
Canal Cruising in a Houseboat and Birdwatching By Kayak (Finger Lakes)
Want to be on the water day and night? Well, with a stay on a houseboat on the Cayuga-Seneca Canal, you never have to be away from the water. Cast off on a truly unique experience with Erie Canal Cruise Lines, which offers 42-foot English-style narrow boats (pictured) that sleep six for either a three-day or seven-day adventure. Finger Lakes Water Adventures also has a luxury four-bedroom houseboat for rent with all the fixings, including a service bar, hot tub, and water slide.
The Cayuga-Seneca Canal not only connects the Erie Canal to the two largest Finger Lakes – Cayuga and Seneca lakes, it’s also at the heart of New York’s premier wine country. Enjoy unique tasting experiences and breathtaking views along the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail or the Seneca Lake Wine Trail. History buffs will want to explore the National Memorial Day Museum in Waterloo, where the holiday was first observed, and the National Women’s Rights Historic Park in Seneca Falls, the birthplace of women’s rights. And who doesn’t love a souvenir? Pick up some artisan goods at the Seneca Falls Farmers Market to bring home a taste of the Finger Lakes or find anything you could possibly need at the Waterloo Premium Outlets.
Get out in nature and experience the scenic views provided by the two largest Finger Lakes on a free guided kayak tour courtesy of Canal Side Experiences, or take a guided hike instead and learn about birding, history, and wildlife. Travel through a lock and catch some amazing sights along the way as you go in search of bald eagles, herons, and other wildlife on a cruise to the 10,000-acre Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. See more information here about these exciting activities and registration.