Pittsford Erie Canal Schoen Place cover

Unlock the Wonder: 12 Ways to Fully Experience the Erie Canal

Welcome to the Erie Canal, a historic waterway and engineering marvel that has shaped the landscape and culture of upstate New York since its completion in 1825. Experience the beauty, history, and community of the Erie Canal through a variety of engaging activities.

Take a boat tour, rent kayaks and bikes, enjoy a leisurely walk, or try your hand at fishing. Enjoy regional foods, beverages, shops, and museums housed in historic buildings. Engage with fellow travelers and make meaningful connections that transcend borders. Each activity offers a unique perspective of life along the canal.

Best of Rochester - Day Trips Around Rochester book

Day Trips Around Rochester, New York

Best of Rochester Award-Winning Book for Best Published Literary Work of 2023.

According to the New York State Canal Corporation, nearly 80% of the upstate New York population lives within 25 miles of the Erie Canal. The original “Clinton’s Ditch” was completed in 1825 and later updated to accommodate larger boats, leading to the creation of the Enlarged Erie Canal. Further modifications in 1918 allowed for self-propelled vessels, which no longer required mules, resulting in the current Barge Canal. The entire waterway is commonly referred to as the Erie Canal.

Wave and Say Hello!

Waving from the Colonial Belle
Waving from the Colonial Belle

1. A Warm Welcome

You’ll notice that people on the shore wave to the boaters, and the boaters wave back. Enjoy being a part of this friendly social custom.

One of the most rewarding experiences along the Erie Canal is engaging with the diverse community of travelers who dock their boats for the night in canal ports. People travel around the country and the world to traverse New York State via the canal, some attempting to complete the Great Loop—a continuous waterway linking the Erie Canal with the Great Lakes, Mississippi River, Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic Ocean. Strike up a conversation with these visitors, swap stories, and gain a global perspective on the canal’s significance. It’s a unique opportunity to develop connections and learn about different cultures.

Get On the Water

The Erie Canal is open to boaters for 12 weeks, from May 19 to September 13, 2023. While you can enjoy most of the other suggestions on the list year-round, to experience the canal from the water, you’ll want to make plans during canal season.

Colonial Belle and Sam Patch at Schoen Place in Pittsford
Colonial Belle and Sam Patch in Pittsford

2. Boat Tours

The Colonial Belle in Fairport is the largest tour boat operating on the Erie Canal, with a capacity for 149 passengers. On the three-hour lock tour, you’ll experience firsthand the meaning of “Low bridge, everybody down!” The round trip covers nine miles, going west on the canal through Fairport, Bushnell’s Basin, Pittsford, and Lock 32 Canal Park before returning to Fairport.

The Sam Patch in Pittsford, an 1800s packet boat replica owned and operated by Corn Hill Navigation, is a floating classroom and offers leisurely 90-minute cruises. Expert guides share stories about the Erie Canal’s commercial history, engineering innovations, and its impact on current recreational use, highlighting interesting sights.

Corn Hill Navigation’s newest boat, Riverie—a blend of the words river and Erie—launches its first public cruises from downtown Rochester in June 2023. Choose a 90-minute river and canal cruise, a 2.5-hour cruise to experience locking through Lock 33 in Brighton/Henrietta, or a specialty cruise, like a one-hour Friday night sunset cruise.

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Erie Canal Genesee River Genesee Valley Park kayak
Genesee Valley Park

3. Paddling

For those seeking an up-close and personal experience, kayaking along the Erie Canal is a must-try activity. With various launch points and kayak rentals available, you can paddle through the canal’s serene stretches or tackle Lock 32 Whitewater Park’s thrilling Class 2–3 spillway rapids.

Rent a kayak from Erie Canal Boat Company in Fairport or Lockport. In addition to traditional watercraft, the ECBC partners with Rochester Accessible Adventures to offer water experiences for people of all abilities—an excellent opportunity for families to paddle together. Learn more about their Adaptive Paddling and Cycling Center.

Find Genesee Waterways on the Genesee River in Genesee Valley Park, where you can rent kayaks to paddle the river, the canal, and Red Creek.

The Village of Brockport offers a Board Safe Accessible Dock/Kayak Launch.

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Spend Time in a Canaltown

Village of Brockport

4. Dining + Shopping

Discover the charming villages that line the Erie Canal, offering an array of shopping, dining, and craft beverage experiences. These canal towns are bustling with shops, boutiques, and galleries where you can find unique local treasures. Indulge in the local cuisine at canalside restaurants and explore the craft beverage scene, including breweries, distilleries, and wineries that showcase the area’s flavors. The villages along the Erie Canal provide a delightful blend of history, culture, and culinary delights, making them must-visit destinations on your canal journey.

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Spencerport Canal Days
Spencerport Canal Days in July

5. Festivals + Events

Experience the vibrant atmosphere and local culture by attending the canaltown festivals. These lively events showcase the region’s heritage, featuring live music, delicious food, art exhibitions, and interactive activities for all ages. Join in the festivities and immerse yourself in the local community.

Beyond the festivals, watch for special canal-themed events and celebrations throughout the year. These can include historical reenactments and cultural festivals that highlight the diverse heritage and traditions associated with the Erie Canal.

Monroe County’s largest canal festivals are Fairport Canal Days in June and Spencerport Canal Days in July.

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Follow the Towpath

Port of Newark
Port of Newark

6. Walking

Take a leisurely walk along the canal’s paved and easily accessible paths. Whether seeking a calming nature walk or a brisk workout, the walking trails alongside the canal offer a tranquil and stunning atmosphere to appreciate the natural surroundings.

Walk through bustling Rochester metro-area villages like Fairport, Pittsford, and Brockport, county-seat villages like Lyons and Albion, sparsely populated areas like Adam’s Basin, or beside farmlands and wetlands.

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erie canalway trail
Biking on the towpath

7. Cycling

Hop on a bike and explore the Erie Canal’s scenic towpath, which stretches for miles alongside the waterway. Numerous bike rental shops are available along the canal, allowing you to pedal through charming towns, pass by historic landmarks, and appreciate the picturesque views that line the route.

To rent or purchase bikes along the canal, check out Towpath Bike in Pittsford, RV&E Bike and Skate or Erie Canal Boat Company in Fairport, Sugar’s Bike Shop in Spencerport, or Bike Zone in Brockport. Closer to the city of Rochester, you’ll find Rochester Fitness & Cycling, Bike Zone, Freewheelers, Full Moon Vista Bike and Sport, and Bert’s Bike and Fitness.

Explore Erie Canal History

Erie Canal Lockport Lock 35

8. Engineering Marvels

As you journey along the Erie Canal, take a moment to admire the remarkable engineering feats that make this waterway possible. Among the most impressive structures are the locks and lift bridges that dot the canal route, along with dams, floodgates, and powerhouses. These architectural wonders not only showcase the ingenuity of their creators but also serve a vital purpose in ensuring smooth navigation and maintaining water levels.

Erie Canal Pittsford Lock 32 under Clover bridge
Lock 32 in Brighton/Henrietta

The Erie Canal has locks that allow boats to navigate through elevation changes. Highly skilled Lock Operators are in charge of regulating the water level using gates and valves. The canal’s locks are essential to its operation, ensuring boats can safely ascend or descend.

Erie Canal Spencerport lift bridge up

Lift bridges are an impressive sight with their towering presence and intricate mechanisms. These innovative structures elegantly rise to let boats pass through, blending form and function to accommodate land and water transportation.

Take a moment to appreciate the craftsmanship and vision that went into designing and constructing these engineering marvels. These lift bridges and locks connect communities and remind us of the transformative power of human innovation, still serving their purpose over a century later.

Spencerport Depot and Canal Museum
Spencerport Depot & Canal Museum

9. Museums + Guides

Explore the various museums and welcome centers along the Erie Canal route. These educational and interactive spaces offer a deeper understanding of the canal’s history, engineering, cultural significance, and status as a National Historic Landmark.

The Brockport Welcome Center and Spencerport Depot & Canal Museum offer information services, interpretive signage and displays, and amenities for guests traveling along the canal.

Volunteers, local experts, and historical societies are proud to share the story and legacy of the canal. You’ll find that many of the town historians are the founders’ generational family members. Because of their connection, they share personal perspectives on the challenges of early canal life and how new industries and innovations grew to meet the needs of a new frontier. Check out Historic Pittsford’s event calendar to look for upcoming guided walks.

The Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse and the Flight of Five in Lockport’s Locks District are fascinating places to learn about the canal’s significant impact on trade, transportation, and the development of the United States.

Erie Canal Macedon Historic Lock 60
Historic Lock 60 in Macedon

Delve into the fascinating history of the Erie Canal by exploring its abandoned locks. Enlarged Erie Lock 60 in Macedon is a great place to start, as is Lock 62 in Pittsford.

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Find the Quiet Places

Holley Canal Falls
Holley Canal Falls

10. Nature Beyond the Towpath

Escape the hustle and bustle of the canal by seeking out the tranquil and natural spaces that flank it. From serene parks to secluded hiking trails, the Erie Canal provides a haven for nature enthusiasts. Take a moment to appreciate the diverse flora and fauna, enjoy a peaceful picnic by the water’s edge, and bask in the calmness of your surroundings.

Wander away from the canal to explore places like Holley Canal Falls, Fairport’s Thomas Creek Wetland Walk, and Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge.

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Fishing Genesee River and Canal
Genesee River, south of the canal

11. Fishing

Whether an experienced angler or a beginner, cast your line into the Erie Canal and its tributaries to enjoy a relaxing fishing experience. The canal is home to various freshwater fish species like large- and smallmouth bass, walleye, pike, catfish, yellow perch, and sunfish. Be sure to have your New York State fishing license with you unless it’s a Free Freshwater Fishing Day.

Driving along the canal, you’ll find designated spots to park, providing easy access to fish from the shore. You can fish in the long stretches of calm waters, spillways near the locks, or where multiple waterways intersect.

Driving Along the Erie Canal

Erie Canal Medina Culvert Road
Culvert Road under the Erie Canal in Medina

12. Follow the Thin Blue Line

Take a scenic road trip through the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, discovering charming towns, visiting memorable sights, and crossing over historic bridges and through one-of-a-kind tunnels. The region’s rich agriculture provides ample opportunities to stop at roadside farm stands to taste freshly harvested produce. By driving, you can appreciate the canal’s beauty from a unique perspective while having the liberty to explore at your own pace.

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What are your favorite activities along the Erie Canal?

Your insights and experiences are valuable. Please share them in the comments.

Debi Bower, Day Trips Around Rochester NY

Debi Bower is the founder and creative director of daytrippingroc.com and author of the award-winning book Day Trips Around Rochester, New York.

People often ask me if I get free access to places while exploring. The answer is no unless I’m invited to previews or granted behind-the-scenes access as part of my media role. Generally, I don’t mention my project, Day Trips Around Rochester, NY, because I want the same experience you would have. I create and share content simply because it brings me joy. I would appreciate your support—a cup of coffee or two to help fuel future field trips—if you have found valuable information here that has helped you explore the Rochester area.

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