Head up New York’s mighty Hudson, turn to port just north of Troy, and prepare to enjoy one of the nation’s most historic waterways: the legendary Erie Canal. Cruising here offers a variety of scenery and experiences—you can navigate through towering locks, cruise from village to village, and travel through dramatic valleys and bucolic countryside.
The Erie Canal is part of the New York State Canal System, a 500-mile network of inland waterways that also includes the Champlain, Oswego, and Cayuga-Seneca canals. Together, they connect the Hudson River with Lake Champlain, Lake Ontario, Cayuga Lake, Seneca Lake, and Lake Erie via the Niagara River, allowing boats to travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the upper Great Lakes.
When the canal opened in 1825, its selling point was speed: The canal dramatically cut travel time for both cargo and people and opened up a whole new way to reach America’s interior. Today, the canal offers just the opposite: a chance to slow down, relax, and explore all the fascinating places along its shores.
Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal
New Yorkers are proud of their canal heritage, and you won’t make it through the Erie Canal without someone singing “Low Bridge (Everybody Down)” or seeing mule statues and colorful murals commemorating the canal’s transformative impact on the state and nation. As you travel, you’ll see evidence of the canal’s influence everywhere you go: streets that lead to the water, unique architecture, art museums, and historic theaters built upon wealth brought by the canal.
The original Erie Canal traversed 363 miles from Albany to Buffalo, the longest artificial waterway and the greatest public works project in North America. The canal gave rise to cities, towns, and industry all along its path and put New York on the map as the Empire State—the leader in population, industry, and economic strength. It transformed New York City into the nation’s principal seaport and opened the interior of North America to settlement.
In addition to cargo, the canal brought a flow of people and new ideas. Social reform movements, like abolitionism and women’s suffrage, thrived along the canal’s corridor. Newcomers infused the nation with a variety of languages, customs, and religions.
The success of New York’s canals led the state to enlarge them several times over the years to accommodate larger boats and increased traffic. The most recent enlargement, completed in 1918, moved much of the central and eastern portions of the canal system into canalized rivers, while widening and deepening the dug channel along its original path in western New York.
One of the best parts of cruising the Erie Canal is exploring the many towns and villages along the waterway. Many of these communities provide visitor centers with restrooms, showers, power, and other services. Others have docks or places to tie up within walking distance of shops, restaurants, and attractions. Hometown hospitality is a hallmark of the canal corridor—you’ll meet friendly lock tenders, harbormasters, and greeters who take pride in carrying on the nearly 200-year-old tradition of welcoming travelers.
A National Historic Landmark
The New York State Canal System’s exceptional scenery, history, culture, and natural resources earned the 524-mile waterway and the communities along its shores a Congressional designation as the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor in 2000. The entire waterway was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2016. It has been in continuous operation since 1825, longer than any other constructed transportation system on the North American continent.
• The Waterford Flight is a set of five locks that raise boats 169 feet in just 1.5 miles. That’s twice as high as the total lift from sea level to the summit of the Panama Canal.
• In the Mohawk River Valley, boats pass through “The Noses”—two steeply sloped hills on either side of the river. This east-west gap between the Adirondack and Catskill Mountains made it possible to construct the Erie Canal.
• Lock 17 in Little Falls is the highest lock on the canal, raising and lowering boats 40.5 feet. It was the tallest lock in the world when it opened in 1915.
• The canal is still used to haul cargo, usually objects that are too large to deliver by rail or road or are cheaper to ship. Crushed stone and building materials account for the largest tonnage.
• Lockport’s extraordinary “Flight of Five” is one of the most iconic features of the Erie Canal. The staircase of stone locks and wooden gates used in the 1800s are right next to the similarly remarkable Locks 34 and 35 in use today.
• The waterway is home to an impressive variety of wildlife. Even casual observers will see great blue herons, eagles, and ospreys while cruising.
• The Cayuga-Seneca Canal connects the Erie Canal at Montezuma to 92 miles of canalized rivers and lakes. The region includes Seneca Falls, celebrated as the birthplace of the women’s rights movement; Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge; and the Finger Lakes Region, renowned for its natural beauty, wine country, and world-class cultural and recreational attractions.
Boaters doing the Great Loop have several options for traversing the canal. Taller boats follow the eastern half of the Erie Canal to the Oswego Canal to Lake Ontario. Boats with an air draft of 15.5 feet or less can follow the Erie Canal all the way west to Lake Erie, experiencing the distinctive lift bridges and many villages that are the hallmark of the western portion. A third option is to cruise north on the Champlain Canal to the St. Lawrence Seaway by way of Lake Champlain, the Richelieu River, and Chambly Canal.
Here’s how to make the most of your travels along New York’s canals:
• Expect a leisurely pace on the water. Distance in miles can be misleading, since you must account for both running time and locking. Plan about 20 minutes to pass through each lock.
• Know your comfortable cruising times. Do you prefer to travel four, six, or eight hours per day? You can plan a more enjoyable trip if you know your limits and have some sense of where you’ll stop each night.
• Bring your bike! Paralleling the canal is the 365-mile Erie Canalway Trail, which runs from Albany to Buffalo on former towpaths and railbeds.
• Hundreds of canal-side concerts, festivals, and events take place from May through October each year. Check the New York State Canals’ online event calendar to take advantage of them while on your journey.
Erie Canal Locks Open for 2018 Season
Boating Through a Lock
Going through a lock is one of the unique experiences of traveling along the canal. Each of the Erie Canal’s 34 concrete locks measures 328 feet long by 45 feet wide, with lifts ranging between 6 feet (E-25, Mays Point and E-26, Clyde) and 40.5 feet (E-17, Little Falls). It takes about 20 minutes to lock through.
Lock operators are on hand to offer step-by-step coaching to make locking safe and enjoyable. A few simple preparations and the right equipment will make for smooth sailing.
What to Have on Hand
• Pole or boat hook for pushing off the sides of the lock. A paddle works fine, too.
• Work gloves or rubber garden gloves for handling lines.
• Larger boats will need long boat lines to help control the boat in the lock.
• Extra boat fenders that are large enough to protect your boat from rough concrete lock walls.
As you approach, alert the lock operator via marine radio (Channel 13) or by sounding three horn blasts to signal your approach. You can also phone lock operators (see “Resources” sidebar for contact information). Wait for the green light for permission to enter the lock.
Once inside, station your vessel along the wall as instructed by the lock operator. Keep bow and stern close to the wall during lockage using the lines provided. Once the lock has filled or emptied, the gates will slowly open and you’ll be on your way.
Eric Canal Resources
• New York State Canal Corporation: General boating information and up-to-date notices and alerts for mariners are available at: www.canals.ny.gov
• Contact Numbers for Lock Tenders: www.goo.gl/MpWZes
• Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor: Find things to see and do along your route, learn about the canal’s history, find boating information and resources, and view photo galleries at: www.eriecanalway.org
• NOAA: Charts are available for the Erie, Champlain, Oswego, and Cayuga-Seneca canals at: www.nauticalcharts.noaa.gov