Cycling Heaven

Whatever your ambition, age or ability, the Empire State Trail offers numerous options for cycling at your own pace for fun, fitness, sightseeing and even education. Launched in 2017 by the State of New York, the Empire State Trail’s 750 miles traverse the state from east to west and north to south. Most of the 350-mile section from Buffalo to Albany, called the Erie Canalway Trail, is closed to motor vehicles, making it safe and enjoyable for bikers and hikers. Built on repurposed railroad beds and historic paths once used for the Erie and Champlain canals, the trail is generally flat and wide — perfect for cycling. Some parts are paved, while others have a stone dust or gravel surface. Historic sites along the way make for a multifaceted adventure, whether you are riding for a few hours or doing a longer tour.

A mural painted by local artist Dawn Jordan along the Empire State Trail reads "Freedom from fear."
A mural painted by local artist Dawn Jordan along the trail in Weedsport. Photo courtesy of Paula Burton.

In July 2021, I explored part of the Empire State Trail while visiting my sister. We rode from north Buffalo to Tonawanda on a section called the Shoreline Trail. As an avid recreational cyclist, I found the smooth pavement, lack of elevation, great signage and zero cars to be cycling heaven. You can ride fast and furious (but mind the pedestrians!) or just tootle along, admiring glimpses of Canada across the wide, blue Niagara River. My sister, who is athletic but doesn’t ride bikes often, enjoyed it too. We got a good workout and stopped to take pictures and learn Erie Canal history at trailside kiosks. 

This ride inspired my plan to achieve a personal goal: completing the entire Erie Canalway route from Buffalo to Albany. I plan to spread it over a week, riding roughly 60 miles a day. For an experienced cyclist, this is not difficult to do on flat terrain with good weather and all day to complete the miles. The challenge is training and logistics: lodging, food, transportation. While researching to plan my adventure, I discovered two cycling friends who have completed this journey in very different ways. 

Nancy Roberts, whom I know from a women’s cycling club, rode from Buffalo to Albany in two separate trips during the COVID-19 pandemic with a self-supported group of four who bike-packed — carrying all their gear and camping along the way. 

“My friends brought their dog Winnie, a very old and hysterically needy Chihuahua,” said Nancy. “She had her own ‘Winnie-bago’ that doubled as a trailer to help carry our gear. At age 62, I was the oldest, except for Winnie, though everyone was pretty close behind.”

Nancy’s group planned carefully, but part of a cycling adventure is never knowing what’s going to happen. 

“I love riding my bike,” she said. “We are not only the fuel but the recipient of seeing the world via such an incredible little machine!”

She was impressed by the graciousness of locals along the way. On the first leg of their trip, they camped for free the entire way. They started at the Waterford Visitor Center and were allowed to leave their cars all week and camp along the canal. 

“The ranger even gave us the key to the showers since they lock them at 5 p.m., as long as we did not leave before he got back to work in the morning. We found that sort of goodwill the whole way,” she said. 

“Upstate New York is really quite beautiful and bike-friendly,” she added, calling Canajoharie “a gem of a town.” Nancy also loved the history along the old Erie Canal, seeing the lock system in action and realizing “what humans are capable of accomplishing when they have a common goal and work together.” 

Paula Burton, right, with Ruth Wheeler after finishing their guided cycling tour in Albany.
Paula Burton, right, with Ruth Wheeler after finishing their guided cycling tour in Albany. Photo courtesy of Paula Burton.

If you’re not a planner like Nancy but ambitious enough for a multiday trip, try a guided tour. This is a more expensive option, but my friend Paula Burton discovered a fully supported ride offered by the nonprofit New York Parks & Trails. Every year they run a weeklong cycling trip from Buffalo to Albany as a fundraiser. 

The Cycle the Erie Canal Tour includes meals, camping, a sag wagon (i.e., a car ride if you’re tired or have a mechanical issue), activities and more. “We stayed in a variety of parks and school grounds,” said Paula. “We even had dinner and breakfast in a zoo! Every night was different. Buses took us to historical sites and town centers. At every site, there might be a massage table, a beer tent, bands playing or a swimming pool. Showers were available in a big truck and there were plenty of charging and water stations.”

Mileage varied from 30 to 65 miles a day. Paula is 65 years old and an experienced mountain biker, but she had to be prepared to ride 40 to 60 miles every day for eight days. “Don’t be fooled,” she cautions. “Yes, it is mostly on some form of bike path, but many of the campsites were up hills and there were days on the road. Some of the canal trail is rough too, dirt or loose gravel.” 

Paula advises training for any multiday trip. “I did a six-week self-contained ride across Europe — but when I was 28, not 64!” she exclaimed. A friend had told her to ride at least two back-to-back days during training — for example, two 30-milers, then two 40s, then two 50s. “I worked up to 55 and was pretty sure I could do the eight days,” she said.

Every day of Paula’s guided bike tour was different and interesting. “There are actually four different canals and the history was fascinating,” she said. “We stopped at Lockport, where you can see an operating historical lock with authentic boats and get a ride on the boat. The hosts from the town wore clothes that you might see in 1860.”

If you’d like to explore the Empire State Trail one section at a time, distances on the Erie Canalway Trail range from 6 to 22 miles. Any bicycle is appropriate for paved sections. In more populated areas, you’ll also see people on in-line skates, the occasional skateboarder, plus runners, pedestrians and dog walkers. On gravel portions, a mountain bike or gravel bike (with wider tires and more tread than a road bike) will be most safe and comfortable. Motorized vehicles are prohibited, but pedal-assisted electric bikes are perfect for any part of this trail (restrictions may apply in certain areas for Class 3 e-bikes). 

The Empire State Trail website offers everything you need to know for riding or planning a trip, including an interactive map with distances, estimated riding times, parking locations, trail surface conditions, lodging, sightseeing landmarks and more.

Top photo courtesy of David Krom.

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