Since getting into biking during the COVID-19 Pandemic, I've wanted to start building longer rides to prepare for bike-packing trips. Bikepacking is a multi-day bike tour where you carry everything that you need over the journey right on your back or bike. These trips involve careful weight considerations, forward-thinking, and some "on your feet" thinking, as things always start breaking or go wrong occasionally.

One of New York State's most well-known and prestigious bike-packing trails is the Empire Trail, a single route connecting the Outer Harbor in Buffalo to Battery Park in New York City. The Empire Trail is part of a system comprising more than 750 miles of bike paths across the state.

Along this route is the Canalway trail, a partially paved and graveled bike path that follows the old mule tow paths parallel to the historic Erie Canal. The Canal was a monumental engineering feat for the 1820s when it was built & opened, allowing a continuous waterway for shipping goods from New York City to Buffalo and further into the Great Lakes. This functionality has since been eclipsed by the St Lawrence Seaway farther north, so now the Canal is preserved along the state and rebuilt to include parks, bike trails, and tourist designations.

I have always been enamored with the idea of biking from Buffalo to New York City, and we were finally able to begin this incredible trip. My friend Aasif and I completed around a third of the Empire Trail and half of the Canalway Trail as the first part of our total journey.

Follow along below!

Planning & Layout

Due to limited vacation time, we knew we couldn't complete the entire trip from Buffalo to New York City in one go. However, due to the flat nature of the land, the common wind directions, and my already-existing living situation in Buffalo, we decided to start there and push East.

We are both avid bikers, averaging 30-50 mile rides and around 100 miles a week, so we aimed to keep our daily riding between 50-80 miles to stay healthy and consistent. With these mileage goals and the towns available, we selected to stop in Medina, Waynesport, and, finally, Syracuse. This plan ended up being around 52, 65, and 75-mile days if we went straight through and didn't stop, for a total of approximately 190 miles in three days, with most of it backloaded at the end of the trip.

The Bikes

I was riding my fairly stock Cannondale Synapse Carbon 3L road bike - yes, road bike on a very gravel-heavy route lol - with 700x30mm tires. I recorded with a Garmin Edge 540 bike computer with the speed and cadence sensors.

Aasif was on a Cannondale Topstone 3 gravel bike with 700x35 tubed tires, and a 2nd generation Wahoo Element.

I want to give a big shoutout to Northstar Bikes in Buffalo (Amherst) New York for prepping my bike so well for this trip. In honesty, I work closely with them for many group rides, but they set up my computer, tires, and gearing assemblies to survive the miles & conditions. I had no issues during the journey, and I'd like to think it's in part of their expert craftsmanship and attention to detail.

Day 1

Thanks to my dad for dropping us off at the start point in Buffalo's Outer Harbor. We got there around 9:15 and were moving by 9:30.

Other than some required re-routing due to trail closures, things went smoothly, and the weather was great for us. Going northbound along the Niagara River always provides beautiful scenery and usually keeps the wind at your back for easier riding. This trail follows the river from Lake Ontario, down the Niagara River, through some beautiful landscapes before going over Niagara Falls.

These bike paths are very well-paved and well-marked and provide smooth, uninterrupted riding. The canal is no longer present along the river, as it was removed to create the waterfront park that the trails now follow.

Coffee & Stone Cafe

Our first stop was breakfast at Coffee & Stone Cafe in North Tonawanda. It's one of my favorite spots for breakfast and lunch, so I knew I had to take Aasif there to kick the trip off on a good note! The cafe is located in a scenic and historic part of North Tonawanda and offers a wide selection of breakfast sandwiches, smoothies, salads, pizzas, pastries, and more. If you are in town or passing by, I highly recommend stopping here for some great food.

I planned to bike around 12 miles to get there, but because of some closed trails and rerouting through downtown Buffalo, it was closer to 20. Since we were both on empty stomachs and already tired, we took an extended rest for some breakfast; there was no reason to push hard on the first day.

From here, we continued along the trail, following Tonawanda Creek and the old canal's footprint for another dozen or so miles, pushing forward through suburban farmlands, small neighborhoods, and away from the neighborhoods of Buffalo. The trail would wind through lush green landscapes along the creek and canal, giving beautiful views into the wildlife and scenery that surrounded.

Lockport & the Rain

The next 15 miles or so took us into the town of Lockport, named after the five locks that boats used to raise or lower to the canal water heights to overcome elevation changes in the land. Locks are elevators for boats, lifting and lowering them as they travel along the waterway. These were engineering marvels of their time, and there were 35 locks total on the entire Canal.

Lockport Locks in 1880

We made it into the town of Lockport without any issues, but as we were exploring the historic locks, the sky opened up and it suddenly started downpouring, and we had to hide under a bridge while the storm passed. We hid from the storm for 10 minutes, before realizing Lake Effect Ice Cream - a very notable local ice cream shop - was just around the corner. We were able to get some fuel for the ride - ice cream is good for biking, right? - and continue on.

Trail Conditions & A Little Rain

Up to this point, all the trails had been paved with asphalt and in good condition. Once through Lockport, the asphalt ended, and the fine-packed gravel began. The old gravel towpath was well maintained and smooth and made for relatively easy biking, although we had to dodge puddles from the earlier-mentioned passing rain storms.

The rest of the first day, we would find ourselves in and out of different rain storms, but nothing bad enough to stop us from continuing forward. As we went further along, we started to run through a few puddles for fun, although our bikes probably didn't appreciate the extra wear and tear.

Canalway Trail Conditions

Hart Hotel

An unplanned highlight of the trip was the Hart Hotel and assciated Shirt Factory coffee & cocktail bar in Medina. They have a truly original menu, handcrafted by the barista and co-owner Rich and bartender Chris, that is unlike any other coffee shop or bar that I've been to in the past. I kept getting the S'mores iced coffee because it was just so good the first time.

All of the staff were incredibly welcoming, and we chatted with almost all of them; learning more about the region, the hotel, the original shirt factory's history, and more. It was a wonderful experience and they were very accommodating for us and our bikes.

Through talking, we mentioned that we only had a one-bedroom that Aasif and I would share due to their availability and our budgets. Through our conversations, we had apparently left a good impression on them, and they were able to upgrade us to a suite with two beds so we could continue our journey feeling relaxed and refreshed. The best part? In-unit washer and dryer 😱 so we could wash our dirty bike clothing to be fresh the next day! It was unbelievable, but this is the power of kindness and human connection.

If I'm ever back in the area - maybe for their Whiskey of the Month events - then I will definitely be staying at the Hart House again. It had a great layout, great atmosphere, and great people. All around, it was a perfect experience that really elevated our trip, and I recommend others to check it out on their bike tours as well!

Day 2

Well-rested and with clean bike gear, we stopped once again at the Hart House's coffee shop, said our goodbyes and thanks to the owner and staff, and continued on our journey. We were excited for another day of biking, and we were gifted an absolutely incredible day of biking overall. The weather brought no new rain overnight; the trails had mostly dried up, and we were left with bright blue skies, temperatures in the 70s, and some great vibes to cover more mileage.

In my solo biking journeys, I had previously biked most of what we had accomplished on the first day. Still, this second day was mainly new to me, except for some attractions we visited. Otherwise, it was new towns, new trails, and new experiences to discover.

Mt. Albion Cemetery Tower

Our first real stop on the second day was to Mt Albion Cemetery. Is it a bit grim to visit a cemetery while on a bikepacking journey? Maybe, but we were here to visit the Soldier & Sailor Monument Tower that honors those fallen in the Civil War. It's a beautiful sandstone tower with a lookout at the top that oversees the entire cemetery and surrounding foothills. The tower is 69 feet high and takes 84 steps to reach the top. It was built between 1874 and 1876.

I had visited the tower as a child with my family, but I had forgotten that it sat on the top of a very tall and steep hill. This made biking to it that much more difficult but rewarding.

Holley Falls

You can ask Aasif, I tried pretty hard to show him as many different water falls and natural features along the trail as I could. Growing up, my family would camp across Western and Central New York with the goal of spotting & hiking waterfalls.

One of the most prominent waterfalls in the area is located in the town of Holley, aptly named Holley Falls. It is "a man-made, 35 ft cascade over red medina sandstone and surrounded on each side by lush wooded landscape." (NYFalls). To access the falls, we ended up getting some real off-road trail riding in, sending our bikes down different hills and ravines along pedestrian hiking trails - not on purpose, we were lost!

Us with Holley Falls

Small Towns, Fun Festivals

Along the journey, we stopped at a handful of small towns and enjoyed the beautiful weather as much as possible.

We started with Brockport's Low Bridge High Water Festival which celebrates the opening of the Erie Canal for the season. They had different music acts, food, and vendors. It was pretty small, but a welcomed stop because we were both getting tired after the 20 miles on gravel trails we had done up to that point. After getting some food, listening to some music, and using their bathrooms, we headed off once again.

Shortly after, we came across Spencerport's Volunteer Fireman's Carnival and grabbed some Fried Dough - you know, the nutritious biking meal! We didn't end up participating more in the carnival, but it was definitely a fun-looking event in the town.

Just past Rochester, we stopped in the town of Pittsford for what Reddit called "the best Garbage Plate"...that I could find along the canal trail.

A traditional [garbage] plate is your choice of cheeseburger, hamburger, Italian sausages, steak, chicken, white or red hots*, served on top of any combination of home fries, french fries, baked beans, and/or macaroni salad. The plate is usually topped with “hot sauce”.    - Visit Rochester

Hungry's Grill provided some great garbage plates that definitely didn't affect our riding there on out. Twenty or thirty miles with all those carbs in us made the day much more difficult, but hey, it was delicious and worth it.

To continue with our totally healthy bike trip, we ended up grabbing ice cream at a few different shops, our favorite of which was Lift Bridge Ice Cream in Fairport.

Wayneport Microtel

After all these snacks and stops, we definitely struggled to get to our hotel in Wayneport. Around mile 65, my calves and quads started to cramp, and our pace slowed down, but we kept pushing. It was some of the most beautiful and unique canal landscapes, though.

Upon arrival, the Microtel was nothing special - except we actually had two beds by reservation this time! We picked it because only a few other hotels were available in the area. It was a half-mile off the canal trail and required the most elevation gain of the entire day, which took away our last bits of energy.

The highlight of this hotel was the included breakfast and us doing four or five different loops around the parking lot so we could hit 69 miles on our route for the day, which was nice.

Day 3

Do you know what's more "fun" than one day of 70 miles on a bike? TWO days of 70+ miles on a bike! 🫣

Going into the trip, we knew the third day would be the longest and the most difficult. We needed to stay hydrated, nourished, and comfortable to make it to Syracuse without any major issues.

The day started off damp and slow, thanks to a rainstorm that continued through our hotel-provided breakfast. These conditions left the roads and trails very wet, muddy, and covered with puddles to avoid. Thankfully, by the time we set off around 8:30 am, the rain had stopped and left us with overcast skies and some wind to get through.

Some Flatties & Taking Your Time

"No flatties, no crashies, no whammies"

   - Ryan Van Duzer (YouTube)

The above quote was our motto for the bike trip. We could go as slow as we needed to, but we did everything in our power to avoid flat tires, crashes, and anything else going wrong. For the first two days, we had no issues, and everything seemed to be going as well as possible, aside from the few rain showers on Day 1.

Due to the wet trails and roads, the trails had deeper puddles, and our bikes were getting disgusting. The trail was breaking down into more singletrack, muddy off-road sections instead of the usual packed gravel. This took more energy out of us and started causing a few problems for our bikes.

The rough conditions led to our first flat tire in Palmyra, and it almost caused Aasif to crash, going through a puddle. This incident wasn't a big deal, but we cut corners a bit to change the tube and get back going quickly, which led to the same sharp object popping the replacement tube as well, only a few hundred feet up the road.

This was the only incident or failure we encountered for all the mileage we covered, so it was no big deal.

Tiny Towns and the Final Push

Whereas the first two days had us going through major towns with a lot to see, the final day towards Syracuse presented long stretches of miles and miles with no thoroughfares or places of interest to stop. Most of the trail on this day alternated between packed gravel and off-road single track, but my road bike was able to cover all of it easily.

There is a stretch of the Canalway trail that still needs to be completed and proposed, so we rode on NY Bike Route 5 for 10-15 miles around the town of Savannah. This stretch had us on the shoulder of 55+ mph car roads, so it was a little sketchy at points, and it also provided some hill climbs since we were no longer following the canal directly.

The on-road bits are the yellow lines by the Port Byron block in Central New York, just before Syracuse.

Proposed Canalway Trails

We ended up grabbing lunch (and more ice cream!) at D B's Diner in Weedsport, and we met another biker who was completing the Eastern Divide bike trail - a 3,000+ mile trail from Maine to Florida - so we learned about his adventures and trials throughout his journey. While in town, we made a very quick stop at the Dirt Museum Hall of Fame at Weedsport Speedway.

The Final Push

From Weedsport, it was another 25 miles to get into Syracuse, and we were tired but determined to finish strong. We had approximately two hours to complete this final stretch before rain showers were projected to enter the area. Twenty-five miles on the road is straightforward for that time, but the off-road gravel and dirt trails required a bit more push and effort to finish in time.

Whereas the entry into Rochester was abrupt and evident that we were entering a city, the entry into Syracuse was relatively muted and inconsequential. Aside from a few parks and hills, the first few miles into Syracuse looked the same as the dozens we had completed across the canal up to that point.

With the rain shower clouds looming in the distance, we booked it to the hotel as quickly as possible, past the State Fair Grounds and Onondaga Lake towards our hotel at the Embassy Suites. Once again, similar to Lockport, we made it in the nick of time as rain showers began within five minutes of our arrival.

After we had a celebration toast at the hotel bar, we finally relaxed and rested. We celebrated with some Cheesecake Factory and snacks before heading our separate ways the following day via Amtrak: Aasif to New York City and me to Buffalo.

In total, we had completed 208 miles of biking and had completed what we set out to do. And the best part? Neither of us were hurt or injured at any point along the journey!

What's Next?

I have a new appreciation for Central New York's beauty, the landscape of the Canal, and the accomplishment of completing such a long journey. But this is only Part 1! While I'm impressed we were able to complete this part of the journey so well, it's by no means over. Hopefully, we will be able to complete the rest of the journey from Syracuse to New York City this fall.

In the meantime, I'm continuing training for the 65 mile route for the Ride for Roswell - which no longer seems so hard! I am raising money for Cancer research, in honor of my buddy Jeremy who battled and won against brain cancer. It would mean a lot if you could donate to our cause.

Feel free to follow me on Strava to keep up to date with my activities. If you are in the Buffalo area and would like to ride together, feel free to join the Northstar Bike community on Discord and Strava to follow our ride events.

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