Day Cruise on the Erie Canal

Exploring the Mohawk Valley and its canalside communities.

Mohawk Valley Gateway Overlook - Amsterdam, NY | Photo by Andrew Frey

Photo by Andrew Frey

A gentle breeze brushes my hair as I take a seat at the bow of the Lil’ Diamond III. As the clouds dissipate, the sun breaks through and shines above the ceaseless stretch of tree-lined and crystalline waterway ahead. A structure appears in the distance, and a group of passengers flood onto the benches around me. We gape upward as the boat glides casually beneath an imposing guard gate, a guillotine-style gate designed to isolate sections of the Erie Canal in the case of an emergency.

It’s the perfect day for a cruise on the canal. A triumph of early engineering and a marvel of its day, a jaunt on this storied channel is a journey through history. Our Captain, Jerry Gertz, narrates the ride with entertaining tales of the canal, pointing out landmarks like the Historic Fort Herkimer Church, one of the oldest surviving churches in New York State, as well as local wildlife and birds like green and blue herons, and bald eagles.

The engines hum, rippling the near-perfect reflection of the trees that border the banks of the canal. A group of boats pass, each flying the flag of “America’s Great Loop”, the 6,000-mile water circuit that includes the Atlantic and Gulf Intracoastal waterways, Erie Canal, Great Lakes, Mississippi River and Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. They toot their horns as they go by.

The excursion ends with a thrilling finale at Lock 18 in Jacksonburg, New York. Pulling into the lock, deckhands moor the boat to the walls and signal to the lockmaster. Slowly the century-old gates begin to close behind us as water forces its way through a small opening. The gates toward the bow begin to open as kids gather on the deck to watch our 15-minute descent inside the lock. The lock house appears to float away as we drop 20 feet and then get released into the waterway again. Rising back up is just as exciting on the return trip.

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The 90-minute cruise flies by. Shortly after leaving Lock 18, I am back at the Gems Along the Mohawk dock in Herkimer, New York. A voyage on the Lil Diamond III has given me a serene glimpse of the scenic Mohawk Valley.

With the cruise over, I am ready to explore the rest of the area, with its charming canalside communities and its rich canal history, starting with getting back on the water at Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site.

Outdoor Recreation on the Erie Canal

Fastening the clasp of my life jacket, I pick up a double-bladed paddle, hoist the cockpit of a kayak onto my shoulder and head toward the waterfront. Thanks to Down By the River Kayak Rentals, I’m about to paddle through history.

Pushing off from the dock, I breathe in the crisp air and take in views that surround me. Just upriver to the northwest, the Schoharie Creek joins the Mohawk River. A group of America’s Great Loop cruisers navigate down the river, leaving wakes the width of the creek and causing my kayak to bob on the otherwise calm stream.

Bikers, joggers and others enjoying a morning stroll make their way down the trails in this area, all of which lead to historic locks like Yankee Hill Lock and Empire Lock, but the main draw is the Schoharie Creek Aqueduct to the southeast of the boat launch.

Built between 1839 and 1841 as part of the Enlarged Erie Canal, the structure is perhaps one of the single greatest improvements to the canal system made during that era. I’m lucky that the water is not too shallow and that I’m able to paddle beneath what is left of its 14-foot arches. The 624-foot Aqueduct carries the canal above Schoharie Creek.

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Riverside Dining and a Show

After kayaking, my appetite is as large as this immense structure. I head to Amsterdam, New York for a quick barbecue lunch at the River’s Edge. (I recommend the pulled pork sandwich.) Then, I take a brief a walk toward the waterfront where the Corning Museum of Glass’s Glassbarge is moored for a special hot glass demo.

The museum is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Corning Inc.’s move from Brooklyn, New York, where it was known as the Brooklyn Flint Glass Company, to its namesake city of Corning, New York where it became Corning Glass Works. Amsterdam is one of Glassbarge’s many stops along the Erie Canal this summer, hosting glass-blowing demonstrations throughout the day. I am first in line for this free event.

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A 30-foot by 80-foot canal barge, the floating glass-blowing studio is equipped with high-tech, patented, all-electric equipment and seating. It’s the epitome of cool. The 30-minute show stars G. Brian Juk, a gaffer (glassblower) at the museum for 20 years. Gently shaping the molten glass, Juk creates a stunning Jack-in-the-Pulpit vase that will be auctioned at a later stop along Glassbarge’s tour. While Juk puts the finishing touches on the vase, museum members tell the story of Corning Inc.’s historic voyage along New York’s waterways and their continued roles in shaping the state’s industry, culture and communities.

Scenic Views at Riverlink Park

Exiting the Glassbarge, I catch a glimpse of an elevated walkway further down the river. I walk through the riverside plaza that connects to downtown Amsterdam. Passing by an open-air stage, children’s playground and gardens, I imagine the fun here during the annual summer concert series.

Beautifully landscaped, the park is a great place to wind down an afternoon. Views of downtown Amsterdam and the rolling hills beyond the southern shore of the Mohawk River are unmatched, especially atop the Mohawk Valley Gateway Overlook.

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A park-over-the-water, the Mohawk Valley Gateway Overlook is a pedestrian bridge that spans the 511-foot width of the river. I stop to enjoy the art sprinkled throughout the walk. I’m particularly impressed by the “Wheel of Life”, a 12-foot-diameter glass mosaic inspired by a piece at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City.

I enjoy a light breeze as I reflect on the day from a comfortable bench atop the Overlook. The area’s historic and modern offerings, peaceful landscapes and river crossings have made a perfect getaway. Suddenly, two toddlers run from end to end of the walkway. They stop at one point, gripping the railing to peer through the bars. “Woah!” one shouts, which perfectly sums up the day. I’m sure I’ll be visiting the Mohawk Valley again soon.

Take Amtrak to the Mohawk Valley and Cruise the Erie Canal

Take Amtrak from Penn Station to Amsterdam Station (AMS). Don’t forget to use the New York By Rail 15% discount!

The Mohawk Valley is largely rural without convenient public transportation. New York By Rail suggests reserving an Enterprise rental car. Enterprise picks you up at AMS and takes you to your car. Click here to reserve your car or call the Enterprise office in Amsterdam: 518-843-8535. Use discount code NYTRAIN.

Have fun touring the many towns and scenic locales along the Erie Canal and throughout the Mohawk Valley!

The "Fort Plain on the Erie Canal" mural in Fort Plain, NY. | Photo by Andrew Frey

The “Fort Plain on the Erie Canal” mural in Fort Plain, NY. | Photo by Andrew Frey

Erie Canal History in the Mohawk Valley

One of the most significant stretches of the 363-mile Erie Canal runs through Montgomery County in the Mohawk Valley. This is apparent while driving along the Mohawk River through the Noses, the only break in the Appalachian Mountains north of Alabama. Passing through these two steep, rocky slopes that drop to the shores of the Mohawk River, it’s easy to imagine the excitement of the surveyors who discovered them, allowing the canal to be constructed. The Mohawk Valley literally helped shape the most successful man-made waterway in North America.

The original 40-foot wide by 4-foot deep Erie Canal opened July 4, 1817, connecting Albany to Buffalo using 83 locks. It took eight years to complete at a cost of $7 million, and it turned New York City into one of the world’s leading seaports. It also contributed to the creation of the United States as a world superpower and economic leader.

The Erie Canal commemorated the 200th Anniversary of its opening in 2017, but 2018 is also a cause for celebration, the 100th Anniversary of the “New Erie Canal”, a larger, faster canal route built to compete with the railroads.

Today, the Erie Canal is still a valued waterway. There are 125 boat launches and a number of overnight camping spots along its length. You can also hike and bike the Erie Canalway Trail, a motor-vehicle-free path alongside the canal. The Erie Canalway Trail will become part of the Empire State Trail in 2020, enabling cyclists to ride from New York City to Albany, Buffalo and Lake Champlain.

A gorgeous view of the Mohawk River and Inn at Stone Hill on Canal Place in Little Falls, NY. | Photo by Andrew Frey

A gorgeous view of the Mohawk River and Inn at Stone Hill on Canal Place in Little Falls, NY. | Photo by Andrew Frey

Don’t Miss These Hotspots in the Mohawk Valley!

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Amsterdam Castle (Amsterdam, NY)

Amsterdam Castle is a gorgeous place to stay. Also, known as the Amsterdam Armory, it was built in 1895 by Isaac G. Perry and is a former National Guard Armory. With its eccentric decor, an overnight here will make you feel like royalty.

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Arkell Museum (Canajoharie, NY)

Located on the shores of the Mohawk River, near Lock 14, the Arkell Museum has an extensive collection of American paintings by Winslow Homer, Albert Bierstadt and other significant artists who came to the region, as well as historical exhibits about the Mohawk Valley. Be sure to amble through the Memorial Garden designed by museum founder Bartlett Arkell, the first president of the Beech-Nut Packing Company.

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Little Falls, NY

This quaint city tucked into a dramatic gorge offers boundless boutique shopping and delicious dining. Grab a bite at Ann Street Restaurant & Deli, sweeten your meal with ice cream at Ole Sal’s Cafe & Creamery, then walk it off with a stroll along the river.

Don’t miss a meal at the Canal Side Inn, occupying a 150-year-old brick structure for the past 37 years and serving delectable French-American cuisine. Recognized by the American Automobile Association and the Wine Spectator, the Inn is rated three diamonds and has received the Award of Excellence.

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Russo’s Grill (Amsterdam, NY)

Near the banks of the Mohawk River, Russo’s Grill is a must-stop in Amsterdam. This family-owned restaurant serves up great Italian food. Sample their fresh-baked bread and be sure to try their exquisite eggplant parm.

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Mohawk Valley Welcome Center

An expansion of the Lock 13 Living History Park, this all-new welcome center is a great source of information when traveling throughout the area. Pick up a Taste NY snack as you watch boats pass through Lock 13. There’s even a canal-themed playground for kids!