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New York's Falls to the Finger Lakes
New York's Falls to the Finger Lakes

The Historic Erie Canal in Orleans County Reveals Different Opportunities for Fun and Adventure

by Doug Sitler

The historic Erie Canal that traverses New York State played a tremendous role in the development and growth of the United States. Completed in 1825, the construction of the 363-mile canal - that stretches  from Albany to Buffalo - was the first navigable waterway connecting the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes. It earned the moniker “The Nation’s First Superhighway.” 

The Erie Canal flows 25 miles through Orleans County, NY, providing several opportunities to enjoy the tranquil waterway and the charming small villages that reside on the banks of the canal. The water, bustling small towns, local shops, weekly summertime music events and natural beauty, are all reasons to make the Erie Canal a fun and historical visitor destination.

Holley Falls is the perfect backdrop for a picnic or quiet contemplation
Kayaking to picturesque Medina Falls

From mid-May to Mid-October, the Erie Canal is open for boating traffic. There are several spots on the canal where water enthusiasts can launch their boats, kayaks, canoes and even water bikes. Floating on the Erie Canal is a slow-paced journey that will reveal nature, history and relaxation. In many ways, not much has changed over the past two centuries. It’s a very authentic experience. 

Visitors don’t need to own their own boat to enjoy a day exploring the canal. There are free kayak, waterbike and e-bike rentals through  the On the Canals program - a partnership between the Orleans YMCA and NY Canals. They will be offering equipment rentals so you can explore the only active aqueduct on the canal, get up close to Medina Falls or cycle to the Erie Canal Culvert where you drive UNDER the canal.  Rentals will be available select days in the summer and reservations are required. Erie Canal Boat Company – Medina also offers kayaks, tube bikes and stand up paddle board rentals. 

The Erie Canal Culvert - the only place along the canal where you drive UNDER the canal. Featured in Ripley's Believe It or Not. Photo courtesy of John Kucko Digital

Walkers and cyclists can experience the Erie Canal up-close by using The Erie Canalway Trail, which follows the canal’s towpath. The trailway goes across Orleans County and is made up of sections of asphalt and stone dust. The trail allows for wonderous walking and biking opportunities, while providing easy access to villages, attractions and amenities. NYS Parks & Trails host the annual Cycle the Erie Canal Bike Tour in July whereby approximately 800 participants cycle the canal from Buffalo to Albany over the course of a week. Their first overnight stop is in Medina where they will be able to explore the area, attend concerts and canal related presentations.

Sharing equal billing to the Erie Canal waterway in Orleans County, are three charming canalside-historic villages. Visiting the hamlets of Medina, Albion and Holley are like taking a step back in time to when a mule named Sal was towing barges down the canal. 

Medina’s downtown is a beautifully restored district, with 19th century buildings housing a wonderful array of restaurants, shops and boutique hotels. This town’s culinary scene has been generating a lot of media and social media attention. The farm-to-table eatery Harvest at Bent’s Opera House, Zambistro’s rooftop patio, and the café and craft cocktail life at Shirt Factory. are some of the reasons why Medina is becoming a dining destination. A stay at The Boutique Hotel at Bent’s Opera House is a mix of historic and modern elegance. 

Bent's Opera House in Medina, a 19th century building recently renovated to include a restaurant, boutique hotel and event center.
Historic Downtown Albion boasts 65 architecturally significant structures surrounding the domed courthouse. The Pullman Universalist church in the foreground was built by industrialist George Pullman in memory of his parents.
Shop a variety of specialty shops in our canal towns. The Downtown Browsery has 2 locations in Medina and Albion (pictured above)
Holley June Fest at the Holley Canal Park, the 1st Saturday in June
Blue Thursdays is the newest concert series on Thursday nights from mid-June to mid-August at State Street Park along the Erie Canal in Medina.

A quick identifier that shows the Village of Albion is historically significant, is evident by the fact that the town has 65 structures listed in the New York State & National Register of Historic Places. In the center of town, the prominent Orleans County Courthouse resides in a town square that is surrounded by seven one hundred year old churches. Exploring unique and vintage gifts, makes any visit to The Downtown Browsery Co-op on Main Street a fun exercise in shopping. From antiques to collectibles, visitors never know what they’ll find. A few steps away in downtown, BBQ fans flock to Romyn’s Smoked BBQ for their large portions and fall-off-the bone meats. 

One of the big reasons to visit Holley, NY is the Holley Canal Park and Holley Falls. The park is situated right on the canal and you can access Holley Falls from two directions -  either by a hiking trail from the canal park or drive in from the south end of the village. The park features docking space and comfort stations for boaters, as well as hiking trails, a boardwalk, playground and gazebo. The park is also a preferred spot for bird watching. Located on the town square amongst sandstone buildings, locals love visiting the Holley Falls Bar & Grill for their steaks, seafoods and specialty martinis. The pub is situated just down the street from the 35-foot tall Holley Falls. For RV enthusiasts, Red Rock Ponds RV Park is an excellent place to pull up the camper and stay for a few days. The full-service park is situated in a hardwood forest directly across the road from the canal. A sandy beach, paddle boats, nature trail, occasional wine tastings and food truck visits make this campground a playful and relaxing adventure. 

The villages of Medina, Albion and Holley are also fun summertime destinations for music enthusiasts. Each town host their own free summer canalside concert series on separate nights during the week. Bring your favorite outdoor chair and soak up the sweet sounds of summer. 

Starting on Wednesdays from mid-June through July, the Albion Concert Series, Downtown takes place at the “Square”, a blocked off section of North Main Street that is closed due to repairs being made to the Erie Canal lift bridge. The series features many styles of music from jazz, fusion, blues and rock n’ roll. Food trucks and Farmers Market will be on-site selling food and beverages. From mid July to mid August, the concert series moves to Bullard Park. 

Blue Thursdays in Medina occur every Thursday from mid-June through mid-August at State Street Park. The canalside music series is dedicated to the blues, and also features local wine and spirits and a variety of food trucks.

Holley Concerts on the Canal features classic rock cover bands on Friday nights in the months of July and August at Holley Canal Park. It is a neat spot to see music, watch watercraft float by, and maybe witness a nearby vertical lift bridge go up and down to allow safe passage along the canal. 

Family fun festivals are in full swing in our canal towns when Thomas the Train rolls into Medina for 2 weekends in May, followed by the Holley June Fest the first Saturday in June and Albion’s Strawberry Festival the week after. And, the last Saturday of June is the Enchanted Faery Festival with Mystical Creatures in Medina.

In Orleans County, let the historical Erie Canal be your guide for exploration. Whether it’s a day on the water, or visits to the canalside towns – the slower pace of life will create a memorable experiences. 

Take a leisurely ride along the towpath and discover historic tidbits along the way. Courtesy of Peggy Barringer.

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