For 150 years, tourists have been flocking to Clayton, New York to explore the beauty of the St. Lawrence River and its over 1,800 islands. Today, Clayton Island Tours continues this great tradition with regular boat tours leaving from just north of town.
During my travels around the region, I’ve previously done a trip with Uncle Sam Boat Tours out of Alexandria Bay which covers the area a bit further north. However, I wanted to see even more of the river, so my family and I decided to take a trip with Clayton Island Tours.
While Clayton Island Tours offers several different tour options, we opted to try their most unique excursion, which is done on a glass-bottom boat and visits one of the lighthouses on the St. Lawrence River: Rock Island Lighthouse. They are both the only tour operator that stops at this particular lighthouse and the only one in the region that operates a glass-bottom boat.
Their glass-bottom boat is named the Night Heron and operates 2.75-hour tours throughout the season. This tour includes approximately an hour stop at Rock Island Lighthouse State Park with the rest of the time spent exploring the islands around the river and some of the most unique sites in the area.
Since their glass-bottom boat is quite shallow, it can go into many areas of the river that bigger tour boats can’t sail through. This means that a lot of the scenery you’ll see on this tour is unique to Clayton Island Tours.
The exact route that your tour takes will depend largely on the time that it leaves during the day as they try and make sure that only one of their boats is docked at Rock Island Lighthouse at a time. Because of this, on the afternoon tour that my family and I took, we headed straight to the lighthouse and then did all of our sightseeing around the river on the way back.
However your tour is structured, the guides on the boat do a great job keeping the tour fun, and they offer a ton of information about the river and the region as you’re sightseeing.
The glass-bottom boat is divided into two rows of two seats, each with a table, that is perfect for eating food if you bring some on board with you. There is also a bathroom in the back of the boat.
Running down the middle of the Night Heron is the glass bottom area. This sits several feet below the floor level and is separated from the main body of the boat by railings.
For most of the trip, little can be seen through the glass. However, at a few select spots, the boat is slowed down in shallow water and objects come into view such as the remains of an old pier and the rocky bottom of the river.
The highlight of this part of the tour was an old shipwreck which is amazingly well preserved and can be seen very well through the boat’s glass bottom. This is one of several shipwrecks that are near the tour route and which are discussed by guides, but only one of them can actually be seen.
In addition to seeing things through the glass bottom, the tour includes a lot of great information about the many small and large islands that the boat passes near. I really enjoyed not only seeing these amazing pieces of land in the river but also learning more about the area’s ecology and the stories of the homes on many of the islands.
Another highlight of the sightseeing portion of the tour is the chance to see other ships plying the river.
During my tour, I saw several other tour boats (primarily from Canada), speed boats from the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, and other privately owned boats. The best part, though, was seeing one of the giant cargo ships heading down the river towards Lake Ontario.
While seeing these large ships is never guaranteed, the tour does spend a good portion of its time in or near the shipping lane, and every boat going into and out of the Great Lakes must pass through this section of the St. Lawrence River. That means that seeing a giant boat is not uncommon.
Unlike many boat tours I’ve taken around New York and beyond, the glass-bottom boat with Clayton Island Tours makes a stop. In this case, at Rock Island Lighthouse State Park a few miles north of Clayton.
While this is a publicly accessible state park, a boat is required to reach it, and Clayton Island Tours is the only company in the area offering trips to the island. (So the only way to get there if you don’t have your own boat with you.)
Tours stop on the island for about an hour, which is enough time to climb the lighthouse, tour the lighthouse keeper’s residence, and explore the island a bit. There is even a scavenger hunt for kids!
I highly recommend going straight to the lighthouse as the capacity for tours of the top is limited, and the view is outstanding. On the tours, a guide goes with you up to the top and offers a wealth of information about the lighthouse and its role in the region.
Even if you don’t climb the lighthouse, I found it to be a really neat experience simply spending time on one of the small islands in the St. Lawrence River. After passing by so many private islands, it was interesting to get a small glimpse of that lifestyle for a few minutes.
It’s worth noting that in addition to the glass-bottom boat tour covered in this article, Clayton Island Tours also offers several other tour options for visitors. These include a boat tour up to the fantastic Boldt Castle in Alexandria Bay, as well as a five-hour tour that visits both Boldt Castle and the Rock Island Lighthouse.
Overall, I had a fantastic time doing the glass-bottom boat tour with Clayton Island Tours, as did my wife and two young kids. The chance to explore the islands of the St. Lawrence River and to spend time on an island (while touring a lighthouse) was a really neat way to spend a beautiful summer day.
That being said, I do think the scenery around Alexandria Bay is more beautiful than the scenery to the south that the tour I took encompassed. So, if the glass-bottom boat doesn’t specifically interest you, you might be better off doing the longer tour options with Clayton Island Tours or doing the Two-Nation Tour with Uncle Sam Boat Tours (which I did a few years ago).
However, for those traveling with young kids or those looking to see the lighthouse, this is definitely a fantastic tour of the Thousand Islands region that you won’t want to miss.
Clayton Island Tours runs boat tours starting in mid-May each year. The glass-bottom tour runs on select days through mid-September. For the 2023 season, glass-bottom tours are $30 for adults and $18 for children and include lighthouse admission.