7 Stunning National Parks to Paddle in the Continental U.S.
National parks, lakeshores and riverways offer paddlers the chance to see magnificent views from a refreshing vantage point: the water. Whether you’re meandering through mangrove forests, spotting wildlife along rocky coastlines, or navigating the waves of the open water, the national park system provides a range of paddling opportunities from beginner to expert.
It would take a lifetime to explore all of the places you can paddle in America’s great waters, so we compiled a list of seven stunning national parks to paddle your way through the Continental United States.
1. Channel Islands National Park (California)
Channel Islands National Park is comprised of 5 islands just off the southern coast of California. With miles of rugged shoreline, over 200 sea caves and magnificent marine wildlife just under your boat, this park offers one of the best environments to sea kayak.
Both guided and solo kayaking are available in the park. Experienced paddlers can rent a kayak or bring their own and arrange to have it transported to the islands for solo exploration. However, with challenging and quickly changing weather and sometime extreme sea conditions, the National Park Service strongly recommends guided trips for the less experienced paddler.
The most popular area of the park for sea kayaking is centered around Scorpion Beach on East Santa Cruz Island because of easy beach access, clear ocean waters, nearby camping, readily available concessionaire boat transportation service and a striking shoreline with beautiful sea caves and cliffs to explore.
To take advantage of the amenities and experience the calmer winds and weather, plan your next sea kayaking trip to Channel Islands National Park between August and October.
2. Everglades National Park (Florida)
Everglades National Park is the third largest wilderness area in the United States with unparalleled landscapes that are home to numerous rare and endangered species like the manatee, American crocodile and the elusive Florida panther. There are many paddling opportunities to explore from freshwater marshes, mangrove forests and the open waters of Florida Bay.
Canoeists and kayakers can spend a day exploring shorter water trails or more than a week taking on the entire 99-mile wilderness waterway, snaking this unique subtropical wilderness. Visitors can bring their own canoe or kayak and launch from several locations around the park, rent boats to explore solo, or hire a permitted guide to outfit the trip and lead the adventure!
For quick day trips check out the Flamingo and Gulf Coast Paddling Trails. These trails range from beginner to advanced.
For multi-day trips, wilderness camping in Florida Bay and the 10,000 Islands or along the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway require careful planning and permit acquisition, but are well worth the experience.
December through April is the ideal time of year to visit the Everglades. Low humidity and the lack of regular downpours make the dry season the best time to plan your next kayak or canoe trip!
3. Canyonlands National Park (Utah)
Nicknamed the Grand Canyon’s little sister, Canyonlands National Park is known for its remote backcountry solitude. Paddling on the calm waters that cut through the interior of the park is one of the best ways to experience this flatwater wilderness.
The Green River is welcoming to kayakers and canoeists alike. Visitors can float the river in Stillwater Canyon and are able to camp during late summer and fall when the sandbars are usually plentiful and make ideal camps.
In the heart of Canyonlands National Park, the Colorado River twists its way through Cataract Canyon, a spectacular land of towering walls, bright orange mesas, and buff-colored pinnacles. For paddlers, a rafting trip down this famed stretch of the Colorado River has it all: breathtaking scenery, multiple days of easy floating followed by wild Class III-IV whitewater. Paddling on the Green River or the Colorado River requires a permit.
With varying river levels year to year, depending on the previous winter’s snowpack in the mountains, the best times of year to paddle Canyonlands National Park are mid-April through May and mid-September through October.
4. Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (Wisconsin)
Located in Bayfield, WI, many people visit the Apostle Islands seeking adventure of exploring the area by boat. Stunning rock formations, cool sea caves, windswept beaches, multiple lighthouses and island camping, are a few of the features that attract visitors to this northern location.
When navigating the Apostle Islands on Lake Superior, sea kayaks are the recommended vessel for travel among the islands because of the lake’s power and unpredictability. Although not all boat types are recommended, don’t let that stop you from seeing Lake Superior’s everchanging handiwork. In the summer, the sea cave formations are best seen by boat on Devils Island, Sand Island and on the mainland near Meyers Beach. During winter months the mainland caves turn into bucket-list-worthy ice caves!
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore does not provide guided kayaking tours, however there are numerous authorized kayak outfitters in the area to book full and half day guided trips, safety classes and equipment rentals. Turn your trip into a multi-day paddle and camping excursion with 19 of the 20 islands suited for camping!
5. Voyageurs National Park (Minnesota)
Voyageur National Park is an adventurer’s paradise all year round with exposed rock ridges, cliffs, wetlands, forests, streams and lakes – there’s something for everyone! This place is a transition between land and aquatic ecosystems. Nearly 40% of this park is covered by water, making it a prime spot for paddling.
The park’s vast system of interconnected lakes and waterways has hundreds of miles of shoreline and countless islands available for exploring via kayak or canoe, including hundreds of secluded campsites. With the opportunity to paddle for days into the area’s remote wilderness, you'll surely be able to find your very own piece of lakeside paradise.
If you’re looking to explore the Backcountry, the NPS provides canoes, rowboats, oars, and paddles included with your permit purchase. To prevent aquatic invasive species from spreading, visitors are not allowed to bring their own watercraft into the Backcountry lakes. However, if you plan to take a paddling day trip to one of the 4 larger lakes, you are welcome to launch your own boat, or canoes can be rented on-site. Overnight camping permits are free, but visitors should register at one of the four visitor centers.
Voyageurs National Park has many options for the aspiring or experienced angler as well. There are 30 lakes – 4 large and 26 smaller interior lakes – and over 50 fish species including lake sturgeon, walleye, northern pike, black crappie, and smallmouth bass. A Minnesota fishing licenses is required.
The best time to visit Voyageurs National Park is in September and October when the magnificent fall foliage is on display. The busy fishing and tourist seasons are over and the park is serene and quiet, perfect for an unforgettable outdoor getaway. Whether canoeing the extensive backcountry, fishing the streams or paddling one of the big lakes, Voyagers National Park truly is any type of paddler’s personal paradise.
6. St. Croix National Scenic Riverway (Minnesota and Wisconsin)
Located right in our factory’s backyard, the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway is a national and local favorite to paddle. With more than 255 miles of water, the St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers provide long stretches of solitude and adventure within their tree-lined banks.
One of the most scenic paddling destinations in the Upper Midwest, the park’s waters are relatively simple to navigate, though there are sections with rapids that can be challenging. There are numerous campsites along the rivers’ routes, as well as prime fishing opportunities. The rivers are great for a multi-day get away or a simple day trip. Outfitters provide equipment and shuttle services throughout the Riverway, or bring your own favorite watercraft and paddle to explore!
There are many sections along both the St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers. These segments can range in distance, duration, and difficulty. Here are some of the most popular trips to travel.
Namekagon RiverBig Bend Landing to Trego
- Distance: 7.7 Miles
- Duration: 2-4 Hours (+/- depending on paddling pace and river conditions)
- Difficulty: Easy - Some riffles with occasional rock gardens
- Distance: 9.9 Miles
- Duration: 3-6 Hours (+/- depending on paddling pace and river conditions)
- Difficulty: Easy - some short sections of light (Class I) rapids, but otherwise calm
- Distance: 10.1 Miles
- Duration: 3-6 Hours (+/- depending on paddling pace and river conditions)
- Difficulty: Very Easy - no rapids, calm water and room to maneuver
St. Croix RiverNelsons Landing to Soderbeck Landing
- Distance: 8.0 Miles
- Duration: 3-5 Hours (+/- depending on paddling pace and river conditions)
- Difficulty: Moderate - Stretches of Class II rapids
- Distance: 6.6 Miles
- Duration: 3 to 4 hours
- Difficulty: Easy
The summer months offer sunny skies and warm breezes in Wisconsin and Minnesota, making May through September some of the best months to visit!
7. Congaree National Park (South Carolina)
Astonishing biodiversity exists in Congaree National Park, the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States. Canoeing and kayaking, hiking, fishing and camping are just some of the many activities to partake in while visiting.
Whether you are planning a short day-trip or an overnight trip into the backcountry, travelling on Cedar Creek by canoe or kayak is a great way to experience Congaree National Park. This waterway passes through a primeval old-growth forest which contains some of the tallest trees in eastern North America. The marked Cedar Creek Canoe Trail winds approximately 15 miles through the Congaree Wilderness.
Paddling Cedar Creek requires visitors to bring their own canoes or kayaks with them. If you do not have your own equipment, there are a number of professional outfitters that rent canoes, kayaks and other paddling equipment (the park does not rent out kayaks or canoes). Also, there are several outfitters that hold commercial use authorizations which allow them to offer guided paddling tours in the park.When planning your trip to Congaree National Park it is best to go during the winter months, late fall or early spring. During these times there are far less insects and reptiles that can make your trip frustrating. Whether you are a novice or an experienced paddler, Congaree National Park should be on your list of places to visit!
Do you have paddle questions our friendly Customer Service Team can help you with today? Content them: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]
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