You got yourself a kayak – and now you want to know what the best spots are to try it out, right?
With giants like the Missouri River and Colorado River, the Great Lakes of North America, and no shortage of bay areas, you certainly have your options. But where do you get started?
Well, how about I try picking out a few for you?
I’ll make a nice top-ten list – a guide if you will – for kick-starting your paddling adventures. And since there are plenty more locations you should definitely check out when you’re done with my recommendations, I’ll even walk you through finding a good spot on your own!
What Makes A Good Kayaking Location?
The question “What are the best places to kayak?” is anything but simple.
There’s a lot that goes into choosing a suitable paddling spot.
For starters, there’s a matter of personal preferences and expectations. Looking for whitewater rapids? Well, then, a lake might not be the best choice. Want a calm, relaxing day on the water? Then stay away from waterfalls.
You get the gist of it.
But when it comes to what marks a beautiful river or lake, a good spot to go paddling on, there’s a lot more to unpack there.
Let’s go over a few notable factors, shall we?
Type Of Water (And Difficulty Levels)
The first – and arguably, most important – factor is the type of water you plan to paddle on and, in addition to that, your skills.
Now, while I could go into the details and intricacies, there are three primary groups I would like to cover here:
Small Bodies Of Water (Lakes & Ponds)
The first category would be smaller bodies of water, mainly lakes and ponds. Now, I know that lakes run kind of big in some regions of the world (yes, I’m talking about the Great Lakes in the US), but you’re usually looking at a casual trip with lovely scenery and extraordinary wildlife.
You won’t run into any waves or challenging currents, and, in most cases, camping areas will be available, too. The point is:
If relaxation is your ultimate goal, go for the lakes and ponds.
Coastal waters are – well, seas and oceans.
Now, it could imply that you’re paddling along the coastline somewhere. But it could also mean that you’ll have to deal with harsh winds, unpredictable weather conditions, and strong currents.
Is that something you’re prepared for and capable of handling?
Granted, if you play your cards right and choose the most suitable weather, paddling in coastal waters is an incredible experience. But make sure you’re up for the challenge.
And finally, you have rivers – the go-to challenge for most kayakers out there. Well, that might be an overstatement since it genuinely depends on what kinds of waterways you choose to tackle.
Here’s one thing to remember:
The term “river” can mean anything from gentle and laid-back to intense, foaming, and turbulent waters. Speaking of turbulent, whitewater kayaking definitely kicks things up a notch. If the river features any rapids, no matter how they’re classified, make sure that you have the skills needed for it.
That said, bigger rivers are often gentle giants and can deliver a relaxing experience, with plenty of fishing, camping, and sightseeing opportunities.
There are many great places to kayak through and explore – but if I’m going to help you choose one, I have to ask you something first:
What’s your end goal here? What do you hope to see – and experience – when you launch your kayak?
You can go on a kayaking trip to get an adrenaline rush – or you could go to relax and enjoy the scenery. You may even get the best of both worlds in some situations.
Your best bet?
Well, more often than not, national parks and forests offer some stunning views. So, if you are in it for the sights and looking for a nice moving wallpaper while paddling, those should be your top priority.
While having access to a camping spot is not a necessity, you’ll agree with me that it’s always a nice bonus. Technically speaking, you camp in most dry places – provided that it’s legal and that you have the right gear and the experience to match.
However, choosing a spot that has dedicated camping grounds adds a whole new layer to your trip.
Now, what could make stunning views from your ‘yak even better? One thing that comes to mind would be abundant wildlife.
If you’re hoping to spot a few animals out in the wild, you should definitely choose locations with a rich ecosystem full of mammals, birds, and fish alike.
But wildlife is – well, wild. So, here’s a piece of advice:
Be sure to do your research about possible dangers when paddling in an unfamiliar area. Better safe than sorry!
You could be having the most calming paddling trip of your life just to realize that you didn’t just pass some log in the water; you spotted a real-life alligator! Which, I admit, can be scary.
But that’s nature, I guess.
Oh, and let’s not forget about fishing. Sure, kayaking trips – and canoeing trips – are fantastic in and of themselves, but there’s just something special and oh-so-relaxing about fishing trips.
So, here’s an idea – combine both into one!
Now, if you’re into fishing, you want to do your research – and know what’s waiting for you in the water. That’s only part of the research you must do, though.
Before you pack your rods, be sure to check the license requirements for the location you have in mind, too. A peaceful fishing trip could quickly turn sour if you end up getting a hefty fine for fishing without a license.
With that said, let’s see if you can find the perfect location for your next paddling trip right here in my round-up!
Best Kayaking & Canoeing Locations In The US – My Top 10 Recommendations
Finally, the bit you were waiting for – an overview of some of the most recommended paddling spots throughout the US. Let’s get straight to it!
Award: Best For Wildlife Viewing
Montana – Clearwater River Canoe Trail
What better way to start this round-up than to take a look at the beautiful Clearwater River?
The trail is located in an isolated section of the river found in the Seeley Lake Ranger District. It’s about 3.5 miles long and calm all the way through. And yet, it’s home to a great number of species you can see along the way.
And I’m not exaggerating about the wildlife – trust me on that.
To reach the trail, you can drive from Seeley Lake about 4 miles north on Montana Highway 83. When you run into the “Clearwater Canoe Trail” sign, turn west and just follow the road.
Now, let’s talk about the trail itself – or, more specifically, its residents:
As you paddle along the trail, you may just encounter bitterns, snipes, great blue herons, belted kingfishers – and those are merely the birds that’ll be flying around, taking care of their business.
But take a second to look down, and you’ll see western painted turtles, large trout, beavers, and a myriad of other animal species.
As far as wildlife goes, the Clearwater River Canoe Trail takes the cake – and yes, I’m confident enough to claim that, even if I just started the list.
Now, let’s get back to paddling:
As I already said, it’s a calm trail that mainly focuses on relaxation and viewing the scenery and the wildlife around you – which means that it’s a great spot to start if you’re a beginner.
And if you’re a veteran paddler, you can just hop on down to Montana to relax a bit or go fishing if you’re up for it.
Award: Most Scenic River Journey
The Great Colorado River
Conquering the Colorado River is something that all paddlers have on their bucket lists. And I’m serious about this one; the Colorado River is a must-see – and such a pure force of nature. There is no surprise that it’s considered one of the best paddling destinations in the United States.
The river flows through the beautifully scenic state of Colorado – but it doesn’t stop there. That’s literally just the beginning of this giant’s journey through the US.
The Colorado River stretches across four states – Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and California. Now, while it would be praise-worthy to paddle your way through all four states, the 1450-mile journey might be a bit much for – well, anyone.
But don’t worry. Even if you stick to the Colorado portion, you’ll still be surrounded by the Grand Canyon and the Rocky Mountains. That alone should be enough, to be honest.
Even if you’re not in it for the sights, there’s still enough excitement to go around:
The long stretch of water offers calmer, slow paddle sessions while having some exciting rapids along the way, too.
This behemoth is one of the principal rivers in the Southwestern United States. So, besides the whitewater rapids, you’ll also discover eleven national parks along the way.
Again, you can pretty much pick a state and just stick to that portion of the river. My suggestion, though, is to try to conquer the whole thing at some point in your life. It’s one of those things that have to be experienced!
Award: Best Scenery & Fishing Combo
Missouri – Eleven Point National Scenic River
The Eleven Point National Wild and Scenic River is the 44-mile long portion of the Eleven Point River in southern Missouri. It became part of the National Wild and Scenic River Systems back in 1968. The whole area is half private-owned, and the other half belongs to the National Forest System.
So, what does that mean for you?
Well, it means that its shores are pretty much undeveloped and untouched. So, if you’re looking for a pure run through some beautiful nature, this is the spot.
The river’s fed by numerous springs and surrounded by sycamore trees and beautiful scenery. The canopy from the tall trees sometimes even gives you a sort of natural tunnel that you’ll paddle through.
The water is calm for the whole 40-ish mile trip, with some faster patches here and there. There are a few Class 1 and 2 whitewater rapids – but that’s about it. It’s perfect for beginners who just want to relax and enjoy their trip down the river.
Oh, and this section passes through the Mark Twain National Forest. I suggest packing all your camping gear along with the paddles because the park will make you want to stop and hang out for a while!
As for those who don’t want to leave the water, you can bring your fishing gear instead – and go for some smallmouth bass, rock bass, walleye, and trout.
Some of these species require a fishing license, so it’s essential to do your research before you go.
Award: Best Saltwater Kayaking Spot
Alaska – Glacier Bay National Park
Time for us to take a trip up north to Alaska – and, to be more specific, the Glacier Bay National Park.
Now, for those who don’t know much about Alaska, here’s a quick brief:
It’s cold, and there are stunning glaciers, rivers, and wildlife everywhere you look. Oh, and did I mention it’s cold as heck?
This national park contains some truly awe-inspiring tidewater glaciers. The Glacier Bay (where the park is located) is sometimes called a “living laboratory” because there is so much protected wildlife – and not to mention that it’s a biosphere reserve and a world heritage site.
But enough about the area. What about the paddling opportunities?
Well, if you pack your bags – and please don’t pack lightly – and visit this picturesque spot, you’ll be greeted with a relaxing paddling trail surrounded by frozen mountains. You’ll also be greeted – and I mean this quite literally – by some puffins, sea lions, harbor seals, orcas, and even some humpback whales.
Hopefully, they won’t all show up at the same time!
It’s a pure sea kayaking trip – but with a twist.
The pristine waters are clean and blue, which sounds nice, right? But there is, unfortunately, a massive climate problem that the whole of Glacier Bay faces – and its effects are becoming increasingly evident by the day.
Award: The Most Complete Saltwater Paddling Experience
Alaska – Prince William Sound
While we’re up here, I might as well talk about the next epic spot in the beautiful state of Alaska – the Prince William Sound. Often called a “kayakers paradise” in the community, it offers about 3800 miles of coastlines and 10000 square miles of islands, glaciers, and waterways.
Talk about impressive, huh?
The Prince William Sound is nestled in the second-largest forest in the United States, called the Chugach National Forest.
Does the name ring a bell? Well, it should; it’s also the name of the mountains you’ll be gawking at while paddling through the area.
The Chugach Mountains are indeed a sight to behold.
Pair them with the beautiful water, all the glaciers, and wildlife, and you’ll soon understand the whole paradise comparison. And wildlife will be everywhere you look – in the water, flying above you, and waiting for you when you reach land:
Humpback whales, sea lions, and orcas will be swimming right next to you (be careful when you swing those paddles). The bald eagles and hawks will be flying around, with black bears roaming the forests.
The one thing that I have to mention, though, is that this is a summer-only location. There aren’t enough drysuits and gloves that will prepare you for an Alaskan winter.
But if you get your timing right, you’ll be in for a once-in-a-lifetime experience!
Award: Best For Multi-Day & Hiking Trips
Idaho – Salmon River
Now, let’s give the thrill-seekers something to look forward to:
The Salmon River – also called “The River Of No Return” – is a 425-mile body of water that goes straight through the central part of Idaho. The river drops about 7000 feet from start to finish – which means that it’s incredibly hard, if not impossible, to navigate back up once you start going.
I’m sure you realized this by now, but this is for experienced kayakers only.
Sure, a beginner can take up this challenge – some have, in fact – but you need to know what to expect when tackling this type of trail. It’s anything but a casual paddle.
If you decide you’re skilled enough to conquer the Salmon River, please note that this should be a multi-day trip – with some hiking sprinkled on top.
The nature surrounding this beast of a river is well worth mentioning, as well. It doesn’t matter if you’re on the water or on one of the hiking trails. Either way, you’ll be surrounded by the Salmon Canyon, home to some of the oldest rocks in the state of Ohio.
And I’m talking about the prehistoric type of old here. Some can be traced back about 1.5 million years.
“Well, I hope there’s more to see than a couple of rocks.”
If that’s what you’re thinking right now, I’m glad to say – there is.
You’ll find beautiful waterfalls, beaches, mountains, and forests all along the Salmon River. And you’ll be able to spot wildlife, too, including some mule deers, elk, black bears, mountain goats, and cougars.
Bobcats, red foxes, badgers, beavers, river otters – and many more – have also been seen in the area.
And if all of that doesn’t interest you – even though it really should – you also have the chance to see Hells Canyon, the deepest river gorge in the United States!
Award: Best For Wildlife Spotting
Washington – San Juan Islands
The San Juan Islands are an archipelago located on the northeast border between the United States and Canada. They belong to the state of Washington, or to be more precise, San Juan County.
It’s a perfect paddling spot for any sea life lovers – and how couldn’t it be? It’s the home of sea lions, dolphins, otters, and most importantly – orcas!
One of the most popular things about these islands and the waters surrounding them is that you can spot orca whales pretty much all year-round.
Now, there are two ways of paddling through these beautiful parts:
You can plan a quick half-day trip that will give you enough time to see all the major attractions, like the calm paddling trails, the beautiful blue water, and, you guessed it, the orcas.
But I suggest taking a few days off work when visiting this area.
You can cover all the things you would in a shorter amount of time, but you can also hop on over to Orcas or Lopez Islands – which are both great spots to visit and explore. If you can, make this a multi-day stay.
Oh, and one more thing:
This one is a summer trip only. The temperature may not drop as low as it would in Alaska – but you still don’t want to go paddling in the freezing sea waters.
Plan your trip somewhere between June and September – although July and August should be your prime targets.
Award: Best For A Relaxing Paddling Trip
Colorado – San Juan River
Okay, I’m about to keep talking about a place called San Juan – but this one is in Colorado (kind of) and not Washington. Also, it’s not an archipelago but a river. Well, a tributary of another river, if you want to be technical about it.
Allow me to explain:
The San Juan River is one of the major tributaries of the Colorado River. It starts as snowmelt in the San Juan Mountains (they’re going all out with the name, huh), then stretches out about 383 miles through the New Mexico desert before joining the Colorado River at the Glen Canyon.
Why should you care about the San Juan River when you can go straight to the Colorado River instead?
Well, San Juan happens to be the best starting point for most paddlers. And even experienced kayakers will enjoy the mellow, calm waters and beautiful scenery.
The water gets up to a perfect temperature during the warmer months. So, if you’re looking for a spot to cool off on a hot summer day after paddling for quite some time, this would be it.
Don’t let the color fool you; the water carries about 25 million US tons of mud every year – but is actually clean and completely safe for swimming. In fact, it’s the most significant source of fresh water in parts of the Navajo Indian Reservation.
The only thing I should note is that you’ll need a permit to go paddling here. Due to the volume of paddlers in the area, the state started requesting year-round permits for particular sections of the river.
Award: Best Lake For Paddling
California & Nevada – Lake Tahoe
Alright, so far, we’ve had rivers, islands, glaciers, and canyons. But a list of kayaking spots just wouldn’t work without a lake. And I didn’t pick just any lake.
It’s THE Lake Tahoe I’m talking about here – the largest alpine lake in the United States. But it’s not just the surface area you’ll be impressed with; there’s plenty more.
The lake is located right on the border between California and Nevada, in the Lake Tahoe Basin, formed about two million years ago, during the ice ages. Talk about a long and rich history, huh?
You can access the lake from either state, depending on what you’re looking for in your trip. You can’t go wrong, either way.
Freshwater, stunning mountains and forests are a guarantee, which is probably enough for most people – including myself. And yet, there’s more!
There are about 75 miles of shorelines to explore, and it is the second deepest lake one the US. So, as I said, depending on which spot you pick, you’ll have a myriad of activities to choose from here.
Obviously, it’s a lake, so you can’t expect any adrenaline-fueling trails, but for all the freshwater paddlers out there:
Don’t skip this crystal clear lake with a backdrop of mountains and evergreen forest!
Plus Lake Tahoe is known for its sugar-like shores, so a beautiful sunset picnic on a sandy beach is the icing on the cake to top off any kayaking adventure.
P.S. In case you were wondering, no, there are no sharks in Lake Tahoe. That’s a myth. So, feel free to leave the shark-repellent spray in the house.
Award: Best For Recreational Activities
Florida – Ocala National Forest, Salt Springs Recreation Area
Now, it’s time to travel all the way to the East Coast of the United States.
There are many top-notch locations to pick and choose from in the sunny state of Florida – but today, I’ll focus on the Ocala National Forest, a beautiful national gem that contains about 600 lakes and rivers – full of natural wonders – with plenty of kayak and canoe routes for some outdoor adventures.
While you may technically go and explore the whole forest and have a great time, I’ll stick to the Salt Spring Recreation Area and Salt Spring Run – a spring-fed stream that gushes year-round from clefts in the earth and flows approximately seven miles to empty into Lake George.
Now, does this classify as a great paddling spot? It absolutely does!
Bring your kayak or canoe – or rent one out, whatever works for you – and you can paddle your way through the spectacular mineral springs. But that’s not where the possibilities end – so you might as well plan a more extended trip.
There are many camping options – and most are accessible by RVs, which means that you can turn this into a good spot for a road trip. Oh, and be sure to pack your fishing and hiking gear, as well – because you’ll be able to do both at the recreational area.
Fishing spots are available in coves along the shoreline, and there are beautiful hiking trails that will give you a few miles of sightseeing. It’s an outdoors enthusiast’s paradise!
Canoeing & Kayaking Trips – A Quick Summary
There are a couple of factors you must consider when picking a good paddling location. These include your current skill level, the type of water you’ll be on, and whether you want to have the option of doing other things, like fishing or camping.
Still, these locations stand out as the best choices in the US:
- Clearwater River Canoe Trail (Montana)
- The Great Colorado River
- Eleven Point National Scenic River (Missouri)
- Glacier Bay National Park and the Prince William Sound (Alaska)
- Salmon River (Idaho)
- San Juan Islands (Washington)
- San Juan River (Colorado)
- Lake Tahoe (California and Nevada)
- Ocala National Forest, Salt Springs Recreation Area (Florida)