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Best Kayaking Destinations in the United States

Dave Burden by Dave Burden Updated on October 15, 2021. In

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What do you think of when you think about kayaking? Giant waterfalls and extreme athletes pushing their limits? Meandering marsh creeks full of exotic and beautiful birds and wildlife? Stunning canyons and adrenaline rush inducing roller coaster waves? A little bit of all of the above? The goal of compiling this collection of amazing places to kayak in the United States is to help you find the one that’s just right for you.

To help find your perfect kayaking location, we have broken down our list into a categories for paddlers of different disciplines and for folks looking for longer or shorter trips. Those categories are:

Sea Kayaking Day Trips – Destinations where you can paddle flat water without the need to camp overnight or pack for an extended trip.

Sea Kayaking Expeditions – Flat water (Ocean or Lake) destinations where you will be in remote areas and require multi-day provisions and planning

White Water Day Trips – Destinations where you can paddle rapids and white water without the need to camp overnight or pack for an extended trip.

White Water Expeditions  – White Water river destinations where you will be in remote areas and require multi-day provisions and planning

Sea Kayaking Day Trips

Sea Kayak Day Trips are the most popular way for paddlers to get out on the water. Whether you’re kayaking around the neighborhood pond, exploring a marsh creek, or heading off the beach to play with dolphins, you’re on a Sea Kayak Day Trip. Here are a few of the best places in the country to get out on the water.

The San Juan Islands in Washington State

Home to roaming pods of Orcas, migrating pods of Humpback Whales, and a virtual aquarium of amazing sea life, the San Juan Islands are at or near the top of every paddler’s bucket list. Be prepared for the cold water, and definitely look to the local paddlers and outfitters for guidance. There are a number of excellent guides in the area, many of whom offer guided kayak tours, and it’s a very good place to be on the water with someone who knows the currents and conditions well.

Coastal Virginia

The Atlantic Coast of Virginia starts out on the North Carolina Border as gorgeous, wide beach that stretches up to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. From there things really start to get interesting! Across the mouth of the Bay is an estuarine wilderness unlike anything else in the country. 75 miles of undeveloped barrier islands, salt marshes, and coastal creeks wind all the way to Assateague Island, Maryland. Beginner paddlers can find forgiving marshes full of egrets, herons, blue crabs, and diamondback terrapin. Advanced kayakers can push their limits in the wild surf breaks and strong inlet currents around the islands. You can even paddle to a winery on a guided kayak tour!

La Parguera, Puerto Rico

Mangrove islands and glistening white sand make La Parguera a tropical paddling paradise. Meander your way through winding waterways. Stalk bonefish on the flats. Just make sure you bring your camera because you’re going to run out of ways to describe all of the different shades of blue and green that you’re paddling over, under, and through.

Apostle Islands, Wisconsin

The 21 majestic rock sculptures that make up the Apostle Islands twist and surge out of Lake Superior as if the waves themselves had turned to stone in the middle of a legendary Great Lakes storm. Sea Caves wind deep into the rocks and sandy beaches welcome hikers to shore to explore the unique topography of this magical wilderness.

Lowcountry of South Carolina

The ACE Basin is the defining water feature of the region of South Carolina that is known for gorgeous green marshes, beaches that seem to go on forever, and hospitality that defines Southern Charm. From Kiawah Island near Charleston to Tybee Island, just over the Georgia line, there are dozens of opportunities to paddle up to your own private beach or a waterfront watering hole for a delicious lunch of fresh local Shrimp and Oysters that are rumored to be the first choice of Queen Elizabeth.

Sea Kayaking Expeditions

Expedition Sea Kayaking takes you around the next bend, beyond the reach of day trippers. If you really want to get away from it all and immerse yourself in wilderness, then these are the kayaking destinations to start planning to explore.

Boundary Waters, Minnesota

In the Land of 10,000 Lakes, it can seem like nearly all of them are part of the legendary Boundary Waters, a 1,090,000-acre wilderness area within the Superior National Forest. You can paddle here for a day, a week, a month, or more and never run out of places to explore. When you pack for this life-list expedition, prepare for the portages (over-land hikes with your gear) that will be a part of your reality on a near daily basis as you hop from lake to lake, or across islands.

Coastal Maine

The Maine Island Trail Association has created one of the most useful paddling expedition guides in the country. Their stewardship of this amazing coastline can be credited for making it one of the most popular sea kayaking destinations in the world. You must be aware of the weather and water conditions here as the fog can roll in quickly, the currents are strong, and the water is cold. But if you’re prepared for an epic cold water adventure, Coastal Maine is ready to deliver!

Everglades, Florida

The mystical River of Grass flows across the southern third of Florida and mingles with the Gulf of Mexico where Everglades National Park meets 10,000 Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Home to dozens of species of colorful birds, pre-historic alligators, and the endangered American Crocodile, the Everglades have captured the imagination of adventurers of all stripes.

Deep in the black waters of the ‘glades you’ll paddle with gators and may even see one of the growing population of pythons that has grown from pet snakes being released into this fertile wilderness. Along the coast you’ll paddle with dolphins across azure sand flats and camp on sugar sand beaches alongside White Pelicans and Roseate Spoonbills.

Na Pali Coast, Hawaii

Along the Northwest coast of Kauai is a wilderness of 5,000’ sea cliffs and fluted canyons that has been a spiritual place since long before Captain Cook sailed up and discovered these islands for the rest of the world. This is where the native Hawaiians buried their Kings and where their spirits leap into the afterworld.

The 20 mile paddle down the Na Pali Coast is as awe inspiring as it is challenging. While you could do it all in a day, why would you? Apply for a permit to camp on Kalalau Beach and you’ll not only spend the night deep in a tropical paradise, you’ll start your day with a shower in a beachfront waterfall!

Missouri River, South Dakota and Iowa

Not all sea kayaking happens in the sea! Follow the trail of America’s greatest explorers along the Lewis and Clark Trail. The Missouri National Recreational River Water Trail which extends from Pickstown, SD to Sioux City, IA includes Wild and Scenic River Designated Wilderness Areas and features scenes depicted in the 200 year old diaries of Lewis and Clark.

This is just one amazing section of their legendary explorations which included the Ohio River, Missouri River, Clearwater River, Snake River, and Columbia River, as well as several other side trips up rivers and branches that flow into these major waterways.

White Water Kayaking Day Trips

White Water Kayaking is what most people who have never been in a kayak picture when you mention the sport. Small boats, big rapids, crazy waterfalls. Adrenaline rush seeking extreme athletes take note! These are the best places in the United States for white water kayakers of all skill levels.

Nantahala and Ocoee Rivers North Carolina / Tennessee

Where North Carolina and Tennessee meet great white water is born. There are dozens of amazing white water runs in this stunning region of the Appalachian Mountains, but we’re going to focus on the legends – the Nantahala and the Ocoee Rivers. North Carolina’s Nantahala is where beginner kayakers go to test their skills, learn new moves, and gain entry to the sport of white water kayaking.

The Ocoee over in Tennessee is a short drive, but a world away. This is where the Olympic Kayaking Course was located for the Atlanta Games in 1996. On this wild river experienced paddlers test their mettle against the infamous Hell Hole and Powerhouse Ledge rapids.

Gauley and New Rivers West Virginia

In the white water world, the rule is that the Eastern United States has technically difficult rapids and the West has huge, high volume rapids. Someone forgot to let West Virginia in on this secret, so they just went with technically difficult, huge, high volume rapids.

The Gauley is the river by which all Eastern United States paddlers are measured. If you are not a confident Class V kayaker with bombproof skills, this is a great place to sign up for a raft trip. You’ll like the view a lot better from the above the water than below! If you have the skills to get you down the river safely, then this is an adrenaline rush that’ll last for days and an experience that you’ll never forget.

The New River is the Gauley’s not so little brother. A little less water, a little less technicality, and a whole lot of fun. The New River Gorge is one of the most beautiful places you’ll ever paddle and a paradise for adventure seekers of all kinds with great rock climbing and a very popular BASE Jumping bridge.

American River, California

There’s a reason that California sometimes seems like it has it all… because in a lot of ways it does. The American River is home to not one, not two, but three epic white water kayaking trips, and it’s just a half day’s drive from San Francisco. The constant excitement of the American River will keep your attention, but don’t forget to check out the scenery as you whip by.

If you’re looking to make a weekend excursion out of your kayaking adventure, you have some amazing options. Try out sea kayaking in the crystalline waters of Lake Tahoe where you can paddle on both the California and Nevada coasts. Test your palate with some wine tasting in Napa and Sonoma. Or pack your hiking boots and tent and head to nearby Yosemite National Park.

Arkansas River, Colorado

You may recall some debate a few years ago about new National Monument designations. One of the natural wonders that gained protection through that process was Brown’s Canyon of the Arkansas River. The Arkansas is sometimes overlooked by paddlers looking at the Colorado River or Green River as the Best of the West, but it more than holds its own with deep slot canyons, steep walls, and challenging white water. All of this & it’s just a couple of hours from downtown Denver. There are sections of the Arkansas that are very appropriate for beginner / intermediate paddlers as well as sections that are expert only.

If you want to tune up your skills in a more relaxed environment, try out the white water parks in Salida, Buena Vista, or  Golden, Colorado where you can hop out of your boat and onto a barstool at the end of your session to watch the other paddlers show off their best moves.

Richland Creek, Arkansas

Since the Arkansas River gets so much attention, Arkansas White Water Kayaking is often overlooked. But there are a number of great rivers in the Ozarks for beginner, intermediate, and advanced skill level kayakers. Richland Creek stands out at the top of the class as an incredible place for learning the “Steep Creek” style of kayaking that has been growing in popularity. Most of the rapids are in the Class III range and will challenge your skills without dire consequences.

Some kayakers think of Steep Creek paddling as just hucking yourself off of waterfalls, but there is more to it. Steep Creekin’ is paddling narrow rivers with near constant white water action and a steep gradient or rate of descent. Richland Creek offers all of this, but without the intense consequences of Class V whitewater. Of course, this relative safety factor goes out the window in flood stage conditions, so always check with the locals before you paddle any river that’s new to you.

Epic White Water Adventures

White Water Expeditions that stretch into three, four, five days or more are the types of experiences that change you. They test your fortitude. They challenge your endurance. And they reward you with memories that can carry you through to the next epic paddling trip. Be careful when you decide to launch on any of these expeditions. Each one is a no brainer bucket list item. And expedition river paddling is an addictive experience that will leave you fully satisfied but somehow still wanting more.

Green River Gates of Lodore, Utah

As the Green River cuts its way into the high desert of Utah from the Gates of Lodore to Dinosaur National Monument, it carries you through canyons, over rapids, and past scenery that will become part of your adventure lore. It’s near impossible to describe paddling the hairpin oxbow bend around Steamboat Rock, named by legendary waterman and explorer John Wesley Powell. (He also named Disaster Falls; a rapid in which he lost a boat, significant rations of food, and a number of his scientific instruments.)

In these canyons you’ll discover shades of red and orange that you never knew existed. You lose track of time on river expeditions like this. And isn’t that the point of being this deep in the wilderness?

Middle Fork of the Salmon River

The Salmon River actually offers 3 incredible multi-day kayaking trips. The Lower Fork, the Middle Fork, and the Main Salmon. Each has its own charms and challenges, but the Middle is the crown jewel.

Cutting through the heart of the 2.5-million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area, the Middle Fork takes you deep into the Sawtooth Mountains to places that are impossible to reach any other way. The jagged ridgelines that give these mountains their name reach thousands of feet above the river’s edge and seem to cut into the night sky as you lay beneath the stars at the end of another amazing day on the river.

Rio Grande

A lot has been said about our border with Mexico over the last few years. What you don’t hear enough of is how incredible the river that defines this border is as a paddling destination. The Rio Grande, or Rio Bravo as our neighbors to the South call it, winds almost 1000 miles from its source in Southern Colordo, down through New Mexico before hitting the Big Bend and then another 1000 miles to the Gulf Coast.

Out in the middle of nowhere West Texas. Out past Alpine, Marathon, and Marfa. Just around the corner from the surprising little town of Terlingua, you’ll find Big Bend National Park. Though the National Park encompasses an area of 801,163 acres, it averages just over 350,000 visitors per year. Of those 350,000 visitors, just a tiny fraction actually get on the river. Needless to say, this is a great place to find some wilderness of your own.

With Mexico over your right shoulder and the US over your left, kayaking down the Rio Grande is a unique experience by any measure. Most of the rapids in this section are Class I-III, so it’s a great expedition for paddlers of any skill level. But you need to be prepared for anything. Planning, provisioning, and more planning will make this, or any, river trip a success. This is wild country.

Plan on spending an extra day or two out on the river to allow you to explore the slot canyons and other natural wonders of the area.

 

Grand Canyon, Arizona

The Colorado River through the Grand Canyon is the white water trip of all white water trips. This is a true expedition. Twenty plus days of self sufficient wilderness paddling, camping, and adventuring in one of the great remote stretches of river in the country.

For this massive expedition, most kayakers will team up with a larger party that includes rafts, oar rigs, and maybe even a white water canoe or two. The storage space provided by the rafts can be the difference between surviving on high density calories for three weeks or enjoying a nice Cabernet with a gourmet meal each night on the river. And every little comfort counts out here.

The Colorado River is so large and so powerful through the Grand Canyon that it has an entirely different rapid categorization system than any other river. All other rivers are rated Class I (easy) through Class VI (unrunable). The rapids on the Colorado River are rated 1 through 10. And there ARE a couple of 10s in there.

To wind down after your Grand Canyon trip, consider renting a Houseboat for a few days and kayaking on over the flooded canyons beneath Lake Mead or Lake Powell. These are the two largest reservoirs in the country and mark the ends of the Canyon.

Copper River, Alaska

While technically a white water expedition, this one is really all about the scenery and wildlife. Bears, seals, eagles, salmon runs, forests as far as the eye can see, glaciers, this river expeditions is a feast for the senses. The Copper winds through the intense wilderness of the Chugatch Mountains. You may be familiar with these rugged peaks from their starring roles in extreme ski films and dare devil YouTube video clips.

Wildlife is everywhere… including bears. So be aware of your surroundings and be sure to practice bear-safe camping practices at all times. However, don’t forget to also pack a fishing rod as you’ll definitely want to add a local sockeye salmon to your menu on this trip. Just don’t leave that salmon carcass anywhere near where you plan on sleeping!

While you’re in Alaska, you almost have to try out some sea kayaking on legendary Prince William Sound or further South at Glacier Bay National Park. Humpback Whales, Bald Eagles, and Grizzly Bears are just some of the more than 220 species of birds, 30 species of land mammals, and at least a dozen marine mammal species that make their home in these immense natural areas.

As you plan your ultimate kayaking trip, here are a few things to consider.

1 – Do you want a Guided of Self-Supported Experience? Guided tours are a great to discover a new area, & the reduce your need to be concerned with details to near zero. Reputable guide operations will give you a gear list, a rendezvous point, and pretty much take care of everything else. Of course there’s a cost that goes with this, but if you’re not experienced in trip planning, a guided kayak tour can be a great way to gain that experience. Another Benefit of Guided Trips is that they already have permits. Permits are difficult to obtain for some trips, and can often be the biggest obstacle between you and your dream trip.

2 – Rent Gear or Bring Your Own? If you have gear you love, and the logistics of getting it to and from the trip are manageable, that’s great. If not, rental equipment is another excellent option. Ask a few questions before you commit to a rental to be sure that you’re getting what you expect. Kayaks and gear come in many styles and levels of quality. Double and triple check to be sure that you are properly prepared.

3 – Be Honest About Your Skill Level. The last thing you want to do is get yourself in to a dangerous situation that you are ill equipped to handle. There is a trip on this for everyone – even the complete beginner! So do your research and be sure that the destination and style of trip you choose matches your skill level and experience.

Kayakers, like the rivers and coastlines they love, are unique. Each seeks something different as they approach the water. What do you dream about when you start thinking of your ultimate kayaking destination? Tell us in the notes. Or add your favorite spot to the list.

 

 

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