Best Under-the-Radar Paddling Trips in the Lower 48
The best paddling trips in the U.S. aren’t exactly a secret these days. Everyone knows that the Grand Canyon and the Middle Fork of the Salmon are among the country’s best and most sought after multi-day rafting trips. For sea kayaking or canoeing, classic destinations like the Everglades and Boundary Waters typically top people’s must-do list. But if you’re looking for a cool paddling trip that’s a bit under the radar, keep reading…
9 Cool Places to Raft, Canoe and Kayak That Should Be On Every Paddler’s List
1) San Juan River, Utah
For a multi-day rafting trip that includes fun Class III rapids, towering red sandstone canyons and mellow stretches perfect for water fights, reading a book or napping (just be sure someone is paddling), look no further than the San Juan River in southwestern Utah. Known and loved by avid paddlers in the West, it’s a truly spectacular float through classic canyon country. Most paddlers hit either the 27-mile Sand Island to Mexican Hat section or the longer, 57-mile Mexican Hat to Clay Hills section; some with enough time and the right permits will do both. Stand up paddle boards, duckies and canoes piloted by experienced paddlers can pick their way down the San Juan at lower flows. It’s nice to have a raft to help carry gear – the rapids will swamp a loaded canoe and would likely tip a SUP. Packrafters can make their own hike-paddle trip and explore Bears Ears National Monument, along which the San Juan flows (permits required for this, as well).
2) Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan
Experienced sea kayakers know that the Great Lakes are as unforgivable as any ocean. They’re also as dramatic. Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is a wild stretch of rugged, cliff-choked shoreline along Lake Superior. Most paddlers take guided day trips to check out the unique cliffs and waterfalls that drop into Lake Superior. But those with the proper skills and cold-water gear can paddle from one end of the park to the other, staying at backcountry campsites along the way. Paddlers looking to skip the shuttle can stitch together a route that incorporates nearby Grand Island National Recreation Area, which is managed by the Hiawatha National Forest.
3) Maine Island Trail, Maine
Billed as “America’s First Recreational Water Trail,” the Maine Island Trail is a 375-mile route from the state’s New Hampshire border all the way to Canada. The trail is made up of islands and mainland sites that offer public access for day-tripping and/or Leave No Trace camping. With a mix of public and private ownership, specific locations can change from year-to-year, but the trail endures thanks to a Yankee spirit of public access, volunteerism, and respectful use. The Maine Island Trail Association is the caretaker of this enterprise and publishes a must-have guide and mobile app (updated annually) that details access and camping sites. A $45 membership gets you full access to more than 200 sites, while the free app provides info on dozens of options. If cruising Maine’s scenic and rugged coast alongside sailboats, lobstermen and harbor seals sounds like a nice way to spend a week, this is a water trail well worth your consideration.
4) Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Starting in Columbia, South Carolina, the Congaree River Blue Trail runs for 50 miles, starting with an urban paddling experience before twisting its way alongside the wilderness of Congaree National Park. The first 25 miles can get wild on a hot weekend day, but as the river meanders toward the park you’ll paddle through unspoiled wilderness. The park is renowned for its old-growth, bottomland hardwood forest and hosts some of the largest and tallest trees in the East. Sand bars provide camping opportunities and local outfitters in Columbia offer shuttle services and beta. Canoes, open kayaks, or SUPs are the best options for this truly flatwater river.
5) Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, GA
Deep in southern Georgia where towns are scarce and water abounds, you’ll find the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. The “Okefenokee” is a 700-square mile, 7,000 year-old swamp near the Georgia-Florida state line and the refuge covers most of it. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the refuge and offers 120 miles of canoe trails and a handful of backcountry sites that provide ingress into the vast watery wilderness. Hundreds of bird and plant species abound, along with snakes and alligators.
6) Suwannee River, FL
Draining from the Okefenokee, the Suwannee River meanders a 230-mile long course to the Gulf Coast. Well-known by Floridians but overlooked by the rest of us, the Suwannee offers quiet paddling in an old-Florida setting. While adventurous paddlers can paddle right from the Okefenokee, the 170-mile long Suwannee Wilderness Trail runs from White Springs, Florida to the oceanside hamlet of Suwannee. Paddlers need to be aware of water levels as conditions change, especially on the upper river. With small towns scattered along the way, re-provisioning for a through paddle is relatively easy.
7) Current River, Missouri
Tim Palmer, author of 2018’s America’s Great River Journeys: 50 Canoe, Kayak and Raft Adventures, places Missouri’s Current River among his favorite flatwater trips in the country. Managed by the Park Service, the Current offers multi-day flatwater trip options through the dense forests of Missouri’s southwest Ozark region. The upper 90 miles of this spring-fed gem are the most popular for paddlers who put in at Montauk State Park and take out at the Big Spring Campground. Below Big Spring, the river widens and receives heavy motorized traffic. Because the river is spring fed, it rarely freezes and can be paddled year-round.
8) Eleven Point River, Missouri
Not far from the Current River, in Missouri’s Mark Twain National Forest, is the Eleven Point River. Forty-four miles of the Eleven Point are designated as a National Scenic River and offer easy canoeing through the Ozarks’ hardwood forests and sweeping bluffs. In addition to a series of national forest campsites that make multi-day trips easy to plan and execute, the Eleven Point also offers up clear waters and great fishing. This trip would make a great multi-day SUP adventure, as well.
9) Owyhee River, Oregon
From a rafting perspective, Oregon is probably best known for the Rogue River. But the remote and equally wild Owyhee River is one of America’s best multi-day floats. While the Owyhee has received some recent attention, it is still relatively quiet compared to the state’s more popular waterways. Flowing through some of the most remote country in the Lower 48, the Owyhee winds through high-desert canyons and offers up Class III (and IV depending on levels) water, inviting side canyons, hiking opportunities, and wildlife galore. One hundred and twenty miles of the Owyhee are protected by Wild and Scenic designation. Outfitters run trips here, but experienced DIYers can pull off an Owyhee trip, provided they can get to middle-of-nowhere eastern Oregon. For a true expedition-style trip, the upper reaches of the Owyhee can be paddled by packraft, SUP, or ducky. Spring trips are great for rafting, while lower-flow summer and fall trips can be done by experienced canoers or expedition stand up paddlers willing to work for it.
U.S. paddlers are spoiled with so many incredible paddling trips, and this list is by no means all-encompassing. If nothing else, however, we hope the paddling destinations described above inspire you to find a hidden gem in your own backyard.
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Photos: Paddling Utah’s San Juan River – Greg Peters; Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore – NOAA Photo Library; Camping along Maine Island Trail – Dan Smith; Paddling in Congaree National Park – Greg Peters; Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge – U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service; Suwannee River – Michael Rivera; Current River – Kbh3rd_WikiCC; Eleven Point River – Eleven Point Canoe Rental; Owyhee River rafting – Jillian Lukiwski