20 Amazing Rivers to Kayak in The United States
The United States of America is a beautiful country that is loaded with so much scenery that it deservedly has a song, “America the Beautiful” named after it. From border to border, there is so much to see and do. Although it would be entertaining enough to take in scenic drives, how about touring some of its amazing rivers by kayak? There are twenty amazing rivers that come to mind kayaking enthusiasts of various skill levels may want to consider when taking in the natural beauty and splendor this nation has to offer.
20. Duck River (City of Duck River, Tennessee)
In the heart of Tennessee, Hickman County’s Duck River winds itself into the town of New Johnsonville before hooking up with the Tennessee River. Starting from The Barrens, this is a 284-mile river that has small rapids and deep pools. For canoers and kayakers of all skill levels, this is a great location, especially along the thirty-two-mile stretch belonging to the Tennessee Scenic River Program. The program’s goal is to protect the river’s environment by keeping it mostly largely free-flowing and untouched by human development. There are several paddle boat launch areas along the stretch and there are opportunities to enjoy overnight camping. This river is Tennessee’s largest in-state river and has sixty species of freshwater mussels, 151 species of fish, and twenty-two species of aquatic snails. It is the most biologically diverse river in all of North America. In order to make the best out of this scenic experience, make this a two or three-day trip. Between the scenery and relaxation in the wild, you won’t be disappointed.
19. Noatak River (Kotzebue, Alaska)
Noatak River, located in Alaska, is a wilderness paradise for paddling enthusiasts. Whether it be by canoe or kayak, the pristine watershed in the area begins its 425-mile trek from the Brooks Range, through the remote protected lands of Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, and through the Noatak National Preserve. Meeting up with the Kotzebue Sound, the tundra banks serve as a picturesque canvas that may also feature the impressive display of caribou, grizzly bears, moose, wolves, and wolverines. This is the largest undisturbed watershed in all of North America and is listed as an International Biosphere Reserve. It also has a National Wild and Scenic River status. The dramatic Endicott and Schwatka Mountains are what make up the Brooks Range that first starts the kayaking journey at a leisurely pace for three hundred miles, heading west. It bends to the south and travels for an additional hundred miles. This leg of the journey features the dramatic layout of the mountain and alpine before going through the wide tundra valley and Noatek’s impressive canyons. There are two sections in this river that have a Class II rating under normal conditions. There are several stretches throughout the river that can be accessed in as little as a week. However, to enjoy the full-length trip, mile for mile, it can take as long as twenty-eight days to pull off. There are two options to start this majestic river journey. The most common has Bettles, Alaska. However, if you want the full run of the river, Kotzebue is the place to go. Kotzebue is located in the Northwest Arctic Borough which has over three thousand people who call it home.
18. Mulberry River (Mulberry, Arkansas)
Running fifty-five miles long through the state of Arkansas from Ozark National Forest is the Mulberry River. At the end of its journey, it leads into the Arkansas River. In 1992 it was designated as a National Wile and Scenic River. It has been enjoyed by canoeists and kayakers for its twisty trek past large boulders, as well as the Class II and Class III whitewater rapids. The towering limestone bluffs that border the river adds to the scenic adventure, as does the wildlife. Black bears may be found along the short, perhaps trying to catch the green sunfish and smallmouth bass with their mighty paws and jaws.
17. New River (Boone, North Carolina/Virginia/West Virginia)
Considered one of North America’s oldest rivers, New River plays not just with a name but with the paddling enthusiast. It offers some of the East Coast’s biggest whitewater with its stunning gorge in West Virginia. In 2020, it was designated as a national park and preserved as one of the deepest chasms in the Appalachians. The Class III to Class V rapids rage below Thurmond, through Double Z, Greyhound, and Keeney. The upper section of the gorge features a broader range of canoeing and kayaking options that may not be quite as challenging. Starting at the South Fork New River, this tributary to the Kanawha River begins near Boone, North Carolina, running through Virginia, then into West Virginia. Gauley Bridge is the township that is situated where the 320-mile run of New River leads into the mouth of Kanawha.
16. Allagash River (Maine)
The ninety-two-mile Allagash Wilderness Waterway of Allagash River is one of Maine’s greatest natural assets. The thrill of a nine-mile Chase Rapids run is not for the faint-at-heart paddler but it does serve as a cure for the adrenaline junkie. The rest of the waters found at Umsaskis Lake and Round Pond would cater to the paddler wishing for a gentler run. The forty-foot plunge of Allagash Falls is one of the main highlights of the area, as well as the cameo appearances often made by the moose. Starting at Churchill Lake, Allagash leads into the mouth of the Saint John River. In 1970, it was designated as a National Wild and Scenic River by US Congress which go to great lengths to preserve the natural wonder that makes Allagash the legendary river it is so often described to be.
15. Flambeau River (Madison, Wisconsin)
Considered one of the most iconic canoe streams of the Upper Midwest, the Flambeau River in the Wisconsin North Woods offers more than just a great kayaking experience. Both the North and South Forks of the river offer fabulous reaches that include Class II whitewater rapids. Along the way, you might hear a timber wolf making a call in the wilderness. The North Fork of the river is the more popular due to the quieter water. For beginners, this is the place to go for a more relaxing kayaking experience. As for paddlers up for the challenge, the South Fork has a series of rapids. These forks eventually lead to Flambeau River itself, which then becomes a forty-nine-mile watery trek straight for Chippewa River. The hardwood forest has both forks of the river completely surrounded. The lineup of trees includes quaking aspen, red oak, sugar and red maple, white ash, and yellow birch. There are also pine stands of red, jack, and white, as well as cedar trees and tall hemlocks. Some of these overhand the rocky riverbanks. In addition to the beautiful array of forests, the abundance of wildlife certainly doesn’t lack here. What does lack is the human development along the seventy-seven miles of the North and South Forks that serve as the true gem of the Flambeau River. Located in the Flambeau State Forest, the closest municipality to access the kayaking opportunities of the river is Madison. Along the way between the two forks are nine different landings that offer all the amenities a kayaker needs to make the most out of their experience.
14. Huron River Water Trail (Milford, Michigan)
Starting at Proud Lake in Milford, Michigan, the Huron River Water Trail is a 104-mile trek through rapids and calm water down to Lake Erie. In order to kayak the entire river, it takes about five days to do so. There are also three designated trips that are measured at thirty-five miles. The five trail towns located on the shores of this watery route offer amenities to all paddlers who need to take a break. At the end of the downstream run, one can take advantage of a shuttle service that brings them back to the starting point without hassle.
13. Kenai River (Anchorage, Alaska)
The eighty-mile Kenai River flows from Kenai Lake located near Alaska’s Chugach Mountains to Cook Inlet. This beautiful river goes from its turquoise hue to Class III and higher whitewater sections. For beginners, these sections may be quite difficult. As for kayakers embracing the challenge, it’s worth it. Most of the river runs through the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, which serves as home to awesome cottonwood forests and Chinook salmon. Along the river is a seven-mile-long Skilak Lake. In order to fully enjoy the kayaking experience of the Kenai River, give yourself about five days to do it. This allows you to take in the world-class fishery watershed and sections of an easy day float. Kenai River is one of the most popular destinations for its fishing and boating. If you’re a kayaking enthusiast who doesn’t want to encounter the traffic, this is not the river for you. However, if you’re there for the scenery and an adrenaline rush, you will be hard-pressed to find a better location than this. Along the river, there are three sections to run. The drive along Seward Highway and Sterling Highway from Anchorage, Alaska, takes you to Kenai Lake. From there, the kayaking journey begins. There are several landings and campgrounds along the way until reaching the end of the watery road of the Kenai township’s Beaver Loop Road and its public dock.
12. Missouri National Recreational River Water Trail (Pickstown, South Dakota)
Stretching from Pickstown, South Dakota’s Fort Randall Dam to Sioux City, Iowa, the Missouri National Recreational Water Trail has a stretch of 148 miles along the historic Missouri River. While kayaking this trail, you will pass impressive limestone bluffs and cottonwood trees. You may also encounter one or two bald eagles flying overhead of a waterway that has two main river segments that are connected by Lewis and Clark Lake. The majority of this river trail is within the boundaries of the Missouri National Recreational River, which is a Natural Park Service that consists of relatively free-flowing segments of the state’s river. The stretch of thirty-nine miles from Fort Randall dam to Running Water is followed by a fifty-nine-mile run starting just below Gavins Point Dam and ending at Ponca State Park. While kayaking this water trail, you will follow the infamous Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery Expedition. Mixing history with scenery as a kayaking experience is definitely one of those “must-sees and do” experiences.
11. Willamette River Water Trail (Portland, Oregon)
There are about 187 miles to kayak along the Willamette River as a majestic trail in the Pacific Northwest. Lined with magnificent trees such as Oregon Ash, Pacific Willow, and Red Osier Dogwood, paddlers in canoes and kayaks will also find themselves sharing the area with bald eagles and spotted sandpipers. There are many watery trails for beginners, as well as for kayakers that have at least an intermediate skill level. The full length of the river is two hundred miles and one of its main highlights is Mary’s Peak. The Willamette Riverkeeper is a website that offers all the information you need to know before taking on the river water trail.
10. Eleven Point National Scenic River (Thomasville, Missouri)
The forty-four-mile section of a waterway, established in 1968 as Eleven Point National Scenic River, treks through the Mark Twain National Forest, located in Southern Missouri. The protected area starts at Thomasville to State Highway 142. The paddle along Elven Point passes along the Ozark scenery and its steep hills, towering limestone bluffs, and deciduous forest. There are several campgrounds situated along the river, allowing the opportunity to make this kayaking adventure become more than a day’s journey. For the experienced kayaker, Elven Point is a relatively easy river to navigate with its Class I and Class II ratings. Although not a run recommended for beginners, intermediate-level paddlers and up should have no trouble dealing with the most dangerous obstacles of snags, root wads, and trees. As always, it is recommended to scout the paddle route from shore and learn more from local outfitters of any issues they need to be aware of.
9. Upper Iowa River (Dorchester, Iowa)
The Upper Iowa River serves as a scenic tributary of the Mississippi River. Thanks to its Wild & Scenic status in the Hawkeye State, this river earns its ranks as one of the best rivers to paddle in the Midwest. Whether it be by canoe or kayak, the trek between Kendallville and Decorah is regarded as the most popular stretch. The towering limestone bluffs and bottomland forests serve as the apple’s eye of this watery journey. If you’re looking to spot scenery to add to your kayaking experience, be on the lookout for bald eagles, great blue herons, mink, river otter, and white-tailed deer. The topography Iowa has to offer in this region serves as a scenic statement that there’s more to the state than beans and corn. The headwaters of this river begin in Minnesota’s Mower County, which borders along with Iowa. It then flows through Iowa’s Allamakee, Howard, and Winneshiek counties before meeting with the Upper Mississippi River near New Albin, Iowa. This river passes through the state’s cities of Chester, Lime Springs, Florenceville, Kendallville, Bluffton, and Decorah.
8. Buffalo River (Harriet, Arkansas)
Buffalo River was the first national river declared in the US, offering some fantastic canoeing and kayaking trips along its gorge-hemmed trek through the Ozark Highlands. There are four landings that serve as access points along the river. They are Dillard’s Ferry, Ponca, Pruitt, and Rush. This magnificent river features the impressive 550-foot Big Bluff and the 590-foot Ludlow Bluff, adding to this undammed 135-mile-long lower part of the river. Overall, the river is 153 miles but it’s the 135 miles of it that are under the protection of the US Forest Service. This river originates in the highest part of the Boston Mountains of the Ozarks, which flows out onto the Springfield Plateau near Erbie, before crossing a portion of the Salem Plateau. It then joins the White River.
7. Wambaw Creek Wilderness (McClellanville, South Carolina)
The Wambaw Creek Wilderness is located in South Carolina’s Francis Marion National Forest, near McClellanville of Charleston County. The Little Wambaw Swamp has over five thousand acres of wilderness that was designated by the US Congress in 1980. The cypress-tupelo trees are just one of the highlights of this gentle kayak run, as are the tons of wildlife throughout. If you know what to look for, you may also find evidence of rice production, namely at Prothonotary Warbler and Swallow-tailed Kites. This is a five-mile paddle run that has two public landings that provide access to the creek. Elmwood Landing and Still Landing are situated as access points to the black water tidal creek.
6. Colorado River (Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and Utah)
The Colorado River is probably one of the most famous rivers to run in the world, especially when trekking through the Grand Canyon. The combination of big water and the giant Lava Falls makes this one of the most infamous rapids in North America. The scenery is truly breathtaking, as is the overall experience of paddling through the reaches of the river and its tributaries. This includes the vicious Cataract Canyon, located below the mouth of the Green River, and the short and sweet Westwater Canyon. For beginners, Black Canyon is the way to go. One of the highlights of the Colorado River, especially from a paddler’s point of view, is the Horseshoe Bend. This is a river that runs through four states. Aside from Colorado, it also runs through Arizona, Nevada, and Utah. The length of the river is 1,450 miles and is divided into two parts. There is the Lower Basin and the Upper Basin. The Upper is ideal for more experienced kayakers while the Lower features friendlier waters. Because of the size of the Colorado River and all of its watery opportunities, trekking through all of it in just one day is not possible. This is one of those kayaking experiences that needs at least a few days to take in a full load of what this amazing river has to offer.
5. Snake River Headwaters, Grand Teton National Park (Jackson Hole, Wyoming)
Located in Grand Teton National Park, the Snake River is the pride and joy of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. For a kayaker looking for that perfect place of peaceful solitude, this is it. Often, people will go from sea kayaking on Jackson Lake before rafting down the Snake River. This waterway earns its name due to the numerous twist and turns as you either paddle or raft your way through. The odds of seeing wildlife along the way are very likely between the bald eagle, moose, and otter. For beginners who want a relaxing kayaking experience, Jackson Hole’s lake offers this. Head for Snake River Canyon to encounter Class III rapids if you possess kayaking skills that are more advanced.
4. Middle Fork of the Salmon River (Boundary Creek to Cache Bar, Idaho)
The hallowed whitewater of Middle Fork of the Salmon River offers a top-grade kayaking opportunity as it flumes its way through the rugged Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. Located in Central Idaho, this is one of the largest roadless areas in the conterminous US. Ideal for experienced kayakers that can handle whitewater paddling of Class III and Class IV rapids, this one hundred-mile run features the challenging Cramer Creek Rapid, Pistol Creek Rapid, and Velvet Falls. There are also hot springs to be found in the area, along with the bountiful wildlife you may see as you enjoy your journey. Bighorn sheep, black bears, and elk are just a tiny example of the wildlife you may find yourself privy to see as you take in the natural scenery. The starting point of this run can either start at Boundary Creek, which is ideal for more experienced kayakers. During mid-summer, when the water drops, starting at the Indian Creek Ranger Station offers a friendlier trek through the waters that run for seventy-five miles.
3. Boundary Waters, Superior National Forest (Minnesota)
There are more than 1,200 miles of canoe and kayak routes located within the Boundary Waters in Northern Minnesota. If you want to do more than just take in a single paddle trail, this would be the place to go. Between the towering trees, the fauna, the flora, and all the best the natural wild has to offer, you may never want to leave the area. These waters also border Ontario, Canada’s Quetico Park, and are recognized as the largest international area set aside for wilderness recreational purposes in the world. People have benefited from this region for thousands of years and were once upon a time the main route to the west for explorers and traders. The Voyageurs’ Highway once upon a time ran through what is now the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Quetico Park. As if a world of its own, the Boundary Waters. National Geographic Traveler labeled Boundary Waters as one of the “50 Places of a Lifetime.” Adding to the appeal of canoeing, kayaking, and rafting, are the numerous riverside campsites you can access so you can turn your experience into more than just a day’s worth of sightseeing by water. Because Boundary Waters is so large, there is a multitude of communities you can choose from as your starting point. The best bet is to contact outfitters that can first determine how skilled you are as a kayaker and how relaxing or challenging you wish for your kayaking experience to be.
2. John Day River (Clarno to Cottonwood, Oregon)
There was a good reason why many early settlers, especially after the conclusion of the American Civil War, dared to head west to the state of Oregon. The state is nothing short of breathtaking. The John Day River is no exception in its impressive three-hundred-mile-long run. It is the longest river flowing entirely within the state and is also one of the longest undammed flows in the Lower 48. Shouldering the river are basalt cliffs, towering buttes and pillars, and badlands. This includes factoring in the river’s North Fork territory. This river drains much of the Blue Mountain region, located in central and eastern Oregon. This includes the subranges of the Aldrich, the Elkhorns, the Greenhorns, the Ochocos, and the Strawberries. The most popular time to paddle and raft this river is the forty-eight-mile run between Service Creek and Clarno, and the seventy-mile stretch from Clarno to Cottonwood. The best time to enjoy this watery trek is between spring and early summer. For the most part, this is a gentle river. The more aggressive waters are located through the Clarno Rapids, which is rated as a Class III, and the Basalt Rapids which can range from a Class II to a Class III.
1. Juniper Run, Ocala National Forest (Ocala, Florida)
Located in Ocala National Forest of Marion County, Florida, Juniper Run’s name will often appear on a number of ranking sites as among the best rivers to do more than just kayak. Whether by canoe or kayak, this is a seven-mile journey that beings just below the springs and runs through the heart of the Juniper Prairie Wilderness. This trek will bring you to a take-out just off SR 19, long before this run empties into the St. Johns River at Lake George. Throughout this watery journey, there are many landing spots where you can park the kayak so you can take a breather. While doing so, take in the magnificence of the dense, tropical forest. If you find yourself too tired to paddle yourself back to the start, there is a shuttle service that is offered for a small fee.