“A man of wisdom delights in water.” Preach on, Confucius! The kayak-lovers out there are blushing over their wise passion. Although boats are perfectly fine, once you’ve experienced the jovial exhilaration of kayaking, few go back.
There is something surreal about being eye level with calm (or rough!) waters. Experienced kayakers feel as if they are one with the flow, while newbies bask in the excitement of a fresh perspective (and accompanying upper-body soreness). And both should seek out these destinations within the US that were seemingly sculpted to be kayaked in.
Whether you are obsessed with mountain ranges or see-through waters, the list below is guaranteed to spark inspiration for your next adventure.
San Juan Islands
San Juan Islands, where whale fins meet your paddle (or at least come extremely close to it!). You’re more likely to spot an orca whale while paddling through on your kayak than you are chilling on a boat. The killer whales love to show off for kayakers, shaking their tail feathers for adventurers to capture with their cameras. More than half of the kayaking voyages come back with pictures—or at the very least, memories—of whales coming to the surface to wave hello. Gigantic animals not your thing? You can expect to steal glimpses of the Olympic Mountain tops and Canadian territory, Vancouver Island. Really, this is one of the most popular kayaking destination on Earth, so make arrangements and plan ahead for your date with an orca.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Set on the shoreline of Lake Superior, it’s no surprise this kayaking destination is superior to many that have come before it. Blue and green waters line the path of awesomeness that guides kayakers through a mix of rocky and hilly coastlines. And don’t miss Lover’s Leap, where a perfectly arched tunnel shares the love with passersby, and where adventurers on tandem boats can steal a kiss.
Alaska is simply stunning. There is no way to downplay it. The 669,984 acres of Kenai Fjords National Park is proof of just that. Jagged, multi-sized icebergs and larger than life glaciers take up acreage while puffins and sea lions keep you company. As you can imagine, it’s quite the outing. Begin in the nearest town of Seaward, where you can expect your excursion to take as little as a few hours or as long as several weeks.
Kayak the Grand Canyon? Yes, please. Until recently, this wasn’t even an option. However, current changes have introduced a lottery for independent voyagers to paddle down the Colorado River (including Havasu Creek). Back in the day, kayak enthusiasts would have to wait nearly a decade to be granted access to the river. So, jump on this opportunity NOW. You can be one of the first solo travelers to paddle through one of the most impressive landscapes in the United States. Expect some wild rapids, but mainly, expect to be ‘wowed’ by the larger than life terrain and impeccable, often-red coastlines.
Inhale the fresh Alaskan air while you can because the beauty that unfolds during your kayaking adventure will likely leave you breathless. Snow-capped mountains form a panoramic view of stunning wilderness while the brisk air keeps your lungs occupied. Expect to rub elbows with icebergs while carving your kayak through crystal blue waters — this paddling session is out of this world. If you’ve already been, you may want to go again. The disappearing glaciers keep visitors guessing what ever-changing landscapes might reveal to their ready eyes and focused lenses. P.S. wear a coat.
St. John River
The natural world that makes up the backwoods of Maine is truly astonishing. St. John River is the longest flowing river east of the Mississippi, with 418 wildly curvy miles. For this reason, kayakers flock to the pine-filled forests to travel across true wilderness. It’s not uncommon to spot a moose meandering through the terrain, mid-paddle. The typical excursion lasts about six to seven days and includes camping at easily accessible grounds. Early season (May/June) is the best option as crowds charge the scenic route come July.
Na Pali Coast
Switching gears and climates, an overload of tropical beauty is what you should expect during your kayaking voyage on this Hawaiian coast. As if Kauai isn’t beautiful enough from the sandy shore line, sea kayakers get to view the serene landscape from the waterways surrounding the island; look for jagged cliffs and wild fruits. The 17-mile voyage along the coast is best done in two days. Kayakers are encouraged to stop for the night and camp under the Hawaiian stars before hopping back on the kayak to complete the expedition. Though, due to the winter swell that hits the island each year, kayaking Na Pali Coast is only possible from May to September.
Santa Cruz Island
The largest of the eight Channel Islands, Santa Cruz is arguably the most beautiful and definitely the most kayaked. Scorpion Rock is picture perfect with clear waters and extensive wildlife. Without a doubt the most popular due to its easy access, expect to wave hello to your fellow kayak lovers while floating over kelp beds. For a more private experience, post up at Prisoners Harbor where you are less likely to bump paddles with other adventurers and more likely to wander into a sea cave or hidden cove. Either way, expect to find spectacular exploration on the agenda.
Swimming with gators never looked so pretty. The Everglades National Park is set in marshes and mangroves, proving without a doubt, you are venturing through the dirty south. As the biggest sub-tropical backwoods in the US, the overgrown shrubbery is a sight to see. Whether your schedule permits a few hours or several days, the kayaking trails are plentiful and unique. How unique? Nine ecosystems have been identified in the Everglades. Nine. Paddle through multiple climates and various blooming overhangs, and you’ll surely feel nine different emotions.
Upper Iowa River
If paddling 110 miles of unspoiled landscape and gigantic towering chimney rocks isn’t enough to pull you off the couch and into this Midwest escapade, we don’t know what will. However, not all miles are created equal throughout this ride. Kayakers stick within the 31 miles between the towns of Kendallville and Decorah where soaring palisades and narrow canyons lead the way. About 15 miles into your two-day paddle adventure, the small town of Bluffton comes into view With a few private campgrounds, this is the perfect spot to stop to refuel, rest, and recuperate. Prepare yourself for the exceptional beauty that awaits you on the river the next morning. Great for beginners and children, the flow never gets too wild.
In the northern crest of Yellowstone National Park, the water flow is grand while the scenery is stellar. It is, after all, one of the most visited National Parks in the world, so the intense allure shouldn’t be too shocking. The river is doable for newbies until about mid-summer when the water gets a little rockier. Wildlife such as elk, moose, and eagles might join in on your daytime venture that will make you feel like you are embarking on a present-day Lewis and Clark expedition.
A kayak excursion through this glacier-fed Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest lake is nothing less than majestic. This destination is known for being windy, so set out from the south campground on the eastern side of the lake early in the morning when the water is still calm and the mountain reflections are at their peak. The route through the inlet and past Emerald Island is only a 2.5-hour round trip, but on your way you’ll pass by glacially-carved mountain ridges and lush forests. Make a pit stop at their sand/rock beach and bask in the sun, or bring a lunch and hang out at one of the picnic areas. This prime spot is only two hours east of Seattle, so there’s no need to rush home.
Grab your kayak and get ready to explore Idaho’s vast wilderness as you paddle down one of the last free-flowing rivers in the west. Hit up the Main or Middle Fork of The River of No Return and coast past some of the deepest canyons in the US (including the renowned Idaho Canyon). And don’t forget to wave hello to indigenous wildlife like bighorn sheep, black bears, and moose (oh, my!). Once you’re done battling big waves and white water rapids, take a break on the river’s sandy beaches, set up camp, and relax in the hot springs.
Maine Island Trail
There is no other trail quite like the Maine Island Trail. The first American water trail, the route covers vast amounts of land (375 miles to be exact!) between New Hampshire and the Canadian border. The trail only accommodates small boats, so expect a more tranquil experience as you pass nearly 200 wild islands on your trip. If you are feeling wild—and we mean wild—you can choose to “paddle through”, swerving up the entire length of New England coast. Important note: this is not a day trip. You will need a several weeks to complete such a task, but the picturesque backdrop (and bragging rights!) make it worth the hardship and time.
Blue waters, red sandstone cliffs, and towering buttes — it doesn’t get much better. Take a day or overnight trip on this reservoir along the Utah/Arizona border and you’ll wonder why you didn’t explored this Southwest hidden gem sooner. While there are numerous route options, but on you’re not going to want to miss out on is to Antelope Canyon. Antelope Point Marina is where your adventure begins and hiking the slot canyon area of this popular destination is where it ends (well at least until you have to paddle back). Camp out anywhere along the shoreline and let the peace and tranquility take you away.
Is Tahoe ever a bad idea? Nah. The blue lake water is like a magnet for kayakers from all around the world. But don’t expect the blue waters to flow rapidly, this is more of a tranquil outing to soak up the rays and take in the one-of-a-kind northern California beauty. Baldwin-Emerald Bay is perhaps the most popular inlet, and closest to Emerald Bay. Seemingly untouched shorelines will emerge at every turn as you paddle your way to the famed Emerald Bay.
Considered one of the most beautiful and pristine rivers in the US, Wyoming’s Snake River is visited by nearly 300,000 visitors each year. Winding through the Grand Teton National Park, this thing is a monster. When you’re ready to take on this beast, put your kayak in at the Taco Hole Kayak Access point and paddle your heart out through Class II and III white water rapids. Steep canyon walls and breathtaking mountain views included.
With five major rapids that qualify this river as a Class V whitewater spot, kayaking down the Upper Gauley River in West Virginia is not for the faint of heart (or the inexperienced). But if challenge is your middle name, then put your kayak in at the Summersville Dam and gear up for a 27-mile “Marathon” day trip down the Upper, Middle, and Lower Gauley. In between rapids hitting your face you’ll get the chance to see the Gauley River Canyon Doors, two pillars of rock that tower more than 100 feet above the river. Fitt Tip: the best time to hit up this kayaking destination is during “Gauley Season”, aka the fall.
A tributary of the Monongahela River that runs through West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania the 132-mile long “Yough” is mostly whitewater river. But the place for prime kayaking is a 74-mile stretch known as the Youghiogheny River Water Trail. If you’re in the mood for a no pressure, leisurely paddle, the northern section is your spot. It runs 46 miles from Connellsville to McKeesport and has all the flat-water your low-key adventure desires. Kick things up a notch at the southern section. This 28-mile route runs through Ohiopyle State Park and is more remote and scenic than its counterpart. Expect white water rapids, steep slopes, and a whole lot of fun.