11 Cool National Parks to Raft, Kayak, & Canoe
If it's an off-the-grid national park vacation – away from the crowds – you're looking for, then grab a paddle. From the unique vantage point of a raft, kayak, or canoe, you can access and explore the beauty and solitude of some of our most treasured wild places.
Among the countless reacreational activities available in parks, the National Park Foundation proudly supports projects and programs to enable unforgettable paddling experiences. In Sudbury, Assabet, and Concord Wild and Scenic Rivers, funds helped clean the area and develop canoe pull-off areas. A grant to Redwood National and State Parks enabled park rangers to lead free kayak tours.
Meanwhile, Missouri National Recreational River received a grant to improve road and boat ramps, and the National Park Foundation helped provide training for community volunteers to learn how to teach others to stand-up paddle board at New River Gorge National River through its Get Active in the Park program.
Need some inspiration to try some of these experiences for yourself? Here are 11 more incredible spots to go paddling in national parks.
Pacific Coast Adventures
Channel Islands National Park is a chain of five islands located off California’s central coast that’s often referred to as the “Galapagos of North America.” While visitors can arrange a visit to any of the islands by boat or plane, many people opt to take the ferry to the largest, Santa Cruz Island. The ferry runs year-round to the island and within an hour, you’ve arrived!
Experienced paddlers can rent a kayak and arrange to have it transported to the islands for exploring solo. Otherwise, Channel Islands Adventure Company is the only outfitter permitted to offer guided tours. From a kayak you can explore the rugged shoreline, disappear in and out of massive sea caves and take in the magnificent wildlife of this marine sanctuary.
Exclusive Views of Wyoming
Float into the heart of Grand Teton National Park and feel like you have it all to yourself on a Jackson Lake kayaking trip. It’s easy to grab a non-motorized boat permit and launch your boat from the Colter Bay Marina or Signal Mountain Boat Launch on your own. You can also hook up with an authorized outfitter for a multi-day sea kayaking adventure that will give you exclusive access to backcountry campsites, idyllic mountain views, spectacular hiking opportunities, and up-close-and-personal wildlife shows (think bear and moose).
The Chilly Waters of Alaska
With more than 750 nautical miles of rugged shoreline, there is no better way to experience Kenai Fjords National Park than by sea kayak. Adventurous paddlers can explore a remote wilderness where glaciers meet the sea and remnants of the ice age still remain. Venture into uncharted coves and caves hidden among the magical fjords, pass by floating icebergs and perhaps even experience a close encounter with a sea lion, orca, or humpback whale.
Exploring Canyons Out West
Within Dinosaur National Monument, Utah’s Green River twists through scarlet canyons, yawning valleys and lush ledges of piñon pine and box elder, offering paddlers a river trip with scenery that rivals those of Grand Canyon National Park. Beyond striking geology and indescribable views, a 3- to 5-day Gates of Lodore rafting trip offers fun, Class III whitewater, incredible hiking opportunities to secret waterfalls and side canyons, and the chance to see ancient artifacts that have been preserved in a geologic time capsule.
Discovering Minnesota’s Lakes
With nearly 40 percent of Voyageurs National Park covered by water, it’s undoubtedly a prime destination for canoeing and kayaking. The park’s vast system of interconnected lakes and waterways has hundreds of miles of shoreline and countless islands available for exploring, including hundreds of secluded campsites. With the opportunity to paddle for days into the area’s remote wilderness, you'll surely be able to find your very own piece of lakeside paradise.
Kayaking in Kentucky
The main attraction may be the underground cave tours, but 31 miles of the Green and Nolin Rivers flow through the heart of Mammoth Cave National Park, offering canoers and kayakers peaceful paddling and riverside camping opportunities. There’s no whitewater within park boundaries, so families and first-timers can float along the swift current, passing by dramatic bluffs, whimsical trees and watching for wildlife peering out from the wooded wonderland that lines the water.
Gliding Through the Everglades
When it comes to exploring the third largest national park in the lower 48, with most of the Everglades National Park’s 1.5 million acres only accessible by water, a boat is the way to go. Canoers and kayakers can spend a day exploring shorter water trails or more than a week taking on the entire 99-mile wilderness waterway, snaking through mangrove forests, grassy marshes, and freshwater sloughs. This unique subtropical wilderness area is also an incredible wildlife sanctuary that’s home to alligators, crocodiles, an incredible array of bird and reptile species, and even several endangered species, including the West Indian manatee.
Whitewater in Texas
The Rio Grande River in Big Bend National Park delivers on dramatic scenery, fun whitewater, and accessibility. There are multiple trip options through several different canyons, including a multi-day wilderness trip on a remote portion of part of the river preserved as Wild & Scenic. But within the park boundaries, paddlers can enjoy the dramatic beauty of the Santa Elena Canyon as the Rio Grande winds through a narrow gorge that towers up to 1,500-feet high. At high water levels, it’s considered a relatively straight-forward trip for rafters and kayakers, and even canoeists can make this one- to three-day trip during lower water levels.
Floating and Rafting Beside Utah’s Buttes
In the heart of Canyonlands National Park, the Colorado River twists its way through Cataract Canyon, a spectacular land of towering walls, bright orange mesas, buff-colored pinnacles, and maroon buttes. For paddlers, a rafting trip down this famed stretch of the Colorado River has it all: breathtaking scenery, multiple days of easy floating followed by wild Class III-IV whitewater, and incredible access to hiking in the park’s remote Maze and Island in the Sky Districts.
A New Way to Experience Yellowstone
The shores of Yellowstone Lake, the continent’s largest high elevation lake, have steamed and simmered in geothermal flux for thousands of years in Yellowstone National Park. You can access the lake’s largest geyser basin — West Thumb Geyser Basin — on a heavily-trafficked 3/8-mile hike. Or, take the route less-traveled and opt for a guided Yellowstone Lake kayaking trip that takes you on a longer, more intimate tour of the West Thumb area from the unique perspective of a sea kayak. Watch steamy geysers gush, mud pots bubble, and hot springs sear. Or, go on your own. Yellowstone Lake, as well as many of the other lakes within the park, offer a number of paddling and backcountry camping opportunities.
A Paddler’s Dream
A Grand Canyon rafting trip is not only one of the most popular paddling trips in the parks, it’s one of the most sought-after paddling trips on the planet. For nearly 300 miles, the Colorado River cuts a chasm more than a mile deep through a rainbow of ancient rock, revealing a geologic storybook and hidden world of wonder to paddlers. Each year, a limited amount of Grand Canyon river permits are available to both private boaters and commercial outfitters. Lucky paddlers who get the chance to make the journey and experience the magic of the Grand Canyon from the river are rewarded with awe-inspiring scenery, legendary whitewater and epic hikes to hidden oases, waterfalls, and slot canyons. For many, it’s a life-changing adventure.
Rivers are perhaps the oldest trails in our national parks, sometimes calm and flowing, and other times rushing with energy. You’ll come away from a #FindYourPark / #EncuentraTuParque paddling trip with a whole new perspective of these incredible places and a deep appreciation for their waterways. Now that you know about some of the opportunities for paddling across the country, you’re ready to get out on the water yourself!
Travel Idea provided by OARS, a partner of the National Park Foundation.