This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, a law preserving some of America’s most outstanding and remarkable waterways.
The National Park Service administers the Wild and Scenic Rivers System, studying the eligibility of rivers and working with other agencies to manage and protect them. See 9 rivers where you can paddle, hike, picnic, stargaze, watch for wildlife and enjoy miles of sparkling, meandering views.
Merced River, California
Great for: boating, camping, hiking, swimming, wildlife-watching
It’s hard to imagine Yosemite’s spectacular beauty without the Merced rushing through the glacier-carved canyons of its granite landscape. The river flows from the park’s high country down to the San Joaquin Valley through lakes and subalpine meadows, offering both dramatic waterfalls and placid swimming holes set against picturesque scenery. The South Fork is also home to some of the few remaining self-sustaining populations of rainbow, eastern brook and brown trout in the Sierras.
Farmington River, Connecticut
Great for: bird-watching, boating, hiking
The challenging rapids on this scenic New England river make it especially popular with kayakers; the Farmington also boasts several state forests, historic mills, and hiking and biking trails along its banks. This is one of the first rivers managed through a partnership of local, state and federal stakeholders committed to its long-term protection. These waters also provide an important habitat for otters, and the area is the only site in the state where bald eagles actively nest.
Rio Grande, New Mexico and Texas
Great for: bird-watching, boating, hiking, stargazing
The Rio Grande’s waters wind through some of the more remote vistas in the Chihuahuan Desert, with about 69 miles serving as the southern border of Big Bend National Park. Some of the dramatic canyons get as deep as 1,500 feet. The low humidity, infrequent clouds and remoteness from light pollution make this an ideal area for stargazing.
Tinayguk River, Alaska
Great for: stargazing, wilderness backpacking, wildlife-watching
The Tinayguk winds through the jagged Endicott Mountains of the Brooks Range deep within the Alaskan interior, one of 25 designated wild and scenic rivers in the state of Alaska. It is the largest tributary of the North Fork of the Koyukuk River (also a wild river), and both lie entirely within Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. Those with advanced wilderness experience and/or a professional guide seeking true solitude in an untamed landscape can raft or backpack the river’s broad glacial valleys which lie near a major caribou migration route.
Saint Croix and Namekagon Rivers, Minnesota and Wisconsin
Great for: bird-watching, boating, camping, fishing, hiking
Together, these two rivers form the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway, one of the eight original designations in the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. With more than 200 miles to paddle, boaters can tailor a float trip to match any number of abilities and interests. Overnight visitors can also choose from a variety of camping options, including primitive sites only accessible from the water and spots in nearby state forests with more amenities. The park is an excellent place to see bald eagles, great blue herons and osprey; if you’re lucky, you might even see one of the park’s rarer birds, such as a trumpeter swan or cerulean warbler.
Loxahatchee River, Florida
Great for: bird-watching, boating, hiking, swimming, wildlife-watching
Cypress trees dominate the wild and scenic Loxahatchee (which means “the creek of the turtle” in Seminole) as it flows to the Atlantic Ocean from its headwaters in southeast Florida’s Palm Beach County. Although the wild and scenic portion of the river’s northwest fork is just 7.6 miles long, it supports diverse habitats for yellow-bellied slider turtles, endangered manatees and wood storks. The Loxahatchee was Florida’s first Wild and Scenic River, and portions of the river and its estuary are also designated as an aquatic preserve.
Flathead River, Montana
Great for: boating, camping, hiking, wildlife-watching
The three forks of this river offer more than 200 miles of free-flowing waters amid spectacular scenery; the North and Middle Forks form the western and southern borders of Glacier National Park. In 1953, the lower South Fork of the Flathead was dammed to produce hydroelectricity, and Montana residents such as conservationist John Craighead were so moved by the loss of habitat and wilderness quality, they helped advocate for the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, in part to prevent further damming of the Middle and North Forks of the river. The act originally designated the Flathead as a study area, and in 1976, it was added to the system as an official Wild and Scenic River, protecting the remaining waters for wildlife and an array of outdoor adventures.
Obed River, Tennessee
Great for: bird-watching, boating, camping, hiking, rock-climbing, stargazing
Hike and climb the rugged gorges and peaceful forests of this scenic park or fish for smallmouth bass, carp, bluegill and catfish in one of the park’s quiet creeks. From the river valley’s handful of trails and overlooks, visitors can spot diverse wildlife, from hawks and salamanders to bobcats and foxes. The park also offers 45 miles of paddling with Class II to Class IV rapids for experienced whitewater rafters. In 2017, the Obed was named an International Dark-Sky Park, one of just 18 such places in the country, in recognition of its exceptionally dark night skies.
Allagash River, Maine
Great for: boating, fishing, hiking, swimming, wildlife-watching
Not all Wild and Scenic Rivers are managed by the federal government; in 1970, the Allagash became the first state-administered river in the system, overseen by the Maine Bureau of Parks and Recreation, although the Park Service also plays a role in its management. The river’s 92 miles of waters with 40 lakes and ponds in the state’s northern forests serve as a year-round destination, offering everything from swimming in the summer to snowshoeing and ice-fishing in the winter. The region also provides excellent habitat for moose and other wildlife.