Go beyond the hiking trail and enjoy parks from a refreshing vantage point: water. Rivers and lakes offer adventurous routes through some of the country’s most remarkable landscapes, including views you just can’t see from land. From lazy float trips to exhilarating whitewater, national parks have fun options for visitors of every experience level—sometimes even on different stretches of the same river.
1. Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
A paradise of interconnected waterways, ancient rock, and forested lands, this park near the Canadian border is a paddler’s dream. Almost entirely roadless, the site features four large lakes and 26 smaller inland lakes that together make up more than 30% of the park. Explorers can navigate the wandering inlets, rugged shorelines, and hundreds of islands, while keeping an eye out for birds and other wildlife. The park preserves the trade route traveled by 18th- and 19th-century French-Canadian fur traders known as voyageurs, and you can get a glimpse into how these explorers traveled. The Park Service leads a series of guided trips in the summer and fall, including free tours in north canoes—the traditional 26-foot boats used by the voyageurs themselves.
2. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
This park is world-famous for its steep, dramatic, multicolored canyon walls. Most visitors take in the enormity of this geologic wonder from overlooks along the rim. A trip on the Colorado River is an excellent way to enjoy even more of the park’s spectacular scenery—including views that simply can’t be experienced from above. To explore the Colorado’s 277 miles of exhilarating whitewater (ranging from Class I to Class V)—the force that carved all of this beauty into being—visitors can hire one of more than a dozen private tour companies for single-day or multi-day tours or apply to get a permit for a self-guided tour using the park’s lottery system. It’s a bucket list trip for experienced paddlers—period.
3. Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument, Maryland
The Choptank River isn’t just a part of the rustic landscape where Harriet Tubman spent her early years brutally enslaved in Maryland; it was also a likely route north toward abolitionist safe houses on the Underground Railroad. The river may also have served as a critical source of news for enslaved communities before the Civil War. Free black sailors, or “Black Jacks,” often formed secret communication networks along major waterways to share information. Today, this river that once symbolized hope is now a local paddling favorite, with several different water trails that meander through the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge—a sanctuary for birds that has changed little since the time when Tubman experienced it. The best place to start your journey is to rent a canoe or kayak at the historic Bucktown Village Store, the site of Tubman’s first act of defiance where she nearly was killed by a blow to the head while attempting to assist an enslaved man.
4. Buffalo National River, Arkansas
The Buffalo is the country’s first national river and one of the last remaining undammed rivers in the contiguous United States. Its 135 miles flow freely through beautiful Ozark forests and bluffs of limestone and sandstone, offering challenging whitewater conditions in the upper section and calmer Class I rapids in the middle and lower sections. There are not many roads or established overlooks in the park; the best way to experience the beauty of the water is to be out on it, navigating the cliffs, springs, waterfalls, and multicolored rock. Just be alert and prepared for fast-changing conditions.
5. Everglades and Biscayne National Parks, Florida
Which of these two landmark parks is the best South Florida paddling site? It is nearly impossible to choose, so if you can, make time to enjoy both. Biscayne (shown here), on the one hand, is the premiere marine park in the National Park System, with its brilliant blue bay, its shallow mazes of lagoons and creeks, and its coasts lined with mangrove trees. The Everglades, on the other hand, is a park that offers unique wilderness experiences—such as the Ten Thousand Islands and the Wilderness Waterway Trail, which extends for 99 miles from Everglades City to Flamingo—as well as shorter, more accessible options on its rivers, creeks, and open bays. Wherever you explore, you’ll get new perspectives of a part of the world where the balance of fresh and brackish water nourishes a unique world of plant and animal life.
6. Point Reyes National Seashore, California
Explore the West Coast’s first marine wilderness area by kayak or canoe at Drakes Estero in Point Reyes National Seashore. See sandbars appear and disappear with the tides, forming fingers that reach from the shoreline out into the Pacific Ocean. Paddle through eel grass beds that are home to bat rays, leopard sharks, harbor seals, and other wildlife, and look up for pelicans, osprey, and other shorebirds soaring overhead. This inlet is open to canoes and kayaks from July to February and closed the rest of the year to protect a prime seal-pupping habitat.
7. Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River/Big Bend National Park, Texas
The Rio Grande winds through some of the more remote vistas in the Chihuahuan Desert before entering Big Bend National Park. Boaters looking for a southwestern adventure can plan a float trip through the area’s mesas, buttes, and rugged canyons. Some of the rock walls date back 100 million years and the dramatic canyons get as deep as 1,500 feet. Note that different sections of the river have varying difficulty levels, and traveling through the remote Lower Canyons area requires an access fee and release form—be sure to research the options and speak with a ranger or hire a guide to help plan your trip.
8. Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway, Minnesota and Wisconsin
With more than 255 miles of water and relatively few visitors, the Saint Croix and Namekagon Rivers provide long stretches of solitude and adventure within their verdant, tree-lined banks. One of the most scenic paddling destinations in the Upper Midwest, the park’s waters are relatively easy to navigate, though there are sections with rapids that can be challenging, especially in high-water conditions. The rivers have numerous campsites along their routes, as well as excellent fishing opportunities, making this park an ideal place to bring a tent and a fishing pole for a relaxing multi-day getaway.
9. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Ansel Adams famously captured the meandering beauty of the Snake River as a photographer for the Interior Department in the 1940s. Now, you can launch your own boat into this living artwork and see a breathtaking cross-section of the park from the water. Wind your way through the ethereal beauty of the Jackson Hole valley with the jagged beauty of the Teton Range looming 7,000 feet above you, and see some the area’s diverse wildlife, which includes moose, elk, mule deer, lynx, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and trumpeter swans. If the Snake River’s cold, rushing waters are too fast and furious for some boaters, visitors can also explore many of the area’s lakes, including the scenic Jackson and Jenny Lakes.
10. Olympic National Park, Washington
In August 2014, engineers removed the last remnants of concrete blocking the Elwha River, completing the largest dam-removal project in U.S. history and letting the water flow freely for the first time in a century. Now, the Elwha offers more than 70 miles of paddling through a lush wilderness landscape in the heart of the park, including Class II-IV rapids. And because the salmon now run freely up the river, the wildlife that depend on these fish, including birds and otters, are also easier to spot from the water.
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About the author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer co-produces NPCA's podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, and writes, edits and moderates online content.
- Big Bend National Park
- Biscayne National Park
- Buffalo National River
- Everglades National Park
- Grand Canyon National Park
- Grand Teton National Park
- Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park
- Olympic National Park
- Point Reyes National Seashore
- Rio Grande Wild & Scenic River
- Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway
- Voyageurs National Park