Kayaking is one of the easiest ways to enjoy the water, and the USA offers some of the finest locations to give it a try. By taking a kayaking trip, you can experience famous destinations from a whole new angle. No matter your skill level, there’s a kayaking adventure in the USA just for you.
From the crystal-clear springs of Florida to the majestic rivers of the Pacific Northwest and the picturesque lakes of the Northeast, paddling enthusiasts can immerse themselves in the natural beauty of these top kayaking spots in the US.
1. Chesapeake Bay
Location: Maryland, Virginia
If you’re looking for a less remote adventure, consider exploring Chesapeake Bay. It’s the largest estuary in the United States and offers intriguing historical sites along its shores. Chesapeake Bay stretches over 200 miles across six states and is a thriving habitat for millions of people and a diverse range of plant and animal species, including the unique diamondback terrapin.
Tourists often spend a delightful two days exploring the bay’s beauty by paddling through its waters. No permits are needed, and you have the option to camp. But if you prefer alternative accommodations, there are cottages and holiday homes available. With class I to III segments, Chesapeake Bay is not an overly challenging location, making it an excellent choice for beginners wanting to dip their paddles into kayaking.
Fishing is also a standout attraction in Chesapeake Bay, and there’s no better way to experience it than in a slow-powered kayak or canoe. You can observe fish swimming in the water and quietly follow them with your net, giving you a rich experience that no motorboat can match!
2. Colorado River
Location: Colorado, Wyoming, Nevada, Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Utah
The Colorado River, a river steeped in centuries of history, stretches a whopping 1,450 miles and plays host to a myriad of species. Whether you’re in search of an adrenaline rush or a tranquil day on the water, your kayaking adventure here promises to be a lasting memory.
The awe-inspiring sight of one of the world’s eight natural wonders—the Grand Canyon— sets kayaking on the Colorado River apart. But that’s just the beginning. This majestic river meanders through seven American states: Colorado, Wyoming, Nevada, Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Utah, treating you to breathtaking scenery from each of these regions.
Whether you’re up for a day trip or prefer a longer excursion with access to transportation, there’s an option for you. Paddling the entire length of the river is a significant feat, requiring advanced kayaking skills (class IV) due to challenging sections with lengthy, turbulent rapids.
It’s essential to check the classification of the specific area you plan to kayak in and identify the access/exit points to ensure a safe outing. If you’re not a seasoned kayaker, a great choice is the 15-mile section from Glen Canyon to Lees Ferry, easily reachable by car, where you can also rent a kayak. Keep in mind that if you intend to paddle in parts of Arizona, Utah, and Colorado, you’ll need to obtain a permit.
3. San Juan River
Location: Colorado, New Mexico and Utah
If you’re seeking a fantastic, family-friendly kayaking adventure with breathtaking scenery, look no further than the San Juan River. Unlike many other rivers, kayaking on the San Juan is relatively low-risk and doesn’t demand excessive physical effort. It’s a great location to start for kayaking beginners.
San Juan River’s landscape is reminiscent of the Colorado River, with expansive, red, arid canyons that create a stunning backdrop. As you navigate these waters, you’ll have the opportunity to witness spectacular sunsets, encounter mesmerizing rock art, and come across primitive dwellings. Plus, you won’t need to carry a massive food supply, as provisions are readily available.
For an immersive experience, consider a three to five-day trip. Stick to the upper section for an easier kayaking experience. Plan fun stops to rest your arms and explore thousand-year-old rock structures, rock art, fossilized reefs, and more. The area also offers excellent hiking opportunities. Remember to secure the necessary permits before you start planning your adventure, and you’ll find various rental shops conveniently located near the river.
4. Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) in Minnesota ranks among the finest kayaking destinations in the USA. While it’s not technically a single lake but rather a collection of over 1,100 lakes, it’s a prime location for both canoeing and kayaking. It features an intricate web of interconnected lakes, rivers, and unspoiled wilderness that promises an immersive and enchanting kayaking experience.
The BWCAW is nestled within the Superior National Forest in northern Minnesota, encompassing over a million acres of pristine wilderness and water to explore. The area has garnered immense popularity among paddleboarders, hikers, and fishermen. In total, it boasts a whopping 1,500 miles of paddling routes.
As you venture through its serene waters, you’ll find yourself enveloped by towering pine trees, rocky shores, and the distant, haunting calls of loons! The untouched beauty of the wilderness makes a truly magical atmosphere where you can find a sense of solitude and tranquility. Paddlers can explore hidden bays, try walleye fishing, and camp along the picturesque shoreline.
5. Lake Powell
Location: Arizona, Utah
Lake Powell, perched on the Arizona and Utah border, is the second-largest man-made lake in the USA. This sprawling reservoir gives outdoor enthusiasts lots of opportunity for water-based exploration and adventure.
Nestled within the Arizona desert, this body of water is encircled by breathtaking red rock canyons, which you can leisurely explore from the comfort of your kayak. Visitors can effortlessly rent a kayak for a few hours or a full day. The lake’s tranquil waters cater to kayakers of all skill levels, and you can enjoy the view of secluded beaches and unique rock formations adorning the shoreline.
Each year, more than 2 million people make their way to Lake Powell, and even though the waters can get quite busy, there’s always a quiet corner where you can pull up your kayak and savor the surrounding scenery. While you’re at the lake, we recommend visiting the Rainbow Bridge, one of the world’s largest natural bridges, and the Hite Crossing Bridge, which spans the length of Lake Powell.
6. Tuolumne River
For a more thrilling kayaking escapade, the 18-mile stretch of class IV to VI+ rapids on the Tuolumne River in Yosemite National Park is unmatched. It’s often dubbed “rafting Nirvana,” and for good reason. You’ll paddle through intricate boulder gardens, navigate rushing cascades, and tackle churning holes. This exhilarating route guides you through canyons, forests, and past impressive waterfalls. However, we must stress that this might not be the ideal river for newcomers to the sport of kayaking.
Camping facilities are readily available near the river, as most visitors typically spend 2–3 days immersing themselves in the wildlife and natural scenery it has to offer. While you could potentially complete the entire exciting section in a single day, there are numerous beautiful camping spots and fantastic hikes along the riverbanks. Take your time to bask on the scenic spots and for fishing or simply unwinding with your loved ones, and try to explore hidden swimming holes and waterslides!
7. Lake Tahoe
Location: California, Nevada
Hailed as the largest Alpine lake in North America, Lake Tahoe offers a 75-mile coastline and breathtaking views of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Its cobalt blue waters provide the backdrop for soft sand beaches nestled in alcoves, and surrounded by pine forests and rocky terrain. You can immerse yourself in nature and easily return to shore for a well-deserved hot meal.
Kayaking takes center stage as its attractions, with a range of friendly coaches and sturdy kayaks available for rent. Lake Tahoe also presents excellent opportunities for bird-watching, hiking, and fishing. Paddlers of all skill levels can find suitable spots on the lake to match their abilities.
The best way to cap off your kayaking excursion on the lake is by witnessing the breathtaking sunset. At night, the clear sky gives an astonishing view of the millions of stars lighting up the sky! Undoubtedly, Lake Tahoe serves as an excellent escape from the city, providing much-needed relaxation. Just remember to dress warmly, especially if you plan to kayak during the fall or winter.
8. Glacier Bay National Park
If you’re in search of unspoiled nature and unparalleled wildlife encounters, Alaska is the ultimate destination. With a bit of luck, you might cross paths with wild animals like bears, orcas, humpback whales, puffins, eagles, and sea lions! Plus, the landscape here is a captivating blend of fjords, tidewater glaciers, towering mountains, and lush forests that will leave you in awe.
Now, reaching Glacier Bay National Park is an adventure in itself, as it’s a truly wild expanse accessible only by plane or boat. And when you get to the park, kayak rentals are readily available, and guided tours can also be arranged. During the summer months, Glacier Bay Lodge offers drop-off and pick-up services from designated locations, which may change periodically to minimize the impact on the park’s ecosystem.
If you plan to camp in this breathtaking wilderness, you must register for a free permit and attend a 30-minute orientation session. This step is crucial for planning your kayaking expedition and understanding the bay’s extreme tides. When you get your permit, you can also borrow bear-resistant food canisters courtesy of the National Park Service.
9. San Juan Islands
The San Juan Islands in Washington is the perfect vacation spot for outdoor activities, including kayaking. Paddling through the pristine waters surrounding these islands will let you explore rugged coastlines, scenic coves, and charming harbors.
These islands are home to a diverse marine ecosystem featuring orcas, seals, majestic bald eagles, and more. As you kayak along, enjoy the breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains and lush forests. The San Juan Islands provide an unforgettable kayaking experience for both nature enthusiasts and adventure seekers alike.
You can easily rent a kayak on San Juan Island, but be mindful that the robust tidal currents can pose a challenge for inexperienced paddlers. Beginners may want to stick to the sheltered bays for a smoother experience.
10. Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park in Florida isn’t just for hikers; it’s also a haven for water enthusiasts, especially kayakers. Here, you can embark on a unique and immersive paddling experience that’s second to none.
This region boasts an array of water trails, mangrove tunnels, and expansive marshes – offering a fantastic opportunity to intimately explore the diverse ecosystems of the Everglades. Paddlers can smoothly glide through calm waters while observing a wealth of wildlife, including alligators, manatees, and various bird species.
The serene beauty of the Everglades, combined with the sense of adventure and tranquility on the water, creates an ideal setting for kayaking enthusiasts of all skill levels. It’s a chance to forge a deeper connection with nature and uncover the untamed beauty of this iconic national park.
11. Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
Kayaking at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore promises an awe-inspiring adventure. In this place, paddlers can immerse themselves in the breathtaking beauty of Lake Superior and view its 22 pristine islands, sea caves, and towering cliffs. This national lakeshore delivers a kayaking experience like no other.
Paddlers can navigate the crystal-clear waters, and paddle through enchanting sea caves. The islands are teeming with diverse wildlife, including eagles, otters, and white-tailed deer, offering lots of opportunities for unforgettable wildlife encounters. Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is a paradise where kayakers can both do leisurely paddles and adventurous journeys to explore natural wonders.
12. Ozark National Scenic Riverways
Missouri boasts a wealth of beautiful waterfalls and scenic lakes, making it a haven for kayakers. Among these natural wonders, Ozark National Scenic Riverways stands out as one of the finest kayaking destinations in the state, giving visitors a unique and immersive experience right in the heart of the Ozarks.
The clear, spring-fed rivers can make you feel tranquil, and the surrounding landscape is breathtaking. When kayaking, you can embark on an adventure along the meandering Current and Jacks Fork Rivers, and pass through towering bluffs, lush forests, and concealed caves. Visitors can book their kayaks online before arriving.
The gentle and peaceful flow of the rivers makes this destination suitable for both novice and experienced paddlers. Beyond kayaking, visitors can also savor the park through camping, fishing, and wildlife spotting.
13. Allagash Wilderness Waterway
The Allagash Wilderness Waterway (AWW) is a 92-mile-long river and lake region nestled within the National Wild and Scenic River System in Maine. The route combines sections of the Allagash River with serene lakes and even a few class II whitewater segments. This place was once a bustling commercial route, but the waterway has been left in its natural state, enveloped by expansive forests and logging roads.
The options for exploring AWW is flexible. You can embark on an extended week-long kayaking journey that ends in the North Maine Woods, covering the entire length of the waterway. But if you just want short day trips, that’s fine too – there are many campgrounds along the water.If you’re new to kayaking, consider booking a guided trip to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience.
The AWW is an unspoiled backcountry terrain, so it’s possible to encounter some moose and bears. It also offers fantastic fishing opportunities, with a chance to reel in wild native brook trout, lake trout, and lake whitefish.
14. Klamath River
Location: California and Oregon
For a laid-back kayaking adventure suitable for the whole family, the lower Klamath River in California is an excellent choice. You can leisurely complete the easy 20-mile section from Happy Camp to Dillon Creek at your own pace.
In this journey, you’ll discover natural swimming holes, cliff-jumping spots, cascading waterfalls, warm pools, and a few class II and III rapids. The water here is warm enough for a refreshing dip.
Feel free to pause and enjoy a hike in the stunning woodland surroundings. With a bit of patience, you might even spot bald eagles, ospreys, river otters, and beavers.
This is the ideal summer family excursion. If you plan on camping, be sure to secure a fire permit. Even as you immerse yourself in the captivating natural forests along the Klamath River, you’re never too far from civilization.
15. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Kayaking at the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan is nothing short of breathtaking. It offers a firsthand view of the natural wonders that grace this location. As you paddle, you’ll be treated to the spectacle of towering, multicolored cliffs, intricate rock formations, and magnificent waterfalls.
As you explore along the shoreline, take in the view of the hidden world of caves, arches, and serene, secluded beaches. The calm waters and the vibrant hues of the cliffs create a profound sense of serenity and wonder.
For nature enthusiasts and adventure seekers, kayaking in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is an absolute must – we promise that it will be an unforgettable trip!
These are our top picks for kayaking in the USA. If you’re a novice, we recommend considering a half-day kayak tour to learn the basics and ensure your safety. Before you embark on your trip, be sure to look for a section of the lake or river that matches your skill level and don’t forget to check if any permits are required. You may also be interested in learning about the history of kayaks before you go!