Kayaking: 16 of the Most Scenic Paddling Spots Around the Country
This ultimate kayaking guide reveals the paddling destinations across America you have to try to experience this relaxing, close-to-nature activity.
Photo By: Courtesy of Galveston Kayak Outfitters
Photo By: Courtesy of Galveston Kayak Outfitters
Photo By: Courtesy of Sea Me Paddle
Photo By: Courtesy of Voyageurs Outfitters
Photo By: Beaufort Paddle
Photo By: Texas Rowing Center
Photo By: Courtesy of Geyser Kayak Tours
Photo By: Courtesy of Lake Powell Adventure Co.
Photo By: Floutdooradventures.com
Photo By: Courtesy of @girlsgonemild_
Photo By: Courtesy of Blazin’ Paddles
Photo By: Adam Wirth
Photo By: National Park Sea Kayak Tours
Photo By: Courtesy of La Jolla Kayak
Photo By: Courtesy of Ballard Kayak
Photo By: Sea Quest Kayak Tours
Photo By: Tahoe City Kayak
Ready to Hit the Water?
It’s no wonder that getting up close and personal with the great outdoors is more popular than ever. In 2020, it’s hard to imagine a lovelier respite from day-to-day stress than taking a deep breath of fresh air and soaking in a healthy dose of natural splendor.
Recreation areas all over the country have seen increased interest in hiking and camping. Folks who specialize in getting visitors out on the water in kayaks, in turn, are positively swamped (no pun intended) with guests who want to appreciate scenery and each other from a safe distance. Considering vistas like this one (from Galveston Kayak Outfitters), it’s easy to see why.
Fancy grabbing a paddle and joining them? Bear in mind that it’s always best to get in contact with operators in your area of choice early and often. Making reservations is a good idea, of course, but you’ll also want to stay abreast of how the latest weather conditions and health directives could affect your plans. That said, let’s get started on a virtual tour of spectacular sites all over the country.
Galveston Bay, Texas
To experience otherworldly sunsets like this one — as well as some otherworldly wildlife — head to the Gulf Coast of Texas. “Galveston is a unique place and the bay in particular allows for very easy and accessible kayaking,” says Sean Rogers, founder of Galveston Kayak Outfitters. “In particular, the area around Galveston Island State Park is set up for beginning and intermediate kayakers.
“The waters are calm with the prevailing south winds and the bayous are shallow, limiting boat traffic and promoting wildlife viewing,” Rogers explains. “Along with Galveston's colorful history and weather related events, there is appeal on many different levels. Plus unexpected surprises like the shy pink bird (the Roseate Spoonbill) that usually shocks fortunate onlookers. I have extensive maritime experience and for the ease of accessibility and natural richness, Galveston Bay is hard to beat ... and the sunsets will take your breath away,” says Rogers.
Flathead Lake, Montana
Why is kayaking on Flathead Lake so special? “There are not many places on the planet where you can sit in a kayak surrounded by amazing mountain ranges in complete serenity on water that is absolutely crystal clear while viewing animals in their natural environment as you can on Wild Horse Island,” says BJ Johnson, co-owner and lead guide at Sea Me Paddle in Montana’s Flathead Valley. “We love sharing this with our paddlers that don’t get to experience this every day as we do. Welcome to our office, Flathead Lake, Montana!”
His wife, Joli (also a co-owner and lead guide), echoes his enthusiasm. “Many people are drawn to the Kalispell area for the proximity to Glacier National Park, and don’t realize we have Flathead Lake in our backyard,” she says. “Flathead Lake is the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River. The lake is 26.5 miles long, 15 miles wide and reaches a depth of 380 feet. It also is known to be the cleanest lake in the United States! It is possible to see 30 feet to the bottom. We have taken countless pictures of the crystal clear ‘green water’ of the lake.”
“Whether our paddlers are experienced or not, the one thing they have in common is the desire to have an adventure on the water,” BJ adds. “We always tell them, ‘You can’t see this from your couch!’”
Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
Venturing into the water in Voyageurs National Park — an interconnected series of lakes and waterways on the border between northern Minnesota and Canada — isn’t an “if.” It’s a “when,” as the park has no roads and is only accessible via boat (and snowmobiles in the winter). “Voyageurs is special and unique because the story is always about the water,” says Eric Johnson, owner of Voyageurs Outfitters. “The paddlers who use the park today use the same waterways that 19th century travelers used to reach the gold fields of Rainy Lake. The same waterways were used by our namesake, the French Canadian Voyageurs, who were the first Europeans to explore this area. In fact these water ways were used by indigenous peoples dating back 10,000 years to trade and share their traditions. It is these same interconnected waterways that bind the modern day kayaker to the rich history of this area.”
The park’s locals are also passionate about the scenery that reveals itself long after the sun goes down, and the Voyageurs National Park Association is applying for Dark Sky Park certification to reduce light pollution and preserve the area’s spectacular night skies. In other words, it’s well worth sticking around for the region’s second act once your day of kayaking is over.
Rachel Carson Reserve, North Carolina
Named for the ecologist who published Silent Spring in 1962 and galvanized the modern environmental movement, the Rachel Carson Reserve is a 2,315-acre nature preserve and wildlife sanctuary comprised of marsh islands, tidal creeks and dunes. It’s the main area of operation for Rod Hoell, owner of North Carolina’s Beaufort Paddle, and he speaks with obvious affection of “our beautiful little corner of the planet.” “We offer our guests an amazing adventure into the pristine waters of coastal North Carolina with a healthy dose of southern hospitality,” he says.
Lady Bird Lake, Texas
If you’re looking for a kayaking experience that’s a little bit country and a little bit rock-and-roll, Austin’s Lady Bird Lake is the destination for you. Texas Rowing Center can get you out on the water every day of the year between 6 a.m. and when the skies go dark. “Lady Bird Lake is one of the very best kayaking venues in the country,” says owner Matt Knifton. “This 5.5-mile stretch of the Colorado River has spectacular vistas on the west end and breathtaking views of Austin’s beautiful skyline on the east end.”
Bonus: A kayak on the water is the perfect vantage point for taking in one of the area’s most spectacular natural phenomena. “You can even watch North America’s largest bat colony come out from Congress Bridge for an evening feeding,” Knifton says. All three of those points of interest are an easy 10- to 20-minute paddle away from the Rowing Center.
Yellowstone Lake, Wyoming
One could argue that there’s no such thing as a bad way to see Yellowstone National Park; America’s very first national park boasts a dizzying array of lakes, canyons, rivers, geysers, hot springs and wildlife. You’d have to go out of your way to avoid a jaw-dropping experience. That said, might we suggest paddling out for an intimate look at both geysers and temporarily amphibious elk? (Seriously.)
Geyser Kayak Tours owner Steve Koning notes that day paddles are a unique way to access Yellowstone’s geyser basins away from crowds. “All our day trips are on Yellowstone Lake,” he explains. “We begin with an introduction to Yellowstone's history and geology of the lake, along with the kayaking equipment and techniques. Then your guides will lead you around the shoreline to the West Thumb Geyser Basin where there are many geothermal features on land and underwater we will explore from our kayaks. Many of these geothermal features on the lake are not accessible by any other means. We continue on to the remote Potts Geyser Basin… where there are no signs, no boardwalks and most importantly, no other people.”
Antelope Canyon, Arizona
Antelope Canyon, a series of sculptural formations created by the erosion of Navajo sandstone, is usually accessible through both the Navajo Nation’s Tribal Park (which is currently closed to the public) and Glen Canyon Recreation Area (which is now open). Siobhan McCann, owner of Lake Powell Adventure Co., is now guiding visitors via kayaking tours on Lake Powell through the latter. She emphasizes the importance of partnering with operators and guides who have a long-term relationship with — and significant experience with protecting — the delicate environments you’re looking to enjoy. “I am so happy that Americans are using these unprecedented times to explore their own country,” she says. “I just want to express how important it is to respect and cherish this beautiful land we are fortunate to call home. Please leave only footprints and take only pictures.”
What’s the best way to interact with the region she knows so well? “If you wake up with the sun, you can experience a true connection with Antelope Canyon from your kayak,” she says. “Slicing through glassy water and silently absorbing the canyon’s calmness and beauty is a magical experience.”
Everglades National Park, Florida
Manatees, alligators, panthers, oh my! Is it possible to dip your toe into the country’s largest subtropical wilderness by paddling around for just a few hours? Sure. Is it even better to venture into Everglades National Park and stick around long enough to really explore its 10,000 islands, mangrove tunnels, white sand beaches and more? Indubitably, which is why Dave Kochendorfer’s Florida Outdoor Adventures eschews day trips altogether. Instead, his team guides visitors on multi-day sea kayak camping tours in the Everglades’ remote backcountry, far from crowds of tourists (a social-distancing bonus). Since the region’s “winter” season (that is, from November to around April) is when its subtropical climate is dry (and the bug population is reduced), it’s ideal for visitors looking to escape inclement weather in other parts of the country.
The Cumberland River, Tennessee
If you hanker for city views without city crowds, there’s no better way to glimpse Nashville than from the placid waters of the Cumberland. (Locals agree: the alt-weekly Nashville Scene named the view from River Queen Voyages’ kayaks the very best around.) “Nashville has a great reputation for hot chicken and honky tonks, but Music City has so much more to offer than that!” says Virginia McMahon, River Queen’s communications captain. “We’re incredibly lucky to live somewhere that has a wealth of natural beauty in addition to all the perks of city life, and nothing makes that more apparent than floating down the Cumberland. You can start your paddle in the middle of horse farms, and within an hour find yourself in the heart of town … and you’ve probably caught a concert or two floating on the breeze along the way! Where else can you have an experience like that?”
Black Canyon, Arizona
The neon lights of the Las Vegas Strip are plenty dramatic, but can they go toe-to-toe with a full moon twilight paddle through Black Canyon on the Colorado River? Believe it or not, you can hop a shuttle from the Strip and arrive at Willow Beach in about 45 minutes. “Kayaking in the Black Canyon feels like an escape from the big city that’s just around the corner,” says Lindy Doyle, office manager at Blazin’ Paddles. The day trips are just as lovely as those monthly twilight paddles: “The clear and vibrant blue and emerald green water, peaceful flow and surrounding desert canyons give you a tranquil experience out in nature. With multiple stops along the way including caves, historical sites, hot springs and beaches, you can have a day of adventure and relaxation along the beautiful Colorado River.
No prior kayaking experience? No problem — and in fact, this stretch of the Colorado (which forms a portion of the border between Arizona and Nevada) is particularly beginner-friendly, since Willow Beach is about 12 miles south of the Hoover Dam and the waters surrounding it are usually placid.
Jackson Lake, Wyoming
Given that Wyoming is the nation’s least-populous state, it’s an ideal place to begin your search for solitude and empty spaces. The 310,000 acres northwestern acres that comprise Grand Teton National Park are a particularly striking destination, since elevations leap from about 6,300 feet above sea level near Jackson Hole to more than 13,700 feet atop Grand Teton. Fed by the Snake River, island-studded Jackson Lake is one of the largest high-altitude lakes in the country — and it’s a spectacular place to engage with the park’s sublime beauty.
“We are very fortunate to have the opportunity to guide on Jackson Lake,” says Aaron Pruzan, the owner of Rendezvous River Sports (and a world-class expeditionary kayaker). “There are few places that have mountains as dramatic as the Tetons rising straight from the water. Kayaking and camping provide an outstanding way to enjoy this spectacular natural wonder.”
Mount Desert Island, Maine
New York’s Long Island is the largest island on the United States’ eastern seaboard. The second largest (which happens to be considerably more bucolic; sorry, Long Island) is Mount Desert Island in Maine’s Acadia National Park. The island owes its remarkable geology to everything from 500-million-year-old volcanic ash to ice sheets that carved their way across North America two to three million years ago. Acadia, in turn, is now known as the “Crown Jewel of the North Atlantic Coast.” Eons of climate change are already in evidence on the island’s shorelines, and today’s outdoor adventurers take their responsibility to minimize their own effects on their surroundings very seriously. National Park Sea Kayak Tours’ owner, Mount Desert native Robert Shaw, stresses ecological education and etiquette as he guides visitors along the coastlines he calls home. He’s also appreciative of his gig: “The only bad day of sea kayaking,” he says, “is the day you don’t go.”
La Jolla, California
If an overseas tropical trip isn’t in the cards this year, consider skipping a visit to a land-based park and take an afternoon paddle atop the La Jolla Underwater Park, a picturesque, 6,000-acre ecological reserve teeming with marine life like leopard sharks, sea lions, dolphins and kelp. La Jolla Kayak’s guides lead visitors along coastal cliffs and through dramatic sea caves while sharing stories of San Diego’s history.
If a sunset paddle is more your speed, head out later in the day and keep your eyes peeled for the fabled “green flash” — that is, a rare optical effect occasionally glimpsed as the sun disappears over the horizon in which it appears to glow green. No luck? You can always console yourself with a beer from San Diego’s own Green Flash Brewing Co.
Puget Sound, Washington
From the historic Ballard Locks (with 30-ton gates that raise the water you’re paddling on to Lake Union’s level) to pods of 30-foot orcas, Seattle’s local waters boast some of the most diverse kayaking experiences in the country. Whether you’re in the mood to encounter oceanic and aerial marine life on Puget Sound, gaze in awe at Mt. Rainier and the Olympic Range from Discovery Bluff, or glide through some of the city’s most recognizable shipping canals, Ballard Kayak has the gear and guides to introduce you to the best of the Pacific Northwest. Bonus: If your dog happens to be well-behaved and a kayak enthusiast, he or she is welcome aboard your rental kayak (and to borrow a canine life preserver, if you call dibs early). Tours are humans-only, alas — but to be fair, your pup probably wouldn’t get most of your guide’s jokes, anyway.
San Juan Islands, Washington
The picturesque San Juan Islands along Washington State’s border with Canada have a well-deserved reputation for being the most popular summer kayaking tourist destination in the world. They owe that distinction to a comparatively dry and temperate microclimate, dazzling wildlife (visitors see everything from tide pools and migrating salmon to more than 100 bald eagle nests and pods of up to 50 orcas) and, of course, knowledgeable local guides with an infectious love of their area. Sea Quest Kayak Tours has been operating in the area for more than three decades, and their founders have more than six decades’ combined professional experience on the water.
Orcas are the undeniable stars of San Juan Islands tours, and while mid-May to mid-October is considered the best time to spot them, they’ve been known to make appearances all year long, as do humpback and minke whales. (Lime Kiln Point State Park, a 36-acre park on the western shore of San Juan Island, is also known as Whale Watch Park; it’s got an international reputation, too.)
Lake Tahoe, California
If you’re bold enough to plunge into snow-fed alpine water that can get quite brisk, Lake Tahoe is known as a fantastic place to engage in a bit of scuba diving. If you prefer to skim across the top of the lake to take in picture-perfect sights like the Sierras, the historic West Shore and boulder-strewn Sand Harbor (on the Nevada shore), head to one of Tahoe City Kayak & Paddleboard’s locations for kayak rentals and tours. Like operators all over the country, owner Andrew Laughlin emphasizes that the early bird gets the kayak, as it were; the sport has been so popular of late that visitors who take their sweet time run the risk of ending up high and dry. On that note, what are you waiting for? Dig into your destination of choice, make a plan and get paddling.