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Summer Special: Paddling in the National Parks


When you seek thrills and scenery, or flat water and scenery, you can find it in the National Park System. Top photo, Copper River in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, courtesy of Copper Oar Rafting. Yellowstone Lake sunset, padding at Acadia National Park, and floating through Dinosaur National Monument photos by Kurt Repanshek.

Some of my favorite days in Yellowstone National Park were spent not geyser gazing, but rather paddling into the backcounty of Shoshone or Lewis lakes. There's just something serene and beautiful about exploring the backcountry by canoe.

But Yellowstone is far from the only place in the National Park System with great paddling adventures. You can find tranquil paddles, float trips that turn you into a whitewater cowgirl (or cowboy), and week-long trips that take you deep into the wilderness. With that understood, here's a look at some of the possibilities. Please add your own suggestions if you don't find your favorites listed here.

Acadia National Park

You can either take to sea kayak to explore the Frenchman Bay or Western Bay, or take to canoe in Somes Sound, Eagle Lake, Echo Lake, Hadlock Pond, Jordan Pond, Long Pond, or Seal Cove Pond. For restrictions, check the park's boating page. You can find a list of outfitters that will be happen to take you paddling at this site.

Big Bend National Park

What's the big river that forms part of the park's southern boundary? Oh yeah, the Rio Grande. And they definitely float that river, as Claire Walter pointed out in her post, Floating Through Life on the Rio Grande and Big Bend National Park. You can learn a bit more about the park's floating options at this page.

Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area

This 125,000-acre playground that runs along the Tennessee-Kentucky border is built around the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River. This beautiful stream is fed by countless tributaries that add their contents to the main flow that over the ages has sculpted and carved its path through the sandstone landscape. Just don't underestimate this river. While it offers lots of easy paddling, there are some technical, highly rated stretches -- Angel Falls comes immediately to mind -- that can lead to drownings for the unprepared and under-skilled. Read the park's boating page before putting in.

Buffalo National River

By the time you read this there probably are paddlers on this, the country's first national river. With 135 miles of Ozark paddling, you can head out for a day or a week with overnights spent at designated campsites. According to the locals, "if you are in the Harrison area any time between March and late May, the upper river is calling you to come and float. The upper river is mainly designated as class I water, but the furthest upper section sometimes is considered class II when the water is high enough. Class I rapids are for beginners, and Class II will require some careful judgment before attempting." The Middle and Lower Buffalo are normally best for floating spring into mid-summer. For a list of rental businesses, see this page.

Canyonlands National Park

Most of this park is dry, parched, and arid, but it has its wet side, too, and what a wet side that is. When people talk about floating the Colorado River, and are not referring to the section that flows through Grand Canyon National Park, they're likely talking about Cataract Canyon. As the folks at Canyonlands like to point out, "Cataract Canyon contains 14 miles of rapids ranging in difficulty up to Class V. It is a particularly hazardous and isolated section of the Colorado River and is subject to extreme water level fluctuations." You can learn more at the park's boating page. For a list of river outfitters, surf over to this page.

Cape Cod National Seashore

While the Atlantic Ocean pounds away at the eastern face of this national seashore, venture inland and you'll find some nice ponds and marshy areas to paddle, and, if you go far enough, even Cape Cod Bay. During the summer months rangers often lead paddling trips on Salt Pond, or from the Gut of Great Island to the tip of Long Point, or on the Pamet River. Check the park newspaper for details. Several outfitters on the cape, such as Cape Cod Kayak, Great Marsh Kayak Tours, or the Goose Hummock Shop, also offer guided trips and/or rentals.

Dinosaur National Park

Though best-known for fossils, Dinosaur's watery side is a magnet for serious rafters and kayakers. Both the Yampa and Green rivers are much in demand for multi-day trips, and in the heart of summer -- after early July -- when the water level is too low for rafts the Yampa can be navigated by experienced canoeists. More than a few licensed outfitters can take you down these rivers if you lack either the skills or equiment to do it yourself.

Everglades National Park

Everglades offers a nice array of paddling pleasures. [color=#000000]The Flamingo area offers paddling opportunities through freshwater marsh, mangrove swamp, and the open waters of Florida Bay.  Paddlers may see a variety of wildlife, including large fish, alligators, crocodiles, birds, dolphins, and manatees.  Canoe and kayak trips range from a few hours to several days. Both Turner River and Halfway Creek let canoeists and kayakers get up close to the wildlife in cypress and mangrove swamps, [/color]there's the Nine Mile Pond Canoe Trail, and experienced sea kayakers can explore Florida Bay and camp in some of the park's chickees.

Glacier National Park

Glacier, renowned for its jagged peaks, wildlife, and rivers of ice, also has more than a few paddling spots. You can take to canoe or kayak in such bodies of water as Swiftcurrent Lake, Lake McDonald, St. Mary Lake, Lower Two Medicine Lake, Sherburne Lake, Bowman Lake, or Kintla Lake. Or, if you start in Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, you can paddle into Glacier on either Cameron or Waterton lakes. White-water and scenic rafting trips can be had on sections of the Flathead River that runs along the park's west and south boundaries. For more information, check out the park's boating page.

Grand Canyon National Park

Floating the Colorado River through the canyon is the grand daddy of all North American river trips. Scenery, geology, human history, it's all here. Getting a private permit can be an exasperating experience, so if you're looking for instant gratification, consider going with an outfitter. And you don't have to float the entire 226 miles of river between Lee's Ferry and Diamond Creek. You can float from Lee's Ferry to Phantom Ranch and hike out from there, or hike down to Phantom Ranch and join a river trip there.

Grand Teton National Park

The Snake is a river with lots of history to it. But most folks just appreciate it for the spectacular backdrop of the Tetons, and that's understandable. Paddle through Oxbow Bend and on down to Moose and you'll also no doubt encounter some wildlife -- eagles, osprey, perhaps some bison and antelope coming down to the riverbanks for a sip. While many folks take on this river on their own for an afternoon or morning float, it can be tricky, so unless you're fairly well-skilled and somewhat familiar with river, you probably would be wiser to go with an outfitter. Also great for day paddling in the park are Jenny, Leigh, and String lakes, while multiple days can be spent padding Jackson Lake.

Isle Royale National Park

Surrounded by the waters of Lake Superior, and dotted with bays, coves, harbors, and islands, as well as inland lakes, Isle Royale is a great paddling destination. But you have to be prepared for fog banks, cold waters, and rough waters, for this is no place to be learning how to paddle. "Small, open vessels are discouraged from entering these cold treacherous Lake Superior waters and are encouraged to use the numerous miles of waterways that the inland lakes provide," park officials say. "Canoeists and kayakers should be familiar with weather patterns and consult the Marine Forecast at ranger stations and visitor centers before embarking. Be prepared to adjust your schedule to the weather. A portable marine radio is recommended." Canoes and kayaks can be rented at the Rock Harbor Lodge.

New River Gorge National River

The New is a white-water river, one that gets your adrenalin pumping and at times demands team-work to successfully negotiate some of the rapids. Deep in the core of West Virginia, this great river -- one of the oldest in the country, despite its name -- is a classic that can be paddled in one or two days. There are plenty of outfitters who can help you get downstream, or, if you've got the skills, tackle it on your own. Unlike most rivers, the New flows north. Its headwaters are in North Carolina.

Olympic National Park

You might not immediately associate Olympic with paddling opportunties, but a few good ones exist. Lake Crescent and Lake Ozette both are excellent for sea kayaking and canoeing, and sailboats often are spotted on Lake Crescent.

Ozark National Scenic Riverways

Combined, the Current River and the Jacks Fork River offer 134 miles of recreational wetness within this NPS unit. The two rivers are mostly spring-fed and run through some of the most beautiful Ozark scenery. More than a few companies in the area will be happy to rent you a canoe. And when you want a break from paddling, you can take a tour of one of the park's caves or attend a campfire program.

Point Reyes National Seashore

Sea kayaks are the vessel of choice for this West Coast national seashore. Tomales Bay is a great setting for paddling, as is Drakes Estero and Limantour Estero. Experienced paddlers find challenges along the seashore's Pacific coastline. For regulations, including seasonal restrictions, and access information, visit the seashore's kayaking page.

St. Croix National Scenic Riverway

Together the St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers offer 255 miles of water gliding past a lush green landscape interspersed with "glimpses of a human presence." In other words, you can sample a quasi-wilderness experience, but not you're not too far off the grid. To get a feel for what the riverway offers, be sure to read Greg Breining's piece on it, if you haven't already.

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve

Head to Alaska and you find big water -- not necessarily big rapids, but rivers that make those in the Lower 48 look like creeks. The most popular rivers in Wrangell-St. Elias for floating are the Copper, the Nizina, Kennicott, Chitina and Nabesna rivers. As park officials put it, "the rivers of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve offer visitors adventure and solitude. It is possible to travel for days at a time without seeing another person, trail, sign or bridge." As a result, you just might want to find an outfitter to take you downstream. You can find a list at this page.

Yellowstone National Park

Lewis, Shoshone, and Yellowstone lakes all provide opportunities for boating, and a few outfitters offer guided trips on Yellowstone Lake. These waters are not for novices, though, as high winds can create dangerous chop, and the cold waters are not forgiving. Both if you've got the skills, a backcountry paddle is sublime. For information on permits and regulations, check out Yellowstone's paddling page.

Yosemite National Park

Hot summer days can be spent wonderfully with a lazy float down the Merced River through the heart of Yosemite Valley. More experienced paddlers will take to canoe or kayak on Tenaya Lake off the Tioga Road. You can find a little information on the park's "water activities" page.

As you can see, there are more than a few places to paddle in the parks, and this list is just for starters. Just remember to match your paddling destination to your skills, wear your personal floatation device at all times on the water, and pack sunscreen, sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat, water, and plenty of space on your camera's flashcard.

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You missed one of the greatest paddling destinations in the NPS system -- Voyageurs National Park -- named for the intrepid cannoe men who were the backbone of the North American fur trade. In addition to 4 large lakes that are great for sea kayaks as well, there are a number of interior lakes where NPS has canoes for people to rent. And, Voyageurs has some of the best campsites anywhere -- they are sensitively sited to capture the natural beauty of the north woods. Some of my most treasured memories are associated with paddling there.

Here's a vote for the San Juan River section that begins on BLM land in the town of Mexican Hat but quickly passes into the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in the Goodenecks. The permit system is managed by the BLM but the river is managed cooperatively between the BLM, the NPS, and the Navajo Nation and patrolled by both the NPS and the BLM. I was the river ranger there for two seasons and I would put it up against the Nampa in Dinosaur any day of the week and twice on Sundays!

I remember fondly many weekends in my youth paddling the Current and the Buffalo River, both national scenic rivers in the Ozarks. Also, you could write an entire (long) article on paddling opportunities in National Parks (and preserves) in Alaska alone! For world class water we are talking the Alsek River in Glacier Bay Preserve, but also the Noatak, the Kobuk, the Yukon...and don't even get my started on sea kayaking opportunities. Ah, where's my paddle!!!

I agree with the vote for the San Juan River.  Part of my bucket list is to hike down Grand Gulch with an inflatable kayak, then float out the last 3 days to Lake Powell.

Drat my fat fingers on this mobile device. "Goosenecks", "Yampa".

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