Kayakers, canoeists, and stand-up paddleboarders alike know that nothing quite compares to some quality time on the river in a non-motorized, muscle-powered craft. Whether you like surfing whitewater waves or are more drawn to the lazy sightseeing of a flatwater float, the U.S. offers some outstanding flows across all of its remarkably varied regions - from the Desert Southwest and the Great Plains, to Alaska and New England.
Herein we’ve rounded up some of the best paddling rivers in the country. We’re forced to leave off some mighty awesome canoe and kayak rivers, mind you (the Tuolumne, anyone? the Green? the Namekagon? the Chattooga?), but the following provide at least some semblance of geographic completeness and certainly all promise wonderful scenery and adventure.
Spectacular semi-arid Interior Northwest scenery awaits along the fabled John Day, which (at nearly 300 miles long, counting its North Fork) is the longest river flowing entirely within Oregon, and one of the longest undammed flows in the Lower 48. Basalt cliffs, towering buttes and pillars, and badlands shoulder the river, which drains much of the Blue Mountain region of central and eastern Oregon, including such subranges as the Ochocos, the Aldrich, the Strawberries, the Greenhorns, and the Elkhorns.
The most popular trips for river paddling and rafting in the spring and early summer are the 48-mile run between Service Creek and Clarno and the 70-mile Clarno to Cottonwood reach. This is a pretty gentle river, though the Clarno Rapid is Class III and the normally Class II Basalt Rapids can get into Class III territory during high discharge.
There aren’t many more hallowed whitewater runs or top-grade kayaking rivers anywhere in the world than the Middle Fork, which flumes its way through the immensely rugged heart of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness of Central Idaho, one of the very biggest roadless areas in the conterminous U.S.
Experienced kayakers have a nearly 100-mile adventure including long stretches of relentless whitewater and some formidable Class III+/IV rapids, among them Velvet Falls, Pistol Creek Rapid, and Cramer Creek Rapid. Wildlife’s plentiful on the canyon sidewalls—bighorn sheep, elk, black bears, and more—and there are hot springs for extra enticement.
The Colorado, of course, is one of, if not the most famous river to run in the world: most especially the trip through the Grand Canyon, which combines really big water - not least the giant Lava Falls, maybe the most infamous rapid in America - with absolutely gob-smacking scenery in the heart of an incomparable defile. Bucket-list territory? You bet.
But there are so many other great paddling reaches on the Colorado and its tributaries, including the ferocious Cataract Canyon below the mouth of the Green River, the short but sweet portal of Westwater Canyon, and the beginner-friendly Black Canyon of the Colorado, which besides kayaking tempts with mild flatwater for stand-up paddleboarding.
The first National River declared in the U.S., the Buffalo offers some of the truly classic canoe trips in the midsection of the country in its gorge-hemmed course through the Ozark highlands. Rolling between, say, Ponca and Pruitt or Dillard’s Ferry and Rush Landing, paddlers on this undammed gem marvel at huge sedimentary bluffs and walls such as 550-foot Big Bluff and 590-foot Ludlow Bluff.
Think Iowa’s just endless corn and soybean fields? You’ll be bowled over by the Upper Iowa, then, a superbly scenic tributary of the Mississippi that’d be the number-one contender for Wild & Scenic status in the Hawkeye State and certainly ranks among the great rivers for kayaking and canoeing in the Midwest.
The paddle between Kendallville and Decorah is the most celebrated stretch, famed for its towering limestone bluffs and handsome bottomland forests, but longer trips starting farther upstream are certainly possible. Keep your eyes peeled for bald eagles, great blue herons, white-tailed deer, maybe the shiny furred form of a mink or a river otter, as you revel in some decidedly dramatic Iowa topography from the best seat in the house.
The Flambeau’s one of the iconic canoe streams of the Upper Midwest. This tributary of the Chippewa River rolls for much of its length through the Flambeau River State Forest, which shows off the Wisconsin North Woods at their best. Both the North and South forks of the Flambeau offer fabulous reaches (including some Class II whitewater) and you’ve got a chance to see or hear a timber wolf along the way.
There aren’t many canoe rivers so legendary as the Allagash, memorably described by one Henry David Thoreau in hisThe Maine Woods. It’s the heart of the 92-mile Allagash Wilderness Waterway, a pilgrimage for paddlers that includes the nine-mile thrill of Chase Rapids as well as more serene waters such as Umsaskis Lake and Round Pond. The 40-foot plunge of Allagash Falls is a stirring sight; so are the long-legged, swollen-nosed moose that regularly make cameos.
The New - which famously belies its name by being one of the oldest rivers in North America, reckoned at anywhere from a few to several hundred million years old - offers some of the East’s biggest whitewater. In the stunning New River Gorge in West Virginia (one of the deepest chasms in the Appalachians, and designated a national park and preserve in December 2020), the wildwater rages below Thurmond in Class III to Class V rapids, including Double Z, Greyhound, and Keeneys. The upper section of the gorge still has plenty of spice, but is open to a broader range of paddler skill levels.
If you’ve got a thirst for a genuine wilderness paddle, you can’t do better than Arctic Alaska’s Noatak, which drains the most pristine watershed in the country (and arguably on the continent). Rising in the Brooks Range, the 425-mile-long Noatak mostly flows through the enormous, remote protected lands of Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve and Noatak National Preserve en route to Kotzebue Sound, and its tundra banks may turn up everything from caribou and moose to grizzly bears, wolves, and wolverine.
One of the few large rivers in Hawaii, the Hanalei on the island of Kauai rises on the slopes of ridiculously rain-soaked Mount Wai’ale’ale - by some measures, the wettest place on Earth - and rolls some 16 miles to the Pacific at Hanalei Bay. Floating along the lower stretch of the Hanalei in a kayak or on a stand-up paddleboard, you’ll admire taro fields and the lush waterside vegetation of the Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge - and need we mention that the weather’s pretty darn nice?
Let’s re-emphasize here at the close how many stellar streams we’ve had to leave off this roundup. But hey, if you manage to hit up all of the above rivers, you’re fortunate indeed: a paddler who’s been privy to some of the finest flows in North America.
And, naturally, we hope you’ll be enjoying some just-add-hot-water Mountain House meals along those gorgeous riverbanks!