Tag Archives: boating

Top 10 National Parks for Kayaking

We own a 17-foot long tandem kayak that we have taken all over the United States, including some rivers where it may have been preferable to canoe.  Some of our most memorable National Park experiences have happened while seated in our kayak.  This does not include two amazing trips through Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in Montana, which you can read about on our other travel blog since it is not managed by the National Park Service.  Please check out all of our Top 10 lists for more adventure ideas and book recommendations!

10. Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument (U.S. Virgin Islands)

There is no dry land in this Caribbean monument that borders Virgin Islands National Park.

9. Ozark National Scenic Riverways (Missouri)

Canoes are also commonly used to explore the Jack’s Fork and Current Rivers.

8. Biscayne National Park (Florida)

A kayak can get close to the mangroves since most of this park covers ocean south of Miami.

7. Voyageurs National Park (Minnesota)

Find a free lakeside campsite and fall asleep listening to loons call.

6. Congaree National Park (South Carolina)

Get up close to wildlife and baldcypress knees on Cedar Creek.

5. Lake Mead National Recreation Area (Nevada-Arizona)

Stop at Emerald Cove for photos on the way to or from Arizona Hot Springs.

4. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (Michigan)

The only way to see Petit Portal is from the water and a kayak is necessary to go through it.

3. Buffalo National River (Arkansas)

Canoes may be preferable to run through the Ponca Wilderness during spring runoff.

2. Everglades National Park (Florida)

The best way to see this park is from a small boat, plus by staying overnight on a chickee.

…and finally our #1 National Park for kayaking!

1. Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (Wisconsin)

Sea caves carved by the waves of Lake Superior require a small craft to explore.

Honorable Mentions

Point Reyes National Seashore (California)

Located on the San Andreas Fault, Tomales Bay is a protected spot to explore north of San Francisco.

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve (Alaska)

We have heard the best way to see this park is by kayak, but it sounds really cold.

Channel Islands National Park (California)

We hope someday to take a guided kayaking trip to the sea caves on Santa Cruz Island.

Big Thicket National Preserve (Texas)

Spanish moss-draped baldcypress trees line these picturesque bayous.

Big Thicket National Preserve

Overview

When most people think of Texas they do not think of the bayou, but since 1974 this unique ecosystem and eight others were preserved in several units in the southeastern portion of the state.  The Big Thicket once covered 3.5-million acres, however, now only 112,000 acres is protected by the National Park Service (NPS) in 15 remnant sections.  Here you can also discover longleaf pine savannah, saltwater estuaries, and wetlands harboring carnivorous plants.  Understandably, the region is noted for its high biodiversity, highlighted by 85 tree species, 20 orchids, and wildlife as dissimilar as alligators and roadrunners.

Highlights

Kirby Nature Trail, Pine Island Bayou, Cooks Lake Paddling Trail, Neches River, birding

Must-Do Activity

We recommend you start by learning about the nine different ecosystems within the preserve at the NPS visitor center located eight miles north of Kountze, Texas.  The best way to get to know Big Thicket National Preserve is on the water.  Motorboats are allowed in most units, but paddling is preferred for exploring the shallow bayous.  Lined with baldcypress trees, Pine Island Bayou is best explored by kayak or canoe, as is the Cooks Lake Paddling Trail (a five mile loop).  It is also possible to float the park’s 80 miles of the Neches River depending upon the amount of water released from B.A. Steinhagan Lake.

Best Trail

There are 40 miles of hiking trails, but it may be best to start with the Kirby Nature Trail near the NPS visitor center in Kountze, Texas.  Also located in the Turkey Creek Unit, the short Pitcher Plant Trail is best in the spring when the carnivorous plants bloom in the wet savanna.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Inside the NPS visitor center located eight miles north of Kountze, Texas, you can pose with a giant-sized pitcher plant model.

Peak Season

Fall and spring to avoid peak mosquito season.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/bith/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

The main access roads are paved, but some boat launches may be dirt.

Camping

The NPS offers free backcountry permits, but the nearest campgrounds are at Village Creek State Park and B.A. Steinhagan Lake (managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers).

Related Sites

Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve (Louisiana)

Big Cypress National Preserve (Florida)

Everglades National Park (Florida)

Explore More – In addition to pitcher plants, how many other carnivorous plant species are found in Big Thicket National Preserve?

Voyageurs National Park

Overview

Water dominates Voyageurs National Park on the border of Minnesota and Ontario, Canada.  So much so that many of the land formations were never given names by the French fur traders (or “voyageurs”) that navigated these waters beginning in the late-1700s.  It was a hard life, paddling large birch bark canoes full of supplies up to sixteen hours per day.  Today the park is famous for its manmade destinations, including Kettle Falls Hotel, Hoist Bay Resort, and the unique sculptures at Ellsworth Rock Gardens. 

Highlights

Kettle Falls, Ellsworth Rock Gardens, Hoist Bay Resort, Kab-Ash Trail

Must-Do Activity

Be sure to get out on the water via a ranger-led tour or take your own boat to one of the shoreline campsites inaccessible by car (permit required).  Reservations can be made for the free ranger-guided North Canoe Voyage that lets passengers paddle a 26-foot canoe, just like the “voyageurs” of old.  For more information, check out our National Park guidebook, A Park to Yourself: Finding Adventure in America’s National Parks (available on Amazon).

Best Trail

There are several short trails that lead from the visitor centers at Rainy Lake and Ash River, in addition to the 28-mile long Kab-Ash Trail that allows backpacking. 

Instagram-worthy Photo

On Namakan Lake, you can explore the remains of Hoist Bay Resort, which was a logging camp before it became a vacation destination.  It feels haunted in the evening, exploring the empty ruins while listening to the eerie calls of common loons.

Peak Season

Summer, but be prepared for bugs.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/voya/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None, except for camping frees

Road Conditions

The major access roads to NPS visitor centers are paved, plus in the winter there is a designated 7-mile ice road over Rainy Lake.

Camping

There are 214 boat-in campsites available first-come, first-served with a NPS permit (reservations available).  There are several campgrounds located on the mainland just outside the park boundaries.

Related Sites

Grand Portage National Monument (Minnesota)

Isle Royale National Park (Michigan)

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (Wisconsin)

This design we created to celebrate Voyageurs National Park is available on a variety of products at Cafe Press and Amazon.

Explore More – When did the Virginia and Rainy Lake Lumber Company operate at Hoist Bay on Namakan Lake?

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Overview

In 1964, Lake Mead became the first National Recreation Area administered by the National Park Service (NPS).  It actually encompasses two reservoirs on the Colorado River: Lake Mead formed by Boulder Dam in 1936 and (further south) Lake Mohave formed by Davis Dam in 1951.  Boulder Dam was later renamed Hoover Dam and is one big reason this is among the busiest NPS sites with about 7-million annual visitors (also partly due to its proximity to Las Vegas, Nevada).

Highlights

Hoover Dam, Northshore Road, Redstone Trail, Arizona Hot Springs, boating

Must-Do Activity

The most fantastic destination in Lake Mead National Recreation Area is Arizona Hot Springs, where pools are formed by sandbags in a narrow canyon.  It is accessible from Liberty Bell Trailhead by a 6.5-mile roundtrip hike through a beautiful canyon down to the Colorado River.  The trail is closed during the hot summer months, but you can still access it by canoe or kayak from Willow Beach Marina or just downstream from the Hoover Dam (with a special permit). Downriver in Black Canyon, stop at Emerald Cove for incredible photographs.

Best Trail

Redstone Trail is a short loop hike through a fantastic red rock area found just off North Shore Drive.  It is similar to the photogenic Valley of Fire State Park located to the north.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The area around the Hoover Dam can get very crowded, as can the outstanding overlook on the 1,900-foot long Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge (completed in 2010 to route Highway 93 traffic off the dam).  Standing 890-feet above the river below, it ranks as the second highest bridge in the United States behind Colorado’s Royal Gorge Bridge.  Be prepared to pass through a security screening if you park at the bridge or Hoover Dam.

Peak Season

Spring and fall

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/lake/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

$25 per vehicle or America the Beautiful pass to access Willow Beach Marina or Lake Mead itself.  At Hoover Dam there is free parking on the Arizona side, but fees for the museum and tours.

Road Conditions

All major roads are paved, including the steep drive down to Willow Beach Marina, which also has a fish hatchery open to visitors.

Camping

There are multiple NPS campgrounds around the perimeter of Lake Mead and Lake Mohave.  Backcountry camping is allowed without a permit at Arizona Hot Springs, which is even more spectacular after dark.

Related Sites

Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona)

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (Arizona-Utah)

Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument (Nevada)

Explore More – Lake Mead is not often filled to capacity, so when was the last time its spillways were needed during a big snowmelt year?

Missouri National Recreational River

Overview

Forming the border of Nebraska and South Dakota, the Missouri National Recreational River was originally designated in 1978, but only 300 of its 34,128 acres are managed by the National Park Service (NPS).  Its lower segment runs 59 miles from the Gavins Point Dam to Ponca State Park.  More than a decade later, a 39-mile stretch was added from the Fort Randall Dam to Niobrara State Park, and includes 20 miles of the Lower Niobrara River (which is itself designated a National Scenic River upstream).  The section of river in between is a 29-mile long reservoir known as Lewis and Clark Lake, named for the explorers that led the Corps of Discovery up this section of river in August-September 1804.

Highlights

Lewis and Clark Visitor Center, Gavins Point National Fish Hatchery and Aquarium, boating, fishing

Must-Do Activity

Most visitors come for the boating and fishing opportunities along the Missouri River.  If you are well-prepared, canoeing can be a fun way to experience these two relatively free-flowing sections of river.  The NPS and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) manage the Lewis and Clark Visitor Center near Yankton, South Dakota, which, in addition to dam tours, offers the Gavins Point National Fish Hatchery and Aquarium.

Best Trail

The 4,400-mile long Lewis and Clark National Historical Trail tracks through here, but since the Corps of Discovery used the Missouri River as their path, there is no hiking trail to follow.

Instagram-worthy Photo

There are several great museums along the Missouri River section of the Lewis and Clark National Historical Trail.  Our favorite is the NPS headquarters for the trail in Omaha, Nebraska, which has the beautiful Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge across the river connecting to Iowa.  If you drive over to Council Bluffs, do not miss the free museum at the Western Historic Trails Center.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/mnrr/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None for the NPS unit, but the state parks charge admission.

Road Conditions

Roads to the state parks and visitor centers are paved, but there are many dirt roads that access boat launches along the river.

Camping

Niobrara State Park and Ponca State Park both have more than 100 campsites with running water.  The COE also operates campgrounds near its dams.

Related Sites

Niobrara National Scenic River (Nebraska)

Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site (North Dakota)

Lewis and Clark National Historical Park (Oregon-Washington)

Explore More – In the aftermath of several devastating floods, when did Congress enact the Flood Control Act to construct five dams along the Missouri River?