The best national parks for paddling

This article originally appeared in Canoe & Kayak Magazine. Words by Charli Kerns

National Park Week was recently celebrated with outdoor enthusiasts flocking to our country’s 59 pristine parks. So which ones are best for paddlers? We put together an alphabetized list of the top national parks for dipping a blade, whether it's from a canoe, kayak, raft or SUP.

Glacier Bay National Park. Photo: Robert Zaleski

Big Bend National Park

Forming the border of the U.S. and Mexico, the Rio Grande is a raft or canoe trip you'll never forget, with a variety of different wilderness sections for different uses.

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands offers multi-day canoe or SUP trips through the heart of canyon country on both the Colorado and Green rivers, which meet right before Class IV (V at high water) Cataract Canyon. Flatwater paddlers often paddle one arm and then get zipped back upstream by a jetboat meeting them at the confluence.

Cape Cod National Seashore

Cape Cod's inland waterways offer prime paddling on a variety of sloughs, ponds and marshes. Sea kayakers and paddleboaders can also tackle Cape Cod Bay. Other popular paddling areas include Salt Pond, Gut of Great Island and the Pamet River.

Channel Islands National Park

This California gem offers hundreds of sea caves to explore on the north side of Santa Cruz Island, complete with grottoes, blowholes, arches and more (Hint: bring a helmet and headlamp). Popular paddles include a 4-mile jaunt from Potato Harbor to Cavern Point.

Channel Islands National Park. Photo: Chuck Graham

Everglades National Park

The Everglades offers a never-ending option of paddling. Hotspots include Flamingo, Florida Bay, the Turner River and Halfway Creek for canoeing and sea kayaking through mangrove swamps, and the Nine Mile Pond Canoe Trail is a great outing for canoeists. Expect to see everything from alligators and crocodiles to dolphins and manatees.

Glacier Bay National Park

While this one takes some travel time to get to (reach it from Gustavus, Alaska), Glacier Bay offers some of the best tidewater glacier sea kayaking in the world. Most parties shuttle up the West Arm via boat from Glacier Bay Lodge and get picked up whenever they want to after exploring the park's 16 tidewater glaciers, including the granddaddy Muir.

Grand Canyon National Park

Put this on your bucket list, now. You can run it privately with a permit, or commercially with an outfitter. While many shorten the trip by hiking in or out of Phantom Ranch, try to do the entire 226-mile stretch. You'll be glad you did.

Grand Canyon National Park. Photo: James Q. Martin

Grand Teton National Park

Canoe or sea kayak against the grandeur of the Teton range on either the winding Oxbow Bend section of Snake River, or such canoe-friendly lakes as Jackson, Jenny, String or Leigh. On each you're likely to see moose, elk, bear, bison, eagles, osprey and more. Hint: beware afternoon winds, and pack a fishing rod.

Point Reyes National Seashore

For a dose of paddling Pacific-style, head here with your sea kayak. Hotspots include Tomales Bay, as well as Drakes and Limantour Estuaries. Expect kelp beds, seals, and more.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Michigan's Pictured Rocks along the Hiawatha Water Trail serve up a 15-mile-long swath of 200-foot-high, 500-million-year-old lakeside cliffs painted a variety of pastels by seeping water. The view doesn't get any better than from the cockpit of a kayak. For extended stays, access it from one of five put-ins that have seven backcountry campsites along the 40-mile water trail.

Yellowstone National Park

While Teton National Park to the south offers Jackson and Jenny lakes, Yellowstone offers its own paddling options on Lewis, Shoshone and Yellowstone lakes. Hint: get your paddle out of the way early as high winds often whip up in the afternoons.

Yosemite National Park

Marvel at cascading waterfalls and the geologic wonders of Yosemite's massive cliffs from the seat of a paddlecraft in the Merced River, which takes you through the heart of Yosemite Valley. Another paddling option is Tenaya Lake off the Tioga Road.

More from Canoe & Kayak

Complete list of top paddling parks from Canoe and Kayak Magazine.

Learn more about the increased opportunities for paddling in Yosemite.

Useful guide to successfully getting a permit to paddle through the Grand Canyon.