Best places to kayak in the United States: A comprehensive guide

Megan Smith
 min read

Kayaking opens up an entirely new world of destinations to explore. Each bay, river and lake has its own particular characteristics. But what are the best places to kayak in the United States?

Every time you venture out on the water, you familiarize yourself with it.

Try to play and work with it, respect it and treat it as you would another human being.

Below you can be inspired about interesting places to kayak in the United States.

Preparing for a day trip

Preparation for a short outing can be as simple as consulting a local for recommended locations to kayak.

Establishing the length of the route and the time needed to travel comes with experience.

Consult others who have already made the same trip. You could also check out appropriate guidebooks and our tips below:

Best places to kayak in the United States: Waterways and rivers fit for kayaking

East central States

The Potomac River, near Washington DC, is a fine example of a magnificent river very close to a city.

Below Great Falls (Maryland and Virginia), Mather Gorge is a well-known site, which attracts all sorts of kayakers, even the most adventurous. Watch the following video and be persuaded:

In the late summer, very early in the morning, you will find expert paddlers tackling the 33-foot drop of Great Falls.

The headwaters of the Potomac River have several popular stretches of whitewater, and plenty of lesser-known ones too. These are delightful, secret places to explore with your high weight capacity kayak.

The Youghiogheny (Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania) is a famous Class II-III run, boasting several outstanding paddling schools.

In the mountain state of West Virginia, the New and Gauley Rivers are very much sought after by the more experienced paddler, kayaker and rafter.

If it's a sea experience you're after, sea kayaking is becoming extremely popular in the upper reaches of Chesapeake Bay. This bay is home to one of the country's leading sea kayaking symposia.

Northwest coast as one of the best places to kayak in the United States

The whole Northwest coast has more sea kayakers and sea kayak schools than anywhere in the world.

Watch the following video featuring the top 10 favorite kayaking destinations in Washington state and get inspired:

The Northwest is also home to the world's sea kayaking capital, Seattle, Washington.

Several Seattle-area locals use their kayaks for both transportation and a physical workout to burn belly fat. You might want to check out the shorelines of the San Juan Islands for example.

Enjoying the orcas and whales is, for many, the epitome of sea kayaking anywhere.

We have found that the most popular sea kayaking destination is around Barkley Sound and the Queen Charlotte Islands (part of Canada).

Southeastern Alaska is one of the best places on the planet and a unique sea kayak experience between glaciers.

Whitewater runs prevail in the mountains, with the most popular being the Wenatchee and the Klamath rivers.

Central States from Texas to Wisconsin

Paddlers from the coasts like to joke about how far these Midwestern paddlers will drive to reach mountain rivers.

You'll understand why when we tell you that a 12 hour drive each way is quite common for weekend kayakers!

Central state paddlers argue that they are experienced at tackling both the Rocky and Appalachian mountains.

What they won't tell you, however, are the names of their incredible local rivers. For example, the Wolf River in Wisconsin and the Guadalupe near San Antonio, Texas...

While it is not a sea geographically, the northern coast of Lake Superior offers fantastic seaside kayaking.

Visit the Georgian Bay on Lake Huron and the coasts of Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

The boundary waters of Minnesota and the surrounding Quetico Provincial Park in Canada are famous for canoe explorations and kayaks are also more than welcome in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

Several million acres of rugged terrain are accessible just by self-propelled watercraft.

New England States (Northeast)

There is no single river that stands out as the most popular area in the Northeast.

The West River (Jamaica, Vermont) has fall water releases from the power plant along 2 areas: a short Class IV area and an easier Class II stretch downstream.

In Massachusetts, check out Zoar Gap on the Deerfield River, or Millers Falls on the Millers. Both boast outstanding whitewater schools nearby.

Northeast boaters always hope for rainfall in the dry part of summertime or fall as that opens up hundreds of delightful rivers.

Sea kayaking is ideal along all the less-populated stretches of the northeastern coast, with the most popular destinations clustered in Maine.

The Maine Island Trail meanders amongst 3,000 islands, with outdoor camping allowed on many for easy trip-planning alternatives.

Well-prepared adventurers can venture further up the Bay of Fundy and explore the Fundy Isles and the other coasts of New Brunswick.


Nantahala River, near Bryson City, North Carolina, is the undisputed newbies' destination of the Southeast.

The 8 mile stretch of continuous Class II whitewater ends in Nantahala Falls, which provides a Class III climax to the trip.

Nantahala Outdoor Center boasts one of the nation's largest whitewater schools with some of the finest instructors.

The Ocoee River (Ducktown, Tennessee) is an incredibly popular and lively 4 mile (6.4 km) run of Class III-IV whitewater.

Possibly the most densely traveled whitewater river on the planet, the Ocoee welcomes 225,000 visitors annually by canoe, raft, and kayak.

Water levels are managed year-round by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a government firm that has actually discovered it more lucrative to release water from dams for recreation than for power generation.

The Chattooga (Clayton, Georgia) provides a refuge from the crowds for the southeastern paddler.

A federally designated picturesque and wild river, the Chattooga is remote, challenging, and potentially dangerous with its technical rapids and hugely varying water levels. Not for the faint-hearted!

From Charleston to Savannah, the shoreline provides unexpected landscapes and wildlife, including frequent fun with dolphins.

Dolphins are wonderfully curious creatures and will circle your kayak, frequently accompanying you on your trip.

The shallow and warm lakes, inlets, and coasts of Florida make it a popular location for sea kayaking.

Check out the Everglades and the less populated islands of the Florida Keys.

You'll encounter a rich range of seabirds, marine animals and opportunities for observing nature.

Interesting fact: The southeast of the United States also offers unique opportunities to explore by kayak and/or with your camping gear. For example, be inspired by the following wilderness camping opportunities in Arizona.

California: One of the best places to kayak in the United States

The South Fork of the American River, near Placerville, California, offers excellent, clean Class III whitewater drops through the area that was the heart of the 1800s California Gold Rush.

Drifting down the river, don't be surprised to encounter modern-day prospectors trying to find an elusive fortune.

During a dry summer season, kayakers often wait till later in the day to capture the flow of the dam release.

The Sierras offer ski locations with lots of damp snow at high altitudes. The resulting overflow attracts a lot of migrant outdoor sports workers looking for rivers to experience for both work and pleasure.

Looking for a Southern California whitewater classic? You'll want to go to the Kern River near Kernville.

Keep going south into Mexico, and you'll find Baja California's shoreline is second only to the state of Washington in sea kayaking popularity.

Side note: There are also several excellent camping sites in California that can offer a fantastic adventure!

Rocky Mountains

The Arkansas River near Buena Vista, Colorado, offers more miles of Class III-IV whitewater than any other river in the continental United States.

Passing through Colorado from near the Aspen and Vail ski resorts, the Ark has cold albeit awesome water with some excellent whitewater schools and rafting businesses.

It's also the perfect location to organize a longer kayaking trip of several days including some camping nights! Watch the video above to get a good idea of such a kayak camping adventure.

In Durango, CO, the Animas provides possibly the best downtown whitewater of any U.S. river and an excellent school.

There is a lot of kayaking done throughout the Rockies. Think of the upper Colorado River and its tributaries and the Payette and Salmon rivers near McCall, Idaho.

The lovely rivers of Montana are increasing in popularity with kayakers from all around the globe too.

The West offers a lot of multiday kayaking trips in amazing canyons (you will need the necessary permits so it would be a good idea to check beforehand).

Sea kayaking is available on regional lakes or along shorelines, accessible by car.

Paddlers in the southern Rockies frequently head through Mexico to Baja, while kayakers in the northern areas discover that the Pacific Northwest is perhaps easier to get to.

Lastly: Two excellent tips for novices

Mind your manners

There are ecological and social responsibilities for kayakers wherever you go.

On whitewater rivers for example, you need to be exceptionally courteous to anglers and avoid them as much as possible.

Be sensitive to the rights and personal privacy of landowners and neighboring townsfolk. Various areas differ in their acceptance of outsiders and kayakers.

On the sea and inland lakes, the booming numbers of kayakers are becoming a danger to fragile shorelines. Use existing approved camps and fire pits whenever possible.

Otherwise, obtain authorization to camp and make sure to use stoves and firepans (and read our overnight kayak trip packing list so you don't forget anything essential).

Respect the regional requirements for sanitation, as you'll usually remain in the watershed or tidal zone.

An increasing number of places, especially rivers in the western United States, impose a strict carry-out policy. Prevent contaminating freshwater stream heads with eco-friendly soaps.

Avoid places where you might disrupt the feeding patterns of birds or other animals. An excellent rule of thumb is to stay far enough away that you don't change their habits.

Start with shorter journeys

Beginners usually start with shorter kayaking journeys in an organized group. Tip: Choose sheltered coastal areas with great deals of islands and bays for wind protection.

Longer sea kayaking journeys involve checking out charts and establishing routes and bearings. These journeys need a compass, either portable or the more convenient and expensive deck-mounted variety.

Maps and charts of the area of your planned journey are necessary for all but the quickest outing. Plan to paddle out with an outbound tidal present and return with an incoming tidal for an easier trip.

Like pilots file a flight plan, whitewater and sea paddlers must inform someone who knows their abilities, location and schedule of their intended route.

Should something go wrong, this information will prove vital to send help quickly!

Consider kayaking as a perfect activity to lose weight

Kayaking can help you burn calories and fat. Read Does kayaking burn belly fat? for more details and information!

And what's more, kayaking offers mental benefits in addition to physical ones!

Tip: Are you tall and/or plus-size? Then you should invest in a heavy-duty kayak for big and tall guys.

About Megan Smith

Megan has been fighting overweight and her plus size since her teenage years. After trying all types of remedies without success, she started doing her own research. Megan founded Plus Size Zeal to share her findings. She also developed various detailed buying guides for plus-size people in order to make their lives easier and more comfortable. Read More