9 Best Rivers in the United States for a Canoe Outing

The sun glistens off the surface of Kenai River in Alaska
Alaska's Kenai River flows near the snow-capped Chugach Mountains.

Alvis Upitis / Getty Images

Some of America’s best paddling rivers are short and tame enough to be enjoyed in a day, even by novice canoeists and families. Other water routes, like the Kenai River in Alaska, are home to rapids that are class III and higher, and may take several days (and previous rowing experience) to cover. Despite their size or difficulty level, all great canoeing rivers flow past remarkable landforms and charming wildlife that bring visitors closer to the beauty of the natural world.

Whether you're an expert rower or casual paddler, here are nine of America’s best rivers for a canoe outing.

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Eleven Point National Scenic River (Missouri)

The greenish-blue waters of Eleven Point National Scenic River

Charlie Llewellin / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Established in 1968, Eleven Point National Scenic River is a 44-mile section of waterway that cuts through Mark Twain National Forest in southern Missouri. Folks who journey down Eleven Point will paddle past the enchanting Ozark scenery of steep hills, towering limestone bluffs, and dense, deciduous forests. Several campgrounds sit along the river, making multi-day expeditions possible.

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Willamette River Water Trail (Oregon)

The pine-lined Willamette River in Oregon on a cloudy day

JPL Designs / Shutterstock

Stretching over 200 miles along the Willamette River, the Willamette River Water Trail takes canoeists on an adventure through the majestic Pacific Northwest. The water trail is lined with a variety of beautiful trees native to the region like Oregon ash, Pacific willow, and red osier dogwood. Paddlers will be enchanted by bald eagles and spotted sandpipers in the sky and spring chinooks in the water below. The Willamette River Water Trail has two key guides that let visitors know where to find campsites along the route and other important information about the Willamette River.

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Missouri National Recreational River Water Trail (South Dakota and Iowa)

The sunsets of Missouri National Recreational River Water Trail

John McLaird / Shutterstock

From Fort Randall Dam in South Dakota to Sioux City, Iowa, the Missouri National Recreational River Water Trail stretches 148 miles along the historic Missouri River. Visitors to the water trail will row past limestone bluffs and beautiful cottonwood trees, with the likely possibility of a bald eagle or two flying overhead. The waterway consists of two main river segments that are connected by Lewis and Clark Lake.

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Kenai River (Alaska)

The Kenai River flows through an evergreen forest in the shadow of a snowy mountain

Frank K. / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

Alaska’s 80-mile Kenai River flows from Kenai Lake near the Chugach Mountains to Cook Inlet. The turquoise river features whitewater sections of Class III and higher, and may give beginner canoeists a difficult time. But for those who are up to the challenge, the rougher waters are absolutely worth it. The majority of the river runs through the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, which is home to beautiful cottonwood forests and spectacular Chinook salmon.

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Huron River Water Trail (Michigan)

Autumnal trees behind the peaceful Huron River Water Trail in Michigan

Deb Nystrom / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

From Proud Lake in Milford, Michigan down to Lake Erie, the 104-mile Huron River Trail takes paddlers through rapids and calm water alike. Folks can travel the entirety of the Huron River, which typically takes about five days to complete, or they can explore the waterway on one of three designated 35-mile trips. The Huron River Water Trail includes five so-called “Trail Towns” along the route, which are dedicated to providing amenities, like food and lodging, for those on the trail. Private companies not only rent out canoes and kayaks, but also offer transportation between river access points so that paddlers can travel without having to worry about an upstream return trip.

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Buffalo National River (Arkansas)

Turquoise water of the Buffalo National River on a cloudy day

Nicholas Chapman / EyeEm / Getty Images

In 1972, the Buffalo River was the first waterway in the United States to receive the designation of “national river.” Due to the protection of these waters by the National Park Service, the Arkansas waterway is one of the last few undammed rivers in the continental United States, and, therefore, offers canoeists a long, undisrupted journey. This federal designation also prohibits the construction of commercial or residential development along the waterway, leaving the pristine natural beauty for all to enjoy. The Buffalo River is largely dependent upon rainfall as its water source, so conditions for canoeing can vary widely.

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Black Canyon Water Trail (Nevada and Arizona)

Black Canyon Water Trail flows past the rocky desert landscape on a bright day

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The Black Canyon Water Trail flows for 26 miles within the Lake Mead National Recreation Area along a section of the Colorado River from just below the Hoover Dam to Eldorado Canyon. Canoeists will paddle by dramatic scenery from coves and hot springs to red rock cliffs and sandy beaches. The area along the route is home to a variety of stunning wildlife, like desert bighorn sheep and peregrine falcons.

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Mulberry River (Arkansas)

A canoeist paddles down the Mulberry River in Arkansas

Thomas & Dianne Jones / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The Mulberry River runs 55 miles through the state of Arkansas from the Ozark National Forest down to its confluence with the Arkansas River. A National Wild and Scenic River since 1992, the Mulberry River takes canoeists on twists and turns past large boulders and through adventurous, class II and class III-rated rapids. Paddlers can expect to glide past green sunfish and largemouth bass in the water below and black bears in the woods above the towering, limestone bluffs that border the river.

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Duck River (Tennessee)

Tennessee's Duck River on a cloudy winter day

Michael Hicks / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

Duck River begins in middle Tennessee and winds toward the town of New Johnsonville where it joins the Tennessee River. The 284-mile river is the longest river located completely within the state, and its small rapids and deep pools make it popular for canoeists of all skill levels. Perhaps the best location for canoeing on Duck River is the more than 32-mile stretch belonging to the Tennessee Scenic River Program. The community-based program preserves and protects river sections of environmental value like Duck River, which is largely free-flowing, is untouched by development, and boasts over 50 species of mussels and more than 150 species of fish. Several canoe launch areas are located along the scenic stretch, and overnight camping is accommodated.