9 Best Rivers in the U.S. For a Canoe Outing

The Kenai River in Alaska

M. Cornelius / Shutterstock

Some of America’s best paddling rivers are short enough to be enjoyed in a day, even by novice canoeists and families. Yet, other water routes take days, weeks, or even months to cover, though many of these longer rivers make remote natural lands accessible. In some places, paddling is still the best (and perhaps only) way to travel.

Whether you're an expert rower or casual canoer, here are nine of America’s best river journeys.

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Northern Forest Canoe Trail

Photo: Liquid Productions, LLC/Shutterstock

The Northern Forest Canoe Trail has been open for only 10 years — a relative newcomer as far as water trails are concerned. The route, which passes through lakes, rivers and streams in Quebec and New England, is one of the more challenging water journeys on our list — mainly because the 740-mile trip includes more than 60 portages. In all, there are 55 miles of walking for people who want to make the whole trip from the Adirondack Mountain town of Old Forge, New York, to Fort Kent in northernmost Maine.

The route includes a number of smaller lakes and rivers and a few famous waterways, such as the Connecticut River (the longest river in New England) and Lake Champlain (pictured).

Several dozen "through-paddlers" have journeyed the entire 740 miles, while others have completed the whole trip in sections, returning every year to conquer a different part of the route.

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Eleven Point National Scenic River

Photo: Charlie Llewellin/flickr

Eleven Points National Scenic River is a 44-mile section of waterway that cuts through Mark Twain National Forest in southern Missouri. The Ozarks dominate the landscapes of this region, so a journey down Eleven Points is defined by steep hills, bluffs and dense forests. This is one of those rivers where paddlers can see landscapes they can't see from a car.

Eleven Points does allow motorized boats, which can often be a deal breaker for canoeists. In this case, however, there is a 25-horsepower maximum, so paddlers won’t have to worry about getting swamped by passing speedboats. Several campgrounds sit along the river, making multi-day expeditions possible.

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Willamette River Water Trail

Photo: JPL Designs/Shutterstock

The Willamette Water Trail passes through two major Oregon cities and flows past forests, grasslands and farm fields. At 187 miles (from just south of Eugene to north of Portland), this accessible national water trail is ideal for a multi-day canoe expedition. Some private landowners along the Willamette offer camping to paddlers, and tents can be pitched on the banks of some riverside public lands as well.

Many canoeists and kayakers choose to cover a portion of the Willamette rather than tackling the entire 187 miles. A shuttle bus service is available for those who want to paddle downriver and then ride back to their car on land rather than having to struggle back upriver. In addition to Portland and Eugene, the Willamette Water Trail passes a number of small towns. These population centers make it possible for some outfitters to offer themed river expeditions, such as a kayaking and beer-tasting daytrip.

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Kenai River

Photo: Frank K./Wikimedia Commons

Because of bears, rapids and leaping salmon, Alaska’s Kenai River, which runs from Kenai Lake to the Pacific Ocean, is not a waterway for a leisurely canoe journey. That said, it does offer a variety of different paddle experiences, from whitewater rafting to casual canoeing, along its 82 miles. Several sections along the upper part of the river feature Class II and Class III rapids. There are also quieter, slower sections that are ideal for canoes.

The Kenai experiences multiple salmon runs every year. There are also record-size rainbow trout in the river, and moose and bears are commonly seen along the shoreline. Unfortunately, salmon season also brings anglers and motorboats, which can detract from the remote feeling the most people come to Alaska to experience.

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Mississippi River

Photo: Ken Ratcliff/flickr

The Mississippi River is the ultimate American waterway for through-paddlers. The river is narrow near its source at Lake Itasca in Minnesota. In this region, the 2,350-mile-long Mississippi is between 20 and 30 feet wide. As it flows south, the "mighty" river’s width is measured in miles, not feet.

In some areas, it is filled with boats and barges. This traffic and the river’s size can make paddling challenging if not impossible (though people have succeeded in paddling the entire length).

There are a number of Mississippi River water trails, including the 121-mile Great River Water Trail, which ends in Saint Louis, Missouri, and the Mississippi State Water Trail, in Minnesota, which is divided into 10 sections.

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Huron River Water Trail

Photo: Deb Nystrom/flickr

Michigan’s Huron River Water Trail is 104 miles long. It flows through the city of Ann Arbor and ends when its namesake waterway empties into Lake Erie to the south of Detroit. The water trail includes gentle rapids and long stretches of flat water.

Besides Ann Arbor, there are a number of small towns and parks along the route. This means that paddlers can easily access the river and stop along their route to stretch their legs and have a bite to eat.

The trail currently has four campgrounds that are specifically for people traveling on the river (reservations are required). Private companies not only rent canoes and kayaks but also offer transportation between river access points so that paddlers can travel without having to worry about enduring an upstream return trip.

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Buffalo National River

Photo: NPCA Photos/flickr

The Buffalo River was the first waterway in the United States to receive the “national river” designation (in 1972). While the river is 150 miles long, 135 of those miles are overseen by the National Park Service. Because of this, the Arkansas waterway is one of the last few undammed rivers in the Lower 48. Its protected status also means it remains unpolluted. Freshwater mussels that thrive in the river further filter the water, making it incredibly clear.

Camping is allowed along most of the Buffalo River, and canoeists can either bring their own boat or rent one. The bluffs, forests and hills of the Ozark Mountain area draw scenery-seeking paddlers, and the abundance of life (the river is home to more than 300 aquatic species) makes the river a playground for anglers and nature lovers.

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Black Canyon Water Trail

Photo: Dlabajdesign/Shutterstock

The Black Canyon Water Trail is 30 miles long and covers a section of the Colorado River from below the Hoover Dam to Eldorado Canyon. Many people choose to through-paddle the trail because of its shorter length (the trip can be completed in two or three days, usually) and because the trail officially starts right at the base of the Hoover Dam. Those who want to launch from the legendary dam have to pay a fee and be escorted by a guide (since they are technically entering a secure area).

There are several other launch points and campsites along the water trail. The entire route is within the Lake Mead National Recreational Area. Guided and self-guided paddles often include stops to explore walking trails that showcase the wildlife and rock formations of the Mojave Desert.

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Missouri National Recreational River Water Trail

Photo: John McLaird/Shutterstock

The Missouri River is the waterway used by the Lewis and Clark expedition during their famous 1804 journey. Dams, boat traffic and other obstacles make it impossible for paddlers to recreate the route the explorers took two centuries ago. But people can get a glimpse into what it was like for Lewis and Clark on the section of the Missouri between Pickstown, South Dakota, and Sioux City, Iowa.

That section is the Missouri National Recreational River Water Trail, which covers a 147-mile stretch of the river. This is one of the last undeveloped portions of the Missouri, and paddlers, who can travel the whole length of the trail or use one of the 29 access points to journey along a particular section, can get a small taste of what the area looked like when it was first navigated by Lewis and Clark.