10 U.S. Cities Great for Freshwater Recreation

Aerial view of Lake Eola in foreground with Orlando skyline in background
Lake Eola is a small lake in the center of downtown Orlando.

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While many city dwellers have to travel to spend time near a lake, river, or sea, some places boast water-based recreation within city limits—even though they're far from the ocean. These freshwater metropolises have made enjoying reasonably clean and low-traffic rivers or lakes easy. In some cases, natural geography makes freshwater cities a playground for swimmers, paddlers, and sailors. In other instances, whitewater parks, canals, and other unique features, such as surfable river waves, came about as a result of human intervention.

Here are 10 U.S. cities where rivers and lakes play an important role in the urban outdoor recreation scene.

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Minneapolis, Minnesota

City of Minneapolis skyline with Lake Harriet in the foregroud

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Minneapolis is the largest city in Minnesota, the state nicknamed "Land of 10,000 Lakes." There are more than 20 lakes in Minneapolis, the five largest of which are part of the Chain of Lakes Regional Park.

The paths around these urban lakes are popular with bikers and joggers, and you can easily get on the water in a canoe, kayak, or sailboat. While many suburban and out-state lakes are filled with motorboats, engines are mostly absent from these waterways.

Of course, months-long deep freezes mean that boating is not possible during the winter here. You can, however, strap on skates and take to the lake ice or try the snowy version of kiteboarding. The Mississippi and Minnesota rivers converge in Minneapolis and its twin city, Saint Paul. You can paddle on these waterways, but barge traffic, currents, and motorboats make this a greater challenge than lake boating.

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Reno, Nevada

Truckee River in Reno at sunset with a bridge across and buildings on both sides of the river

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Reno bills itself as the "Biggest Little City in the World." Less than 40 miles from Lake Tahoe, Reno sits in the high desert near the Sierra Nevada mountains. The 145-mile-long Truckee River runs through the city, and it is a vital source of drinking water for Reno residents as well as a major geographic feature in the city.

The Riverwalk District is in Reno's downtown area. Here, the Truckee provides a unique visual for shoppers and diners. You can actually get in the water as well. The Truckee River Whitewater Park welcomes canoes, kayaks, rafts, and inner tube riders, and it is the site of the popular Reno River Festival.

Washoe Lake, another large (but extremely shallow) lake, is ideal for kitesurfing and windsurfing due to its consistent winds. Both Washoe Lake and Lake Tahoe are within day-trip distance of the city.

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Boise, Idaho

red Friendship Bridge over the Boise River with trees in fall color

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The aptly named Boise River flows through Boise, Idaho, running for 102 miles total, but the stretch through Idaho's capital passes along a greenbelt that gives this urban stretch of water a rural feel. Easy access from the city and the pleasant surroundings make this waterway a popular summertime spot for inner tubing. Sun- and fun-seekers float on tubes down a section of the river in between irrigation dams. There are access points in riverside parks along the greenbelt.

The Boise River isn't all about lazy leisure, however. It has a whitewater park for kayakers, surfers, and stand-up paddle (SUP) boarders. Underwater wave-shaping features in the park create continuous waves for potentially endless surfing sessions. Meanwhile, a paddling spot called Quinn's Pond features flat-water paddling and SUP opportunities for those who want an alternative to the river.

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Orlando, Florida

Lake Eola in the foreground with downtown Orlando in the background

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Orlando might be best known for its theme parks, but the Central Florida city is filled with lakes and rivers that are ideal for fishing and boating. You never have to travel far to reach the water. Lake Eola is right in the heart of the city. Here, you can enjoy the urban views from the surrounding parkland or get right into the water in the lake's trademark swan boats.

Since Orlando is defined by wetlands, lakes and swamps dominate the metro area. Places like Wekiva River, just north of the city, are still quite wild despite their proximity to urban neighborhoods. Because of Orlando's tourism industry, it is relatively easy to access its waterways as part of a guided excursion and to rent boats or fishing gear.

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Austin, Texas

Lady Bird Lake in Austin with a tour boat on the river and downtown Austin in background

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Spring-fed lakes, rivers, and reservoirs make the Texas capital a great place for urban paddling, floating, and swimming. Lady Bird Lake, a reservoir in the Colorado River, sits right in the heart of Austin. It is an ideal place to leisurely paddle because motorized vessels aren't allowed.

Lady Bird is quite popular. If social paddling isn't your thing, try another Colorado River reservoir: the quieter Lake Austin. Lake Travis, another area waterway, has famously clear waters that are ideal for paddling and even draw scuba divers and snorkelers.

Whitewater enthusiasts will have to travel outside of Austin, but Rio Vista, the Guadalupe River, and the San Marcos River are all within an hour of the city. The Rio Vista Park has standing waves that draw paddlers and body-boarders. The water in the park is around 70 degrees regardless of the air temperature.

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Richmond, Virginia

James River in the foreground with downtown Richmond Virginia in the background on a sunny day

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The James River flows through Richmond, Virginia, on its way from the Appalachian Mountains to Chesapeake Bay. The river offers a little bit of everything to people looking for an urban freshwater experience. The lower stretch of the James in Richmond has Class III and Class IV rapids, which constitute some of the most challenging urban whitewater in the U.S. The upper section of the river in Richmond has gentler Class I and Class II rapids. Elsewhere, you can find portions of flat water for stand-up paddle-boarding and canoeing.

Kayakers and rafters can tackle challenging rapids and then get right out of the water and walk downtown. For a riverside picnic with Richmond in the background, you can head to Belle Isle, which has rocks in an ideal location for enjoying the view. Additional paddling opportunities are available on the Appomattox River, a tributary of the James.

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Cleveland, Ohio

shores of Lake Erie with Cleveland skyline in background

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Cleveland is on the shores of Lake Erie, so water sports are easy to access. Non-motorized options include kayaking, canoeing, and stand-up paddle-boarding. If you want to check out the city skyline from Erie, you can paddle along the shore, but like many Great Lakes cities, some of the best non-motorized water sports take place on the rivers that feed the lake.

The Cuyahoga River, for example, passes through the city and even flows right through downtown Cleveland. The best aspect of Cleveland for freshwater fans is the ease of access to the lake and rivers. The city boasts a network of parks, some of which have boat launch points. Area water sports spots like Hinckley Lake provide alternatives to the larger lakes and rivers.

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Columbus, Georgia

Chattahoochee River at sunset with Columbus Georgia in background

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Columbus borders Alabama and sits on the Chattahoochee River, which is a major feature in the city. The rushing rapids draw kayakers and rafters of all skill levels. At 2.5 miles, this is the longest urban whitewater course in the world. Columbus created the rapids by breaching an upriver dam, which allowed the river to return to a more natural flow. The amount of water released changes at different times of day, creating more- or less-challenging conditions. The rapids on this part of the Chattahoochee range from Class I to Class V, depending on the section of the course and the time of day.

Rafting excursions and kayaking rentals are available as well as opportunities for canoeing and stand-up paddle-boarding. While the whitewater park is this Georgia city's main claim to fame, Columbus also offers gentler water-based recreation options like flat-water paddling and river tubing.

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Chicago, Illinois

downtown Chicago with Chicago River between the tall buildings

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Chicago offers plenty of summertime boating, sailing, kiting, and swimming options in Lake Michigan. Other area waterways, including the Chicago River—which runs right through downtown—are popular with kayakers and canoeists. The Chicago River flows past some of the city's most iconic buildings before connecting with the Great Lake. This urban waterway, which is much cleaner than it once was, is a popular spot for kayakers who cruise under the dozens of bascule bridges that connect the downtown area's cross streets.

Many of the waterways that make up the Chicago Area Waterway System are used for sanitary and industrial purposes and don't really lend themselves to paddling or non-motorized water sports. The Des Plaines River, to the west of the city center, offers more-rural paddling opportunities, and the Chicago Parks District operates boathouses and access points for the Chicago River in areas other than downtown.

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Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Oklahoma River running through Oklahoma City with city center in the background and a walking path in the foreground along the riverbank

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A seven-mile portion of the North Canadian River running through Oklahoma City was part of a major renovation project and was renamed the Oklahoma River. The river is home to Olympic training facilities for kayak racers, canoeists, and rowing teams. It hosts national and international events. The Boathouse District features flat-water paddling and rowing as well as whitewater rafting and kayaking experiences. Trails for runners, walkers, and bikers run the length of the river. 

You can enjoy the downtown skyline from another section of the river. This waterway is considered separate from the Boathouse District and is not as crowded during peak days. Other water-based recreation opportunities include the reservoirs Lake Hefner and Lake Overholser. There is also a marshland adjacent to the North Canadian River near Overholser.