10 U.S. Cities With Freshwater Appeal

Narrow waterway running through a city landscape
Photo: Don Mammoser/Shutterstock

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. Many are attractive enough to draw water-loving transplants from other parts of the world.

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 surf-able river waves came about as a result of human intervention.

Here's our list of American cities where rivers and lakes play an important role in the urban outdoor recreation scene.

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Photo: Geoffrey Kuchera/Shutterstock

Minneapolis is the largest city in Minnesota, the state nicknamed the "Land of 10,000 Lakes." Depending on how you measure, the total length of lake shorelines in Minnesota is greater than the length of all shorelines in California and Florida, combined. Minneapolis itself has more than 20 lakes, the five largest of which are part of the Chain of Lakes 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 urban 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 kite boarding. 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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Photo: Alisha Vargas/Flickr

Reno, Nevada, bills itself as the "Biggest Little City in the World." A haven for casinos and hotels and a hub for the popular Tahoe resort area, this city sits in the high desert near the Sierra Nevada mountains. The Truckee River is a vital source of drinking water for Reno residents, and it is 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.

The famous Lake Tahoe, about 20 miles from the city, is the source for the Truckee. Lake Washoe, another large (but extremely shallow) lake, is ideal for kite surfing and windsurfing due to its consistent winds. Both lakes are within day-trip distance of the city.

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The aptly named Boise River flows through Boise, Idaho. The river runs 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. The 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 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, and places like the Wekiva River 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 is not necessarily well-known for water sports, but spring-fed lakes, rivers and reservoirs make the Texas capital a great place for urban paddling, floating and swimming. Lady Bird Lake sits right in the heart of the city. It is a reservoir in the Colorado River and an ideal place to leisurely paddle because motorized vessels aren't allowed.

Lady Bird is quite popular, so if social paddling isn't your thing, try another Colorado River reservoir: the quieter Lake Austin. Another area waterway, Lake Travis, 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 Whitewater Park has standing waves that draw paddlers and body boarders. The water in the park is 70 degrees regardless of the air temperature.

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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 to a downtown brew pub. Those who want to wade, swim or a have a riverside picnic with Richmond in the background can head to Belle Isle, which has rocks in an ideal location for enjoying the view and accessing the water. Additional paddling opportunities are available on the Appomattox River, which is tributary of the James.

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Cleveland is on the shores of Lake Erie, so freshwater 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 Erie.

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 lake and rivers.

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Columbus, Georgia

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Columbus, on the border with Alabama, is the third largest city in Georgia. It sits on the Chattahoochee River. The river is a major feature in the city. The rushing rapids here 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 through the dam 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.

Outfitters offer rafting excursions and kayaking classes and rentals 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 does have flat-water paddling opportunities as well as river tubing and other more-gentle water-based recreation options.

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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 flows past some of the city's most iconic buildings before connecting the Great Lake. This urban waterway is much cleaner than it once was and is now 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, does offer 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

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Like the Chicago River, Oklahoma City's Oklahoma River was once a no-go zone for paddlers. It used to be defined by overgrown banks and was the target of negative media coverage. Today, however, the river, which benefited from a major renovation project, 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.

You can enjoy the downtown skyline from another section of the Oklahoma River, or technically, a section of the North Canadian 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 known as Lake Hefner and Lake Overholser. There is also a marshland adjacent to the North Canadian River near Overholser.