Once you’ve explored all the secret stashes of whitewater and pristine stretches of coastline in your home state, it might be time to pack up the paddle and dig into your bucket list. The diversity of paddling opportunities in the United States is remarkable, ranging from multi-week rafting trips down remote canyons to island-hopping sea kayak tours where you can see wildlife around every bend. Whether you need inspiration for that next adventure or you already know the nation’s waterways like the back of your paddle, this list of 7 iconic paddling tours in the United States is for you.
1. Apostles Islands, Wisconsin
Dotting the crystal-clear waters of Lake Superior, this collection of 21 sandstone islands hosts some of the best paddling in the Midwest. Sea kayaking around the archipelago and coastal mainland is the ideal way to explore the otherworldly sea caves that make Apostles Islands National Seashore famous. The best of the sea caves can be found around Bayfield Peninsula, Sand Island, and Manitou Island. Explore the park on a day trip, or get the full experience by packing a tent and making it an overnight adventure, since 19 of the 21 islands allow camping.
2. Grand Canyon, Arizona
It’s a rare paddler who doesn’t have the classic Grand Canyon rafting trip on their list. The Colorado River courses through this world-famous canyon for 277 river miles. Descending this monumental river, gurgling with infamous rapids and flowing gently through flatwater sections, takes paddlers on a journey through time, revealing rock layers from hundreds of millions of years ago.
Commercial rafting trips in Grand Canyon National Park generally range between three to 18 days. Boaters can get permits for private trips in the 52-mile Lower Gorge section on a first-come, first-served basis. Meanwhile, the highly coveted permits for 12- to 25-day private trips from Lee’s Ferry to Diamond Creek are granted through a weighted lottery system. Oar rafts are the mainstay on this highly technical river full of Class IV-V rapids, though experienced whitewater kayakers can make the journey as well.
3. Westwater Canyon and Cataract Canyon, Utah
The Moab region in southeastern Utah enchants with its red rock canyons and mighty rivers. It’s nearly impossible to narrow it down to just one must-do paddling trip here, so we chose two. The 26-mile Westwater Canyon of the Colorado River starts near Grand Junction, Colorado and flows towards Moab. This one-day rafting trip is well known for its exhilarating whitewater, with rapids ranging from Class III-V depending on water levels. Oar boats, paddle boats, and whitewater kayaks are the vessels of choice, and paddlers should have some whitewater experience.
Meanwhile, Cataract Canyon holds the trophy as the region’s most iconic multi-day rafting adventure. This 96-mile run takes you through the heart of Canyonlands National Park, into gooseneck bends and isolated side canyons that can only be accessed from the water. Commercial paddle raft trips on this Class II-IV section last four days, while Canyonlands offers private trip permits for up to 14 days with up to 40 people.
4. Snake River, Idaho/Oregon
When paddlers dream about the Snake River, they’re usually imagining Hells Canyon. As the deepest gorge in North America at over 7,900 feet, the Hells Canyon section offers an enticing mix of adrenaline-pumping Class III-IV rapids and relaxing stretches of flatwater. Most commercial and noncommercial rafting trips last between three to five days, starting near Cambridge, Idaho and ending in Lewiston, Idaho. Impressive wildlife, rugged landscapes, and rich Native American history on this nationally recognized Wild and Scenic River make it a true classic for any paddler. Oar rafts, paddle rafts, inflatable kayaks, and whitewater kayaks are all suitable for this section.
5. Puget Sound, Washington
Stretching for roughly 100 miles along the coast of northern Washington, Puget Sound comprises a complex network of basins and canals connecting to the broader Pacific Ocean. With excellent access to the waterfront throughout the region, Puget Sound is ideal for single-day or multi-day sea kayaking excursions. Dense, lush forests and snowy mountain peaks line the shore on nearly all sides, emanating that quintessential Pacific Northwest splendor. Exploring the rugged coastline along the Olympic Peninsula or the pristine waters by the Kitsap Peninsula make for some of the best days on Puget Sound.
6. San Juan Islands, Washington
Dotting the Salish Sea between mainland Washington and British Columbia, Canada, this archipelago spans more than 400 islands, of which 172 are named. Since only four of the islands are accessible by ferry, exploring by sea kayak in the San Juans affords some well-deserved solitude. The 478 miles of coastline are dotted with secluded beaches, rocky coves, and lighthouses perched on the cliffs. Single- and multi-day trips offer unparalleled opportunities for wildlife spotting, as the islands are famous for their resident orca pods, along with harbor seals, sea lions, and porpoises. Birdwatching is equally top notch: keep an eye out for great blue heron, bald eagles, and the endangered marbled murrelet.
7. Maine Island Trail, Maine
This 375-mile water trail runs along the entire coast of Maine from the New Hampshire state line to the Canadian border. It’s the first nationally recognized water trail, created and protected in collaboration with landowners by the Maine Island Trail Association. The trail does not have a defined route, but rather invites paddlers to explore freely and at their own pace for day trips or overnight adventures. More than 226 sites for day use and overnight camping along the trail allow for boundless sea kayaking opportunities. Soaring pine forests, isolated coastlines of rock, and wildlife like harbor seals, Atlantic puffins, and moose make this idyllic region a paddler’s dream.
Written by Jenna Herzog for Matcha in partnership with Salamander Paddle Gear.
Being prepared for a multi-day raft trip is crucial to the enjoyment of these rivers. If you show up without all the right gear, you will be wishing you had it. River trips can be very hot, so a really good cooler system that keeps ice cold for days is a key item. Using dry-ice to help keep things cold for longer can ensure cold drinks on the last day of the trip. Your friends will love you for it. Doing dishes on a proper table also helps make the trip easier for everyone, and most rivers require a fire-pan. Check out the list below for some great gear items for your next rafting trip.
Salamander Paddle Gear List for a Multi-day raft trip
Camp Table - Our camp table is stable and durable and makes kitchen prep a breeze.
Dish Washing Hammock - Designed to work with our camp table, this item makes drying clean dishes much easier
Fire Pan - Our firepan comes in two dfferent sizes and it includes the lid.
Cordova Coolers - keep your food and ice cold for many days with these awesome coolers. Available in 3 sizes.
Sand Stake - This sand stake will secure your boat when there is nothing to tie off too.
Check out our Rafting digital catalog to browse all of our rafting equipment in one place.