What are the best National Parks for Kayaking? Here are the top 10.

All the Hughes bros are big on National Parks for various reasons: Davis, for example (whose sleep habits resemble those of a hibernating bear) or, say, John Howard (who once canoed the Boundary Waters with his Explorer Scout Troop, spirited lads who financed such trips by proclaiming as “scrap metal” broken-down agricultural equipment on the farms and ranches outside of our hometown, which metal they would then load on a borrowed grain truck and sell for a nickel a pound at a larger town down the road).

National Parks to the North for Kayaking

So, in our suggestions for kayaking great rivers and lakes in our splendid system of National Parks, we’ll begin with those watery places in northern Minnesota, perhaps the most famous paddle place in America. The Boundary Waters give us more than twelve hundred miles of kayak and canoe routes with a most generous two thousand campsites just waiting for weary paddlers. We must thank receding glaciers for the particular beauty of this wilderness in the northern third of the Superior National Forest. The topography staggers the eyes.

Rugged cliffs and crags, canyons, gentle hills, towering rock formations, rocky shores, sandy beaches, and several thousand lakes and streams, interspersed with islands and surrounded by forest. The solitude is soul-changing, the encounter with Nature in all its glory, immediate and ongoing in its overpowering magnificence. The portages become more difficult as you paddle north, but the rewards multiply tenfold. Rightly, you may expect a thorough permitting process before you set your boat in the water. Pristine does not continue without our full involvement in this spectacular preservation.

Farther north now, much farther, to Prince William Sound in the Chugach National Forest, Alaska. Extant glaciers here, their crags towering over water clear and deep as as you. Rustic cabins within the sound will make your trip on the Chugach even more memorable as the forest stretches from the sea to snowy peaks in an area the size of New Hampshire, a third of which consists of bare rock and wild ice. Your cruise around Prince William will take as your traveling companion a glacier still carving ever new vistas almost bewildering in their majesty. Meantime, a million or so shorebirds will migrate over your head, as you paddle your way to a new understanding of self. This place is that good.

National Parks Gong South for Kayaking

South now, way south to Juniper Run in the Ocala National Forest, Florida.

Seven miles of the most idyllic water you’ll ever paddle. Named one of the top twenty-five canoe waters in America by Reserve America, the online campsite reservation folks who should know, Juniper is narrow, winding, and visceral in its enjoyments — from the green-gold canopy of old-growth forest to the ease of the paddle or pedal, Juniper will offer you a take-out point of Highway 19, well ahead of the run’s emptying into the St. John’s River at Lake George. And you pedal-kayakers have surely heard of the trophy bass roaming that legendary stream. Despite the intimate nature of the run, only a few bends might require a portage of a dozen yards.

Midwest National Parks Kayaking

To the heartland now and Eleven Point National Scenic River running through the Mark Twain National Forest, Missouri, designated as especially beautiful way back in 1968. The Ozark hills, or “knobs” as the locals say, of the southern Show-Me State have suffered their share of tourism, the Bransons and the Eureka Springs drawing millions of people who know little or nothing of the fine and private places around here. Poor souls. The Eleven Point lays out forty-four miles of perfect paddling, near Gatewood, between Thomasville and the Highway 142 bridge. Little or no shoreline development along this stretch, just shadows falling from steep bluffs, sloping forested valleys, and what the Forest Services calls “low-lying riparian ecosystems.” If you put in at Thomasville, the stream will barely protect your bottom, but then the springs kick in. Springs jetting from the dolomite of the bluffs, springs gushing upward from the Ozarks’ epic network of underground flow. Your ride will alternate between heart-pounding rapids and heart-soothing pools. Look for boulders brightened with moss under hardwood trees grown immense in the bottomland. Eleven designated vehicle-access points and eight float camps for overnight stays make the Eleven Point convenient, its remoteness, its good kind of lonesome nonetheless preserved. Trout fishing begins at the confluence of the river with the Greer Spring branch.

Michigan National Parks Kayaking

Off now to Michigan and the Ausable, Manistee, Pere Marquet, Pine, and White Rivers in the Huron-Manistee National Forest, each designated by Congress no less as both wild and scenic. We’re talking fishing first, the Manistee ripe with salmon, steelhead, brown trout, small mouth bass, and walleye. Can you honestly think of a river anywhere with this diversity of catch? Wide and deep with a good current and bends slow and wide, this river calls anglers to the annual runs, as well as to a special release of steelhead at Rainbow Bend.

Yakkers on the AuSable River should focus on a twenty-mile section that stretches from Mio to Alcona Pond. The river from Alcona Dam to Loud Pond and then below Foote Dam narrows to stretches ideal for canoes and kayaks.

The Pere Marquette meanders across central Michigan, minding its own business, flowing free for over sixty miles from the junction of its middle and south branches to its terminus in Lake Pere Marquette.

Now to the Pine River, fast and faster still, which runs with a river gradient of seven percent, the fastest average flow of any river in lower Michigan. As they used to say in Michigan in the Seventies or thereabouts, “Go for it.”

Much more relaxed, the White River winds across a sand bottom and small sections of gravels with occasional deep pockets of clear, clear water. You’ll find the White steady and moderate, much like your own bad self.

Still in Michigan, we’re headed now to the Indian River Canoe Trail in the Hiawatha National Forest. This fifty-mile stretch of the Indian wanders through banks that you’ll swear are canyons, with some sharp curves, before broadening into its marshland’s reaches. The flora reaches to northern hardwoods and mixed conifers, “mixed” just the way we Hughes Brothers like our conifers.

A blue norther is bearing down on us here in the Upper Peninsula, so we’re off to the Wambaw Creek Wilderness Canoe Trail in the Francis Marion National Forest, South Carolina. (James Hughes fixated on Francis Marion in fourth grade. The Landmark Classic edition of The Swamp Fox of the Revolution clean stole his boyish heart away, and then when Walt Disney brought out that Sunday evening TV series, JH lost focus on geography or history apart from his man Frank and them there swamps.) Just north of Charleston, this run will take you and Jimmy through stands of cypress tupelo ready to hide a revolutionary of any political calling. The tide comes in, and the tide goes out up here, on a timetable three hours difference from Charleston, its own capital self. Wambaw is a peaceful stream, a wilderness backwater, with wildlife essentially everywhere. Have your bird book at hand, as you find — there! — a prothonotary warbler and, OMG, a swallow-tailed kite. River otters put on a sideshow and, yes, they’re here all week. You may paddle or pedal in either direction from put-ins at Still Landing and Echaw Road.

The Carolinas National Parks Kayaking

Lucky, lucky South Carolinians. Two two top-ten places to yak lie within the borders of the Palmetto State. The second such stretch comes in the Tyger River in the Sumter National Forest and its famously scenic piedmont section, an area of bottomland forests and small marshes, the river ranging from two to six feet deep and forty to seventy feet wide. Primitive camping is okay on national forest land by permit only. If your boat, stem to stern, is more than fourteen feet long, you should pass on the Tyger. Whatever the length of your yak, don’t drink the water.
Saddle up, peddlers,we’re off to the Clearwater Canoe Trail in the Lolo National Forest, Montana. Slow, as they say out here, as molasses, the waterway sidles through a chain of lakes in the Seeley-Swan area of western Montana. The mountains surround, the pace inevitably slows, and we include the Clearwater in our top ten because of its soothe on the soul, its ability to immerse you in the easy beauty, the irresistible tranquility of the leisurely waterway, its loop completed in two hours or less.

Arkansas National Parks Kayaking

To Arkansas then and the Mulberry River in the Ozark National Forest, a boisterous and beautiful mountain stream flowing clear and cool from its headwaters way deep in the Ozarks and then down to its confluence with the Arkansas River, along the way ripping over ledges, powering through willow thickets, and careening through turns that will have your paddle twirling. Rated Class II/III waters, the Mulberry ranks tops among the state’s wild rivers, although after the spring rush, the river settles down to a setting just right for swimming, wading, and fishing. The flanking canyons are narrow and vegetated, its neighboring woods dark, deep, dense. Stay alert for black bears, here in Arkansas’ largest concentration of the species. They too are dark, deep, dense. Pedalers, come to the Mulberry in late spring for green and longer sunfish, for smallmouth, largemouth, and spotted bass. Untamed this country, but its access to the water could not be easier, but a dozen miles north of I-40.

Time for some lake yakking, as at picturesque Lake Chelan in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Washington, last place in the easy-to-spell category of these Hughes rankings. Blue, unearthly blue this lake of fifty miles set among the primitive North Cascade Mountains. A bunch of small lakes and waterways adjoin. Particularly if the winds of Lake Chelan itself seem a bit daunting, try the water near Manson or perhaps on the Chelan River at Riverwalk Park.

Certainly, more opportunities to lose yourself in the mystery of a moment in our National Parks, and we’ll discuss them further in coming days on out-of-the-ordinary paddles that Curtis, the least ordinary of the Hughes Brothers, wishes to discuss. Just back from Borneo, he’s affecting a bone in his nose. As we say, contrary to ordinary this particular Hughes guy.

Paddle on. Pedal still further.

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