While hikers flock to the U.S. National Parks for picturesque trails, and cyclists find solace in bike paths strewn across the country, the booming paddle sports community (inclusive of kayaking, stand-up paddle-boarding, and canoeing) might not be fully aware of a unique national program that aids their water-based explorations.
Initiated in 2012, the National Water Trails (NWT) system encompasses 35 waterways and canals spread across 25 U.S. states. These vary from the 4.2-mile Chippewa River Water Trail snaking through Eau Claire, Wisconsin’s cityscape, to the expansive 631-mile Alabama Scenic River Trail, stretching from the Coosa River’s tip to the Gulf of Mexico.
Many of these water routes are renovated industrial trade pathways. “With rivers getting cleaner and more accessible over the past two decades, the interest in waterborne activities has risen,” comments Corita Waters, a river partnerships specialist for the National Park Service (NPS), which supervises the NWT under its National Recreation Trail initiative.
NWT’s rivers, canals, and other bodies of water guarantee public access, provision of regular boat launch spots, educational events, and a commitment towards environmental preservation. “One of the driving forces behind this initiative was to assist communities lacking convenient access to their waters,” mentions Lelia Mellen, an outdoor recreation planner at NPS. “We now have trails throughout the country.”
All trails are easily accessible for a quick afternoon dip or a few days of paddling. Here are some top spots for you to embark on your aquatic journey—either with your own kayak or a rented one.
Erie Canalway Heritage Corridor, New York State
The Erie Canal offers one of the most unique and latest paddling programs in the U.S. It spans almost the entire length of upstate New York, from Buffalo to Albany, transforming the historic Erie Canalway Heritage Corridor into a water trail accompanied by pedestrian paths along the water.
The 2021-launched ‘On the Canals’ program by New York State aims to boost recreational activities on and off the water. It includes complimentary use of kayaks and stand-up paddle boards from local rental shops for registrants. “No need to own a kayak or be a tugboat captain to enjoy this waterway,” states Shane Mahar, a spokesperson for the New York State Canal Corporation. “People kayak and then head to nearby towns for a meal or dessert.”
Essentials: Utilize the Erie Canalway Heritage Corridor map to plan your trip. Starting from Waterford, near Albany, paddle to the picturesque Peebles Island State Park or the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge in the Finger Lakes, where you could potentially spot bald eagles or elusive cerulean warblers. The Erie Canalway connects to three other historic canals—the Oswego, Champlain, and Cayuga-Seneca—or the Hudson River Greenway Water Trail, leading from Manhattan’s Battery Park to the Adirondacks.
Black Canyon Water Trail, Arizona and Nevada
This 30-mile trail traverses a less-traveled section of the Colorado River through Arizona and Nevada. Accessible through guided tours, highlights include desert vistas and Emerald Cave, a sparkling green grotto only reachable by boat, ending amidst the majestic sandstone cliffs of Eldorado Canyon on Lake Mohave.
Essentials: There’s a camping facility at historic Willow Beach and several natural hot springs in the river’s side canyons. Choose from guided trips or equipment rental from multiple outfitters.
Great Miami Riverway, Ohio
Aside from 99 miles of paddling, the Great Miami Riverway, running from Piqua to Middleton, Ohio, provides a comprehensive website with links to activities, attractions, and accommodation for extended trips.
Near Dayton, you can navigate the manmade whitewater feature at Eastwood MetroPark or relax under the Five Rivers Fountain of Lights.
Essentials: Join a tour or use the interactive map for self-guided paddling. Along the route, explore an 1805 log cabin post office in Franklin, try geocaching at Hamilton’s Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park & Museum, or enjoy a bourbon at the Century Bar.
Kitsap Peninsula Water Trail, Washington State
This 271-mile coastal water trail network in Washington State’s Puget Sound offers breathtaking views of the Seattle and Tacoma coastlines, dotted with bird-filled inlets and seal colonies.
Essentials: Join the six-mile Ride the Tide group kayak trip from Bremerton or a multi-day tour of the Hood Canal. At Port Gamble, Olympic Outdoor Center organizes tours of the nearby bioluminescent bay, which become especially popular during a full moon when each paddle stroke creates a magical sparkle in the water.
Robin Catalano, a writer and kayaker based in New York State, provided the information for this guide. Follow her on Instagram.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about National Water Trails
What is the National Water Trails system?
The National Water Trails (NWT) system, initiated in 2012, comprises 35 waterways and canals across 25 U.S. states. It offers a unique way for paddlers to explore the country.
Who oversees the National Water Trails system?
The National Park Service (NPS) oversees the National Water Trails system under its National Recreation Trail program.
What does the National Water Trails system offer?
The National Water Trails system guarantees public access, provision of regular boat launch spots, educational events, and a commitment towards environmental preservation. It provides water trails that are easily accessible for a quick afternoon dip or a few days of paddling.
What is the ‘On the Canals’ program?
‘On the Canals’ is a program launched by New York State in 2021 to boost recreational activities on and off the water. It includes complimentary use of kayaks and stand-up paddle boards from local rental shops for those who register.
What can I do along the Great Miami Riverway?
The Great Miami Riverway, running from Piqua to Middleton, Ohio, offers 99 miles of paddling. Along the route, you can explore an 1805 log cabin post office in Franklin, try geocaching at Hamilton’s Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park & Museum, or enjoy a bourbon at the Century Bar.