Yes, we know they call them sea kayaks. But using them strictly for ocean paddling is so, well, limiting. Thanks to those things called roof racks, we can use our sea kayaks anywhere there’s water, from Utah’s Labyrinth Canyon to Lake Champlain in Vermont. And sleek sea kayak designs allow for fast, comfortable touring and plenty of space for camping gear. So there’s no excuse not to explore inland waterways, ogling colorful mountain scenery and majestic terrestrial wildlife. Rack and roll.
Lake Washington (Seattle)
A Japanese botanical garden. The “living museum” of the Washington Park Arboretum. A hike to an old monastery. A stroll through St. Edward State Park to the last old-growth forest in Seattle. All this and the famous Emerald City skyline is yours when you paddle a sea kayak on Lake Washington, the 30-mile-long, 1.5-mile-wide body of freshwater on the east side of Seattle. “It’s the best non-wilderness paddling in the U.S.,” says Tim Leary, a guide for Seattle Raft & Kayak, which serves more than 2,000 user rentals on the lake each year. “There are tons of options, no matter where you go.”
Put in on the new, 600-foot-long, non-motorized public beach on the north shore of Magnuson Park, which was formerly a naval station. Paddle about a mile across the lake to the town and restaurants of Kirkland, or simply sea kayak the shores with your hiking shoes handy. You can also paddle through the Montlake Cut into Lake Union for views of everything from the Space Needle to sea lions, or re-provision at one of 30 lakeside bars and eateries.
Bonus: Avoid the parking mayhem at University of Washington football games by paddling. Bring a lock and look for all the other boats lining the shores of Lake Washington’s Union Bay near the Montlake Cut.
Info: seattleraftandkayak.com; 800-625-7782.
Glacier National Park (Kalispell, Montana)
It’s not as big, or as popular, as nearby Bowman Lake, but if you’re a sea kayaker looking to substitute mountains for the masses, head to Two Medicine Lake in the southeast corner of Montana’s Glacier National Park. While it’s only 2.5 miles long, meaning you don’t have to pack dry bags for an overnight, it more than makes up for its size with scenery, offering views of 8,271-foot Mt. Sinopah that will drop your jaw as you drop rudder. You can launch right from your lakeside camp at Two Medicine Campground, paddle to one of several backcountry sites near the western end of the lake, or put in at the boat launch and camp store. The Two Medicine Lake parking area also serves as the trailhead for several hikes leading into the park’s interior, including the Dawson-Pitamakin Loop, Cobalt Lake Trail and Scenic Point Trail.
Bonus: Kayak to the far end of Two Medicine Lake to enjoy hikes every bit as inspiring as the paddle over. Info: www.nps.gov/glac.
Davis and Sparks Lakes (Sunriver, Oregon)
Forget the cartoon Ducks and Beavers of Oregon’s collegiate football rivalry. You’ll find the real thing — and plenty of other wildlife — sea kayaking the shallow, crystal-clear lakes of central Oregon near Bend. Located in the high and dry climate of Oregon’s volcanic eastern Cascades, Davis and Sparks Lakes offer a dose of life-giving water amidst the volcanic cones, basalt lava flows and coniferous forests. First stop: nutrient- and fish-rich Davis, located 40 miles from Bend off the Cascade Lakes Highway (46). While a bit weedy, you won’t notice it amidst the snow-capped peaks and virtual rookery of birds, including osprey, sandpipers, kingfishers and white pelicans. Camp overnight and launch at the aptly named Lava Flow Campground. When you’ve explored Davis Lake, head to Sparks Lake, 24 miles west of Bend on U.S. Highway 46, sandwiched between the crags of Broken Top, South Sister and Mt. Bachelor. Its shallowness also makes for great birding, with paddle-in campsites welcoming weekend stays. Parking at both lakes requires either a $5 fee on site, or a Northwest Forest National Park Service Golden Eagle pass.
Bonus: Check out the ancient lava beds dotted with multi-colored wildflowers.
Labyrinth/Stillwater Canyons (Green River, Utah)
Utah’s Green River is a world-famous canoeing and rafting destination, but don’t let that dissuade you from tackling the twists and turns of Labyrinth and Stillwater Canyons in a sea kayak. Put in at Ruby Ranch and paddle 45 lazy miles to Mineral Bottom, following the wake of the wily, one-arm John Wesley Powell, who explored this stretch in 1869 on his way to the Grand Canyon. You’ll find red sandstone buttes, steep canyon walls and world-class side hikes as you wind your way through aptly named Labyrinth Canyon just above Canyonlands National Park. Continue farther through Stillwater Canyon into the heart of the park, toward the Green’s confluence with the Colorado. From Spanish Bottom, hike to the desert playground of The Maze, but beware, the take out requires either a jet-boat ferry back up the Colorado, which Moab-based outfitters can provide, or the craft and cojones to run Cataract Canyon.
Bonus: Though permits are required year round, there’s no lottery drawing — you can run it any time. (Fees: $20 for groups up to 40; www.nps.gov/cany; 435-259-4351.)
Myakka State Park (Sarasota, Florida)
As the largest state park in Florida, Myakka River State Park, just 10 miles east of Sarasota, offers some of the best inland paddling you can find in the Panhandle State. A pair of car-access campgrounds nestled beneath towering oak trees serve as your launch point, from which you’ll want three full days to explore the vast region — one for Upper Myakka Lake, one for the wildlife preserve of Lower Myakka Lake and a third day for the meandering, gator-filled Myakka River connecting the two. En route, watch for egrets, sandhill cranes and roseate spoonbills, listen and try to mimic the “Who Cooks for You” hoots of barred owls back in camp.
Bonus: When you’re done paddling, stretch your legs by hiking along a 40-foot-high, tree canopy-level walkway recently completed by the park service. Info: www.myakkariver.org.
Lake Champlain (New York/Vermont)
Hit the country’s sixth-largest — and most historic — lake if you want a dose of salt-free paddling in the northeast Adirondacks. Measuring roughly 120 miles by 12 miles, the string-bean shaped Champlain runs from Lake George on the south to the St. Lawrence River on the north, with camping and launch sites on both the New York and Vermont shores. The Lake Champlain Paddlers Trail extends the entire way, connecting a series of parks, private islands and landing areas to create a trail that traverses the entire lake. Users of the trail’s private portions must belong to the Lake Champlain Committee (www.lakechamplaincommittee.org); membership includes a map and trail guide with 30 site descriptions, from campsites in Button Bay to those in Daughters of the American Revolution State Forest and Kingsland Bay State Park. En route, you’ll kayak through a kaleidoscope of colors if you head there in the fall and even pass over countless war-related shipwrecks still preserved in the cold, fresh water.
Bonus: Prevailing winds are southerly; look for beaches north of river outlets; and wear proper footwear to thwart the razor-sharp zebra mussels.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (Munising, Michigan)
You can’t go wrong sea kayaking Michigan’s interior, with Lake Superior offering three of the best inland touring options in the country in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and Isle Royale National Park. We’re giving Pictured Rocks along Superior’s southern edge the nod this go-around, due to more than 15 miles of multi-colored sandstone cliffs rocketing 600 feet up from the lake’s lapping waters. The paddle-by palettes aren’t the only thing the area offers. The Lakeshore’s boundaries extend along 40 miles of coastline, encompassing sandy beaches, sea caves, arches and towering dunes.
Bonus: With the entire section encompassed in the North Country National Scenic Trail, you can do a day paddle or multi-day excursion by camping in the backcountry sites dotting the shoreline (permit required, $5 per person per night, lottery system beginning Jan. 1 every year). Info: www.nps.gov/piro.