By Eugene Buchanan
The National Trail System now has three new water trails in its mix, bringing the total to 14 nationally recognized waterways where sea kayaks and canoes replace hiking boots. The three new water trails—recently signed into the National Trail System by Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell—include Michigan’s Island Loop Route Water Trail, Iowa’s Red Rock Water Trail, and South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa’s Missouri National Recreation River Water Trail.
“The designation of national water trails helps to strengthen local efforts for recreation, conservation and restoration of America’s waterways and surrounding lands,” says Corita Waters of the National Parks Service, which oversees the National Water Trails System. “National water trails are the pathways of rivers, lakes and bays, providing a connection for current and future generations to the nature, history and adventure that can be found on the water.”
Adds NPS Director Jonathan B. Jarvis: “These national water trails provide exemplary close-to-home places for people to explore and enjoy. I’m happy to have these trails added to the system. They’re cooperatively supported and sustained through the efforts of community, state and federal partners.”
Below, we break down these new additions to the National Trails System.
The Island Loop Route (Michigan)
Why It Became a Trail: Marking Michigan’s first-ever water trail to join the National Water Trail System, the 10.2-mile Island Loop in St. Clair County provides a unique recreational paddling opportunity along parts of Lake Huron, a canal, and two rivers. It leads from the Black River to the Black River canal, to Lake Huron, to the St. Clair River and then back into the Black River, taking you through four different bodies of water. En route, you’ll pass Michigan’s oldest lighthouse, drift over rare sturgeon spawning habitat and glide under the Blue Water Bridge leading to Ontario, Canada. “The reason I submitted the Island Loop route is because of all the neat features along the route,” maintains Lori Eschenburg of St. Clair County Metropolitan Planning and an administrator for the Blueways of St. Clair website that promotes and maps 16 paddling trails in St. Clair County, including the Island Loop.
Why You Should Go: Where else do you have the chance to paddle a water trail that follows an international border? Besides, consider the testimony for it given to the local newspaper by former St. Clair County circuit judge Peter Deegan, who paddles it every year: “It’s one of my favorite trails.” The trail also passes the Fort Gratiot Light Station, Thomas Edison Depot, the Huron Lightship Museum and the Great Lakes Maritime Center, and traverses about 2.5 miles of international waterways.
How/When to Get There: A great paddle anytime it’s warm (April – September, weather permitting). Begin at North River Road Park in St. Clair County. Head downriver and then east up the Canal to the left. You’ll enter Lake Huron after passing under the Tainter Gate. Then paddle under the Blue Water Bridges, along the international border with Canada while in the St. Clair River. Next, enter the mouth of the Black River through the City of Port Huron and back to River Front Park. You can also begin and end at the new Bakers Field Park in Port Huron Township.
The Missouri National Recreation River Water Trail (South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa)
Why It Became a Trail: This 147-mile stretch of the Missouri River marks the border between Nebraska and South Dakota, as well as Iowa and Nebraska, and is one of the few portions of the river that flows naturally. Home to bountiful fish and bald eagles, the stretch boasts scenery and solitude, which is largely why locals campaigned for its inclusion in the trails system. Its inclusion owes itself largely to its historic significance as lying along the Lewis and Clark route. “A lot of trails in the system are designed to help usher the fact that we used to travel by water,” says the National Water Trails System’s Corita Waters. “Plus, there are a lot of different land ownerships along this stretch , so it’s important to help people realize that they can actually help paddle it and connect the dots. On a lot of these trails we’re trying to help provide public information for people and the Missouri National Recreation River Water Trail is a perfect example of that.”
Locals are excited for the additional exposure it will bring to the trail. “To be accepted is truly an honor for us,” says local NPS biologist Lisa Yager. “More people are going to be aware that the Missouri National Recreational River is here, which will open it up to a whole new wave of recreation and visitors. We’re excited and hope this new designation opens up people to a resource that they never knew was here.”
Why You Should Go: Are you kidding? Where else do you get the chance to paddle the waters that Lewis and Clark traveled? It takes you through some of the last natural stretches of America’s longest river, including already designated Wild and Scenic stretches of the Missouri, and lets you view scenery that Lewis and Clark recorded in their journals more than 200 years ago. Plus, it makes a great multi-day trip in a canoe or sea kayak, with savannah-like camping along the way. The 147-mile trail includes the 98 miles of the Missouri National Recreational River (MNRR), a unit of the National Park Service and the Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Beyond the MNRR segment, the trail also covers one of the Missouri River reservoirs (Lewis and Clark Lake) and a “semi-channelized” stretch of the Missouri River from Ponca State Park to Sioux City, Iowa. The section includes a sampling of free-flowing river, reservoir and semi-channelized river, with its free-flowing sections within the National Park offering glimpses of the pre-dam Missouri with a wide, meandering channel, islands, sandbars and more.
How/When to Get There: The Missouri National Recreational River Water Trail begins at Fort Randall Dam near Pickstown, S.D., and extends to Sioux City, Iowa. Many call this section of river the “Middle Missouri River” as it’s above the lower channelized reach and mostly below the large dams/reservoirs. Portions of the trail are in South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa. Paddle bits and pieces, or the entire stretch, from May through September (earlier or later weather dependent). Many camping options exist, including established campground and primitive camping at access points and sandbars/islands. The water trail is a mix of private and public lands.
The Red Rock Water Trail (Iowa)
Why It Became a Trail: This 36-mile loop on Knoxville, Iowa’s Lake Red Rock, the state’s largest lake, allows paddlers of all skill levels to stroke by sandstone bluffs while partaking in some of the best bird-watching in the country. The lake encompasses more than 50,000 acres, with rampant spring and fall migrations of waterfowl and other bird species, as well as dense eagle populations. It also has historical significance. When the reservoir was built by the Army Corps., it buried a historic frontier town that now lies beneath its surface. “One of the reasons we chose to add it to the system is to help tell its history as an interpretive space,” says the National Water Trails System’s Corita Waters. “We also don’t have a lot of lakes in the system, so it was nice to add a different type of water body to the trails system.”
Why You Should Go: As well as taking paddlers past wildlife, scenic bluffs and more, the Red Rock Water Trail also lets canoeists and kayakers tour past—and into—a water cave and explore several historical landmarks along shore. Remnants of abandoned frontier towns can also be seen, providing a waterside glimpse into the our nation’s settlement history. “Paddlers are treated to spectacular views of bluffs, hardwood forests, a multitude of wildlife and Iowa’s largest lake,” maintains Park Ranger Tracy Spry. “And you can paddle on the water trail during all months of the year, as long as the lake isn’t frozen.”
How/When to Get There: The trail is managed by Lake Red Rock in partnership with the Red Rock Lake Association. It’s paddleable year-round, as long as it’s ice-free. The best times to go are May through October. Access it in Knoxville, Iowa, at one of eight access points located near its many campgrounds, many which are named after towns like Red Rock that were located on the banks of the Des Moines River before Lake Red Rock was built (hint: get an old timer to share stories of the towns beneath the lake). Bonus: Every June, there’s an annual race up the 100-foot Cordova Observation Tower. Time to beat: 30 seconds.