Photo by Aarom Schmitt

Photo by Aaron Schmitt

Chain of Parks

Lewis and Clark National and State Historical Parks, Washington and Oregon
By Neil Schulman

“It would be distressing to a feeling person to See our Situation at this time,” wrote William Clark on November 12, 1805 at the mouth of the Columbia River.

We’re having a much better day than Captain Clark. Our kayaks are pulled ashore in Deadman’s Cove, a small nook in the cliffs of Cape Disappointment, protected from the rebounding swell and currents where the Pacific and the Columbia River meet. We’ve been following a chain of small parks created around the Corps of Discovery’s rain-drenched history: Fort Clatsop, Station Camp and Dismal Nitch and a patchwork of sites at the river’s mouth. At first blush, the Lewis and Clark National and State Historical Park lacks the unified feel of Yosemite or Zion. But the unifier is the water.

The junction of America’s fourth-largest river and the mighty Pacific also marks the terminus of the Lower Columbia Water Trail, which starts 144 miles upstream in the Columbia Gorge. It’s some of the most varied sea kayaking on the planet.

Young’s Bay, the Chinook River and Cathlamet Bay are quiet meanders through tidal marshes. Baker Bay, Adams Bay, Rice Island and Tongue Point offer an intermediate-level proving ground of shifting weather, tidal currents, and mid-channel islands. The mouth itself has ocean surf, sheer cliffs, sea caves and adrenaline. The area is rich in salmon, seals, sea lions, and bald eagles.

A visitor to Lewis and Clark often won’t know whether the area they’re paddling through is administered by the National Park Service, Oregon or Washington State Parks, Division of State Lands or other agency. Nor should they care. The paddling is great everywhere, and this little confederation offers a glimpse of the future of parks: networks of protected areas near cities. As America urbanizes, people—in this case, paddlers prominent among them—demand parks close to their homes. Lewis and Clark doesn’t have the remote rarity of Glacier Bay, but it gives paddlers of all levels access to one of the mightiest rivers in the world. “It would be distressing to a feeling person to see our situation” if a place so close to 2.5 million people were to fall off the paddling map.

Click the links below to read about paddling adventures in a few of our favorite parks around the country:

Big Bend National Park

Float through an isolated wilderness on the edge of Texas and Mexico


The Missouri National Recreational River

A journey through time in South Dakota and Nebraska


Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Paddle over the horizon line of waterfalls in Tennessee and North Carolina


Wrangell St. Elias National Park

Paddle through a seascape of water and ice in southeast Alaska


Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Explore Lake Superior’s panoramic coastline in Michigan


Ozark Scenic Riverways

A secret worth sharing in Missouri


Channel Islands National Park

Experience isolation 40 miles south of Santa Cruz, California


Grand Canyon National Park

Experience America’s 2 billion-year-old river canyon in Arizona


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The complete list of our favorite national parks for paddling


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