As the song goes, it’s been a long, long lonely winter. Now the sun is out and it’s finally time to celebrate the season we’ve all been waiting for. Here in rough thawing order are six classic spring paddling routes.
Calusa Blueway, Florida
Signs of civilization disappear in the watery horizons and verdant green shores of the Calusa Blueway, a 190-mile network of paddling routes on the Gulf of Mexico coastline and rivers of Lee County. Come late winter, Estero Bay, near Fort Myers, is an oasis for manatees, which seek out pockets of warmer water at river mouths. For most paddlers, encounters with Florida’s iconic “sea cow” inevitably turn into a longer journey: The Calusa comprises miles- long white sand beaches, island-pocked mangrove labyrinths and quiet rivers oozing with Old Florida charm. If you’re yearning for something more remote, head north to the open horizons of Pine Island Sound, where Cayo Costa State Park offers paddle-in campsites.
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE: calusablueway.com
Black Canyon, Nevada/Arizona
The newly designated Colorado River’s Black Canyon National Water Trail traces the Arizona-Nevada border for 30 miles, from the base of Hoover Dam to the tailwaters of Lake Mohave. In March, desert wildflowers light up the stark, otherworldly geology, and the canyon’s hot springs melt away lingering memories of winter. Put-in below the monolithic Hoover Dam (reserve a launching permit in advance from a local outfitter) and keep your eyes peeled for bighorn sheep. The 12-mile float through Black Canyon to Willow Beach can be done in one day or three, depending on how much you choose to hike and relax in the sauna cave and various thermal pools. For a longer trip, continue downstream to the takeout at Eldorado Canyon.
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE: blackcanyonwatertrail.org
Bartram Canoe Trail, Alabama
Spring comes early in southern Alabama, where the Mobile-Tensaw delta teems with waterfowl and amphibians heralding winter’s end. “What a sylvan scene is here,” wrote William Bartram, the naturalist who explored America’s second-largest river delta for England’s King George before the revolution. Bartram had orders to catalogue every species of plant and animal he encountered, and most are still found in the delta’s estuarine marshes, cypress- tupelo swamps and forests of bottomland hardwood. The Bartram Canoe Trail includes 13 designated routes through this 250,000 acre maze of bayous, rivers and lakes. The routes link six access points with campsites on land and floating platforms, creating a host of paddling options.
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE: outdooralabama.com/bartram-canoe-trail
Cape Lookout National Seashore, North Carolina
Cape Lookout encompasses 56 miles of undeveloped barrier islands from Ocracoke Inlet southwest to Beaufort Inlet. This is a sea kayaker’s playground, with sheltered water on Core and Back sounds and surf waves on the outer Atlantic coast. Launch from the Harkers Island visitor center, where common loons and other seabirds spend the winter in the marshy estuary at the mouths of the North River and Goose Bay–though at this time of year, loons rarely make the haunting wails heard in their northern summer haunts. From Harkers Island, the 150-year-old Cape Lookout Lighthouse beckons you to the outer islands, which provide access to the open coast and backcountry beach camping at Whale Creek and Codds Creek.
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE: nps.gov/calo
Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
The National Park Service calls Mammoth Cave a “grand, gloomy and peculiar place.” But the stately forests cloaking central Kentucky are hardly a dismal sight in early April, when the delicate buds of hardwood trees tint the landscape minty green. Most people visit Mammoth to explore the world’s longest network of caves, meaning you won’t have to battle for space on nearby waterways. The Green River flows slowly for 20 miles between Dennison Ferry and Houchins Ferry with a handful of backcountry campsites along the way, often with intriguing limestone caves and sand beaches. As you bask in the glow of spring, watch for osprey, wild turkey and deer along the Green’s densely forested banks.
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE: nps.gov/maca
Driftless Area, Wisconsin
The steep river valleys of southwestern Wisconsin’s Driftless Area stand out from the otherwise pancake-flat Midwest. The meandering Kickapoo River crawls with tourists in the summer, but in the spring it’s the exclusive haunt of diehard anglers and bird watchers. Just after ice-out in early April, paddlers get the upper hand in catching feisty brookies and brown trout. Bring your binoculars too: The river valley is part of the Mississippi Flyway, a migratory superhighway for everything from warblers to tundra swans and American white pelicans. Float 10 miles from Ontario to Rockton, past quaint farm fields and 100-foot sandstone bluffs. For a long-weekend trip, continue to the Kickapoo’s confluence with the Wisconsin River.
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE: Driftlesswisconsin.com
— This story first appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Canoe & Kayak
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