This story appeared in the 2013 Beginner’s Guide issue.
By Conor Mihell
Day-trips are paddling gateways. They mark the transition from casual after-work paddles to the soul-altering journeys of discovery that make sea kayaking, canoeing, and whitewater lifelong pursuits. The skills you learn from day-tripping—gear selection, navigation, group dynamics and more complex paddle strokes to handle your craft in varying conditions—will serve you well in the future, and pave the way to longer overnight and multi-day trips.
Before you dive into this list of our favorite day-trip destinations, heed this warning: You are about to take the first step toward becoming hopelessly addicted to paddling.
Easy Eastern Whitewater
The French Broad River flows steadily through the thick, primeval forest surrounded by the beautiful mountains of Western North Carolina. This Class I and II section is perfect for novice whitewater kayakers and canoeists. Expect fiery fall colors or, in the leaf-free shoulder seasons, spectacular views.
Local knowledge: Headwaters Outfitters
Sea Kayaking an Inland Sea
A 10-mile day trip circumnavigating Government Island touches on the best of Lake Michigan's Les Cheneaux Islands, a sea kayaking paradise recognized by the Nature Conservancy as an important coastal ecosystem of wetlands, sandy shores and mature forests. Launch at the public dock off of M-134, north of the Mackinac Bridge near Hessel, Mich. Paddle three miles of sheltered water linking Hill, Coryell and Number 8 islands to Government, where you'll find great lunch spots (and three first-come, first-served campsites). It's another six miles to paddle around Government's undeveloped shoreline and to retrace your route back to the launch.
Local knowledge: Woods and Waters Ecotours
Dozens of crystal-clear, spring-fed rivers feed into Florida's often-forgotten northern gulf coast, near Tallahassee. The 10-mile run on the Wacissa River appeals to sea kayakers and canoeists alike and captures the best of the region, including Big Blue Springs, a 60-foot-deep upwelling the size of an Olympic swimming pool, a variety of wildlife including alligators and eagles, and massive, prehistoric-looking cypress trees. You'll have to jockey vehicles for the one-way trip from Wacissa Headsprings Landing, southeast of Tallahassee, to the public campground at Goose Pasture.
Local knowledge: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation, myfwc.com
The Heart of Canoe Country
Algonquin Park, Ontario
Draining the southwest side of Ontario's Algonquin Provincial Park, the Oxtongue River is a remarkably quiet and pristine antidote to the mid-summer business of Canada's favorite canoeing destination. Rent a canoe from Algonquin Outfitters on Oxtongue Lake and arrange a shuttle to the put-in on Highway 60, then spend the day tracing 12 miles of meandering river back to the outfitters' doorstep. En route you'll encounter several easy sections of swift water and two portages around secluded Gravel Falls (a great spot for lunch) and towering Ragged Falls. Make it a 25-mile overnight trip by starting at Canoe Lake.
Local knowledge: Algonquin Outfitters, algonquinoutfitters.com
Santa Cruz, Calif.
Elkhorn Slough is a six-mile-long saltwater marsh located between Santa Cruz and Monterey, California, that's famous among wildlife watchers for its rich array of biological diversity. Depending on the tide, sea kayakers can put-in at the public launch at Moss Landing or from the docks of Kayak Connection, a local outfitter. Since the afternoon wind usually blows onshore, it's also possible to launch farther inland at Kirby Park and paddle out to the coast in the morning calm and enjoy a tailwind on the return trip. You'll see dozens of bird species including pelicans, hawks and harriers; sea lions, leopard sharks and harbor seals; and maybe even a bobcat or mountain lion on shore.
Local knowledge: Kayak Connection
Essential Gear: Just because it's a day-trip doesn't mean you shouldn't prepare for every possibility. Besides the PFD, bailer or pump, whistle and throwbag that you carry on every outing, pack a lightweight tarp for shelter, map and compass (or GPS), extra layers, food and freshwater, firestarters, first aid kit, and a simple repair kit consisting of, at minimum, duct tape and a multi-tool. Carry one spare paddle for every four paddlers.
Guided or Self-Guided: Even if you think have the appropriate gear and the skills, going guided can enhance the experience with paddling instruction and local knowledge. If you decide to go it alone, research and plan your route in advance using guidebooks, online resources and topographic maps or marine charts to identify danger zones, landings and contingency access points.
Day-trip Distances: The amount of distance you can cover in a day varies depending on river currents and ocean tides, wind, weather, rapids, portages, scenery, and the number and fitness level of your group. In general, even fit paddlers should keep limit day trips to less than 15 miles; cut this maximum in half for family trips.
Group Dynamics: Make sure everyone in your group has the same expectations before heading out. Things will go south fast if one member of your party wants to fish, bird-watch or relax while another is training for the Ironman.
Juggling Logistics: In general, meeting at the takeout, leaving one or more vehicles (with a good supply of dry clothes, cold beverages and greasy snacks) and carpooling to the put-in is the easiest way to handle the shuttle. Just be sure to keep track of keys to save yourself from major headaches. Your best bet is to hire an outfitter if you're traveling in a single vehicle; or be sure to leave yourself plenty of time if you choose to bike or hitchhike the shuttle.