Go Deep, Go Long – Four Wild Paddling Destinations in the Lower 48

Four of the top wilderness paddling trips in the continental U.S.

It's no secret that I've nurtured a love affair with the rivers of the Far North. What captured me, decades ago, and what still holds me, is the potential to drop in from a bridge crossing, a railroad stop, or a bush plane and truly disappear into the wilds for weeks on end. Rarely encountering people, seeing few signs of civilization, just being there week after week without distraction.

I've argued that nothing south of the Canadian border compares, and I still believe that. There are inevitable nearby roads, cabins, towns, bridge crossings, fishing access, parks. The remote corridors simply don't cover enough ground. It is really tough to dive in and stay gone in that sweet way you can in, say, Labrador or northern Manitoba, never mind Nunavut.

That said, there are a handful of routes in the continental U.S. that come close. Places you can escape, where you can achieve that calm clarity that comes with being out long enough to shed the monkey-mind world we live in. We're not talking the solitude of the Barrenlands, mind you, but these four destinations all have the potential to capture you for weeks on end, and to hold you tight in the grasp of their wild spell.


Camping on Lake Superior in Ontario’s Pukaskwa National Park. Photo by Aaron Peterson.


LAKE SUPERIOR COAST: I paddled the entire Canadian coastline, from Grand Portage, Minn., to Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., one July. We went in sea kayaks and reveled in the pure, cold waters of that vast lake for more than three weeks. It is unquestionably the best way to experience the Superior coast, full of winding channels through polished, Precambrian rock, tributaries with waterfalls, pictograph panels, wild beaches, several national parks. There are a few places to stop for resupply, but you can be as independent and remote as you choose. If ambition and time allows, keep on circumnavigating along the U.S. side, coasting through Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and the Apostle Islands.

Kayaking toward the Lovers Leap arch on Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore near Munising, Mich. Photo by Aaron Peterson.

Logistics: Best craft – sea kayak or decked canoe; you can start and end almost anywhere along the coast; some camping restrictions may apply in state and national parks; total circumnavigation is more than 1,200 miles, allow three months for the full circuit, and wherever you paddle, plan for some wind-bound days — especially when summer turns to fall.


Standing up to take it all in in Mariscal Canyon on the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park. Photo by Nick Gottlieb.


RIO GRANDE RIVER, TEXAS: By stringing together a run that begins above Colorado Canyon, upstream of Big Bend National Park, and ends near Dryden, some 80 miles downstream of Big Bend, you can pull off a three-week desert expedition full of sheer canyons, side-hikes, hot springs, and spectacular borderland country. River levels are best in the fall and early winter, after the rainy season. The 235-mile run is punctuated by a series of dramatic canyons separated by stretches of open valley winding through panoramic Chihuahuan desert scenery. There are several National Park campgrounds, notably Rio Grande Village, where resupply is possible. Shorter trips of a week or less are possible, but the full immersion is worth it.

Paddling through the cane-choked flats of the Rio Grande below Santa Elena Canyon (the crack in the backdrop) and above Mariscal Canyon. Photo by Nick Gottlieb.

Logistics: Best craft – canoe, inflatable or small raft; best month – October; whitewater difficulty – Class I-IV; total mileage – 235, allow 18-25 days. Put-in on Texas Farm Rd. 170 at Big Bend Ranch State Natural Area Colorado Canyon River Access above Colorado Canyon, take out at ranch access at Dryden Crossing. Contact Big Bend Natural History Association for river information, maps, shuttle services, and other resources. More info on the lower canyons section.


Paddling near the end of the Yellowstone River. Photo by Aaron Black-Schmidt.


YELLOWSTONE RIVER, MONTANA: The Yellowstone loops its way across southern Montana and then north to the confluence with the Missouri River just into North Dakota. It is navigable from the Yellowstone National Park boundary to the Missouri. The first day holds the biggest whitewater challenge through the Class III "Town Stretch" near Gardiner, Montana, and Class III-IV Yankee Jim Canyon a few miles downstream. From the fishing access at the end of Yankee Jim Canyon all the way to the Missouri, the river is classic canoe water. There are some big-volume wave trains and powerful eddy currents to watch for, and the river is a vigorous flow for the entire 525-mile length. Six diversion structures punctuate the river below Billings, and several require a portage. While highways and railroads parallel much of the river's length, and private property dominates the landscape, the fact is that once on the river, all the rest fades away in the face of that lovely watery dimension. Montana stream access laws allow for camping below normal high-water marks, and there is fantastic agate and petrified wood hunting to be had on the gravel bars.

Sandbar camping on the Yellowstone River. Photo by Aaron Black-Schmidt.

Logistics: Put in at Carbella Fishing Access below Yankee Jim Canyon (it's fun to do the whitewater upstream in rafts or duckies too). Take out at the Confluence Center access at the Missouri R. confluence in North Dakota. Best craft: canoe (preferably with a deck) or touring kayak; best time: July – Sept. (runnable between March and November); Contact Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks for river maps and general information. Read more on the Yellowstone’s tenuous status as America’s longest free-flowing river.


John Carmody leads Gretchin Powers though low-lying fog along the Maine coast. Photo by Scott Martin.


MAINE ISLAND TRAIL: The Maine Island Trail is an outstanding example of collaboration between conservationists, agencies, and private land owners who have managed to stitch together a 325-mile water trail along the Atlantic coast of Maine, from Casco Bay to Machias Bay, including more than 70 islands. It is arguably the most authentic way to experience the convoluted and stunning coastline of Maine, the power of the open Atlantic, and the myriad magical spots along the way. Wave-worn rock islands, blueberry patches, seals hauled up on the rocks, seabirds, quaint communities, storm-wracked cliffs. It is, by turns, quietly beautiful, protected and settled, and truly wild, as only the open ocean can be. One day you might stop at a village café for a lobster roll and a pint, and the next you find yourself paddling against exposed cliffs that feel like the loneliest place on earth. Pick a section that works for you, or do the entire length, and adjust the level of wildness to suit your tastes.

John Carmody, no stranger to navigating Maine’s coastline, moved his passion for sailing to sea kayaking in the ’90s. Photo by Scott Martin.

Logistics: The trail extends 325 miles with endless opportunities for detours and explorations. Take a week to accomplish a piece of the route, or a month to do the entire trail. Put-ins abound along the entire route. Best craft – sea kayak. Best time of year: June – early September. Resupply options at dozens of coastal communities. Contact Maine Island Trail Association for current guidebook, safety advice and recommendations. Read more on kayaking the Maine Island Trail.


Editor-at-large Alan Kesselheim is C&K’s longest-tenured contributor, check out his latest stories and gear reviews.

— C&K’s favorite National Parks for Paddling, plus our ongoing profile series on North America’s Best Paddling Towns.