One of only three public-access rivers in Kansas, the 173-mile Kansas River National Water Trail's abundant paddler amenities compensate for the lack of on-water recreation opportunities elsewhere in the state. Taking the trophy for the largest prairie-based river in the world, this shallow river weaves through braided sandbars and accessible recreation communities on its way to a confluence with the Missouri River in Kansas City.

 Lawrence, Kansas is a progressive and thriving outdoor community. But like several other trail communities, it took time and persistence to build and maintain momentum around their treasured Kansas River water trail. "I grew up on the river," said Dawn Buhler, Executive Director of Friends of the Kaw (local name for the Kansas River). "To get to the water you had to live on the river, know someone who lived on the river, or trespass to get to the river." Now there are 21 public boat launches and access points every 10 to 15 miles along the entire water trail thanks to the Friends of the Kaw in partnership with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.

Kaw-blue kayak

 "It wasn't easy," says Roger Wolfe, a Regional Wildlife Supervisor who works with communities to develop access and signage. "When water-access sites were proposed, landowners concerned about people coming off the water and trespassing on their land lobbied in legislature against public access along the river." After the fact, not only were the majority of their concerns minimized, but they experienced benefits from their community's enhanced economy and health. They came to embrace the water trail the more they understood its purpose. In many cases, their property values increased.

Down the Kaw

 Two of those 21 hard-earned access points are found in the city of Lawrence, where they provide easy access to downtown restaurants, bars and activities. If you are only in town for the weekend, fill your days with paddling, biking, and amazing food. Start your day off on famous Massachusetts Street with a big breakfast at The Roost or, if you are aching to hit the water early, a delicious cup of coffee and pastry at Alchemy Coffee and Bake House. Either plan a bike shuttle for your 10-mile scenic paddle from the Perry-Leccompton Access to River Front Park in Lawrence or give Up a Creek outfitters a chance to pamper you with a boat delivery to your launch site and a speedy pickup from your takeout. On this stretch you will weave in and out of wooded islands and sandbars. Paddle a few hours back to the town or take your time and pull up on a sandbar (everything below the high-water mark is public property) for a picnic lunch.

FoK sandbar talk

 Once you are back in town, hop over to Free State Brewing (a 10- to 15-minute walk from River Front Park to downtown) where you can relax with a cold one and indulge in some of the best food in the city. "One thing you don't do in Lawrence is go hungry," laughed Kim Anspach with Explore Lawrence. Lawrence hosts several farm-to-table restaurants and takes pride in its foodie culture.

 After lunch you can glide into the water again on the nearby Clinton Reservoir or hit the Lawrence River Trails for a nine-mile rollercoaster mountain biking loop (get your rental from Sunflower Outdoor and Bike). At this point, you'll be crawling back to Massachusetts Street for more food, and The Burger Stand (gourmet burgers!) and Limestone Pizza Kitchen will be happy to feed you meals prepared with locally sourced ingredients, made with love by Lawrence's finest chefs.

 If you're looking for a kitschy, pampered paddling experience, check out Halcyon House Bed & Breakfast or the Eldridge Hotel. Built in 1855 and burned down twice, the Eldridge Hotel is a Lawrence novelty. If you're looking for a more rugged adventure, you can camp anywhere along the Kansas River below the high-water mark for free without a reservation or a permit. You can even through-paddle the whole river in less than a week. Pack in, pack out, leave no trace, but other than that, go crazy! (That is, while still respecting the nearby residents, of course, some of whom may still be skeptical of the hooligans on the water trail.) 

So what's next for the Kansas River? There are new access sites in the works and plans to improve amenities at existing launches to include better restrooms, kiosks about the river, and tourism opportunities for paddlers. There is also talk of creating a cache system for people paddling a larger section of the river to store water or food to pick up along their journey. The powerful collaboration between community members, nonprofits, and government agencies will continue to produce innovative ideas and projects to cater to the paddler's experience on the Kansas River. Next time you are on a trail, pour one out for the people who fought to make that trail a reality. But remember to leave no trace, so maybe just pour out some water from your Nalgene. Preferably on a thirsty plant or shrub.

Kaw Sunrise

— Each month, Natalie Warren will highlight a different North American town making positive strides toward community and infrastructure developments catering to recreational paddling. In 2011, Warren was one of the first two women to paddle 2,000 miles from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay, recreating Eric Sevareid's route from Canoeing With the Cree. The journey earned a nomination for the Canoe & Kayak Awards' 2012 Expedition of the Year.
Warren's nonprofit Wild River Academy works with communities across the country to increase paddlesports tourism and experiential learning opportunities on their local rivers, presenting 'urban' rivers as a natural, dynamic classroom for youth. Currently a River Steward for Wisconsin's St.Croix River Association, Warren has also worked with the River Management Society, finding ways to increase awareness about the economic benefits of water trails, and with it, paddlesports tourism.

Check out Warren’s previous installments of the (Next) Best Paddling Towns:

— Paddle downstream, both ways, on the Waccamaw River in Conway, S.C.

— A bayou tour through Cajun country in Breaux Bridge, La.

— Mid-Atlantic rivers and bays in Snow Hill, Maryland

— A range of paddling options along the Huron River in Ann Arbor, Michigan

— Check out C&K‘s full list of North America’s Top Paddling Towns