From Poulsbo, Washington to Snow Hill, Maryland, North America's (Next) Best Paddling Towns are increasing access to waterways and amenities for paddlers to better explore our beautiful country by boat. Innovative ideas like the very first Paddle Share in Minneapolis to the kayak lockers in Ann Arbor show the trend toward paddlesports recreation, especially in more urban areas where paddlers can combine the comforts of modern life with their passion of getting out on the water.
C&K Contributing Editor Natalie Warren just returned from a road trip through the Upper Midwest to learn more about local paddling routes and the communities working toward a paddle-centric future (you can follow her on Instagram @bestpaddlingtowns). Natalie traveled to seven towns and cities over two weeks to share beta on where to paddle, eat, and play in the Upper Midwest.
Seven Next Best Paddling Towns in the Upper Midwest
Ashland is a gateway to paddling Lake Superior and the Apostle Islands. Solstice Outdoors has a brand new building on the beach complete with an outfitter, five lakeview hotel rooms, and a restaurant — everything you need for a paddling vacation! Big lakes can be intimidating to paddle due to strong winds and unpredictable weather, but Chequamegon Bay provides a safe and protected place for paddlers of all levels to explore Lake Superior's blue waters and sandstone cliffs. Choose your own adventure in the bay or paddle into Fish Creek for even more protected paddling through wooded backwaters (a great spot for birding) near the Whittlesey Creek National Wildlife Refuge. If the river calls you, the Wild and Scenic Namekagon River's riffles and twists await paddlers just a 45-minute drive south of Ashland near Chequamegon National Forest, where it flows 100 miles from Namekagon Lake to its confluence with the St. Croix River.
Ashland is the perfect home base for paddling Lake Superior's scenic coastline, the Apostle Islands to the north, and iconic inland waterways to the south. It is a small but vibrant college town complete with quality coffee at Black Cat coffeehouse, craft beers at Southside Brewery, a local food co-op (stock up on snacks for paddling), and an array of restaurants, all on the water in its quaint walkable, bike-able, and paddle-able downtown.
Mackinac Island, MI
Mackinac Island is a perfect getaway from the city. Cars are replaced with horses and bikes, and kayakers can paddle its eight-mile coastline through the crystal blue waters of Lake Huron. The island is an international hotspot for visitors who want to travel back in time to a world where there is no traffic, every storefront has fudge, and your biggest worries are finding new spots to bike, paddle, and eat every day (or is that the future?). Bring your own boat to explore the islands or schedule a trip with Great Turtle Kayak Tours on the vast lake, where paddling opportunities are endless.
The AuSable River flows through the heart of Grayling on its 138-mile journey to Lake Huron. It is home to the AuSable River Canoe Marathon, the longest (120 miles!) nonstop, canoe-only race in North America. The eight mile stretch of river from downtown Grayling to Burton's Landing makes for a great day trip for experts and novices alike. In this section, the river is narrow, winding and heavily wooded, allowing paddlers to feel like they are all alone on this well traveled waterway. Grayling is a small town that caters to paddlers. From the river-themed beer at Paddle Hard Brewing to the paddles in the window at Thanks a Latte coffee shop, the small town makes paddlers feel welcome while providing essential amenities. Choose one of several outfitters in town for all of your boating and shuttling needs, ranging from two hours on the water to multi-day trips through pristine wilderness all the way to Lake Huron.
Lansing residents have slyly kept their thriving city a secret. Like Detroit, Lansing has lived through the rise and fall of the automobile industry. A decade ago, it may not have made it on a 'next best' list. But while no one was watching, the city bounced back with hip downtown breweries and restaurants, a revitalized downtown riverfront, and connected bike and water trails on the Grand River, making it one of the coolest undiscovered spots in the Upper Midwest for a paddling vacation. River Town Adventures is conveniently located downtown on the Grand River, making it easy to combine the natural views from the water with the delicious brews on land. Their shuttle bus, which doubles as a party bus (complete with party lights and a bumping sound system), can take paddlers to more scenic sections of the Grand River to paddle by Verlen Kruger's old house or to float right up to Grand Ledge, the best outdoor climbing rock in town.
South Bend, IN
The parks, trails, and restaurants along St. Joseph's River through South Bend are a perfect recipe for paddle and pedal adventures. Lime Bikes scattered throughout the city eliminate the need for a two-car shuttle. For a day paddle, lock your boats at Veterans Park and drive to to Fremont Park where you'll hop on nearby Lime Bikes and ride the five miles back to the city on the bike path, passing a whitewater park and restaurants and that await you later in the day. Back at Veterans Park, exchange the bikes for your boat and paddle the slow and peaceful water above the dam, complete the short and well-marked portage over the dam, and enjoy the faster current and scenic views below all the way back to your car. Grab lunch and craft brews at the Crooked Ewe on the river before attempting the East River Race, a whitewater adventure right in downtown South Bend. If you're still itching to be on the water at night, put in at the boathouse dock north of the dam to experience the colored lights beneath the Jefferson Bridge. Floating in a purple haze and gazing at the water's reflection dancing on the stone arches on a still night is hands down the best way to spend an evening in South Bend.
The Rock River Water Trail flows 320 miles through 37 communities from Fond du Lac, WI to its confluence with the Mississippi in Rock Island, IL. Beloit is a perfect spot for paddlers to experience a section of that nationally designated water trail paired with modern comforts in a charming college town that is bursting at the seams with new restaurants, kitchy riverfront hotels, and lively festivals all summer long. Hop on the water at Nature at the Confluence, Beloit's new nature center, on Turtle Creek and paddle seven miles to Macktown Preserve near Rockton on the Rock River. Be sure to stop in to Dairyhäus for some homemade ice cream after a hot day on the water. If you're in the area on a weekend check out their events calendar for live music, outdoor movies, and festivals all summer long!
Stillwater has successfully combined the high standards of big city restaurants and amenities with a historic small town feel. Visitors could spend all day exploring the old brick buildings populated with high end restaurants like Lolo American Kitchen and Craft Bar, antique boutiques, an abundance of ice cream shops and craft beer Maple Island Brewing. But just beyond the more touristy attractions on Main Street, the Wild and Scenic St. Croix River flows quietly through the city — a door to the outdoors, waiting to be explored. Book a tour or rent boats or bikes from Diro Outdoors in Stillwater to get on the river or put your boat in at one of the many access sites in and around Stillwater. Further north near Taylors Falls, dramatic rock cliffs and glacial potholes await paddlers for a day trip or overnight adventure with paddle-in campsites every few miles on the St. Croix River Water Trail. Stillwater is the gateway to endless exploration of the St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers, where paddlers can float the pristine waters of one of our nation's protected waterways by day, and indulge in artful cocktails and creative tapas by night.
More of North America's (Next) Best Paddling Towns:
- River adventures converge with modern comforts in Rome, Georgia
- The secrets of a substantial water trail in San Antonio, Texas
- Like an endless buffet, they’ve got it all in Sacramento, CA
- Tranquil waters that helped shape our nation’s history in Phoenixville, PA.
- The sky's the limit along the Great Miami Riverway in Dayton, OH
- 37 miles of managed water trail on the New River near Pembroke, VA.
- An urban paddling gem with infrastructure for Twin Cities paddlers.
- Explore the country’s second largest delta near Mobile, Ala.
— Check out C&K‘s full list of North America’s Top Paddling Towns