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Everyone should spend a week paddling in a canoe, if not every year, at least once in their life. There’s no better way to get to know someone than being stuck in the same boat for days on end, and it’s been the boat of choice for hunters and anglers for centuries. There are paddling routes all across the world, and many in your backyard. Some will challenge you as a paddler, while others can help you and your family relax.
After a few trips under your belt you may end up falling in love with canoe tripping. You’ll know it’s too late if you find that your belt has been replaced by an NRS cam strap.
This is not a definitive list. There are too many gorgeous places to paddle and not enough time, but these North American canoe trips are a good place to start.
The Elements of a Great Canoe Trip
A canoe trip is flexible. You can float lazily down a river, chatting with your friends or you can suffer through a hellish portage in the snow for days on end. It can be whatever you want. I will say that a grueling portage helps to make a trip memorable. The same goes for tricky weather, exciting rapids, and killer fishing conditions. Oh, and bugs.
Tandem paddling and tough portages can bring you closer or make you start whacking each other with your paddle. Make sure your paddling crew works well together. Carry an extra paddle in each boat in case you break or lose your main paddle, and make sure everyone wears a life jacket. Explain the route carefully before you start so everyone knows what to expect.
Always make sure to have a warm, dry change of clothes when you get into camp. No matter how gnarly it gets on the water, a toasty pair of socks waiting for you at the end of the day can help you get through it. A big bag of trail mix (the kind with M&Ms!) in each boat helps too.
If you’re worried about navigating your route, or just want some help on the water, hire a guide or outfitter.
1. Northern Forest Canoe Trail, New England
A group of friends and I paddled the first two sections of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT) a few years back and I’ve been itching to go back to complete the rest. I’ve also paddled section 12, the famous Allagash River, in Maine. The beauty of the NFCT is that I can keep picking these trips off section by section, or choose to paddle all thirteen sections at once to cover the entire 740 mile route like an AT thru-hiker. The trail starts in Old Forge, NY and finishes in Fort Kent, Maine. The NFCT covers 23 rivers and streams, 59 lakes and ponds, and 65 portages (a little more than 70 miles) and is the longest inland water trail in the United States. This is as classic as canoe country paddling gets, with the trail following traditional Native American travel routes.
2. Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota
More classic canoe country, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness has over 1,200 miles of paddling routes. At 1 million acres in size, you can spend a month in the backcountry of northeastern Minnesota and still barely scratch the surface. There are thousands of lakes and streams and you can spend your nights at one of over 2,000 designated campsites. Bring smores, you’ll want to watch the stars all night long.
3. Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia
A canoe can be just as at home down in the swamp as in the North Woods. Paddle through the black swamp waters of Georgia’s Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge to watch colorful birds and curious alligators. A photographer friend, Chris Funk, has been telling me to paddle the Okefenokee for years. “It’s a place that is so wild; man tried to tame it and failed,” he says. “The beauty of that place burns deep in the hearts of the folks that visit those black waters.”
4. Buffalo National River, Arkansas
The standout character of my time on the Buffalo National River in the beautiful Ozark region of Arkansas was the smallmouth bass. Even the smallest bass I caught that week were feisty as hell and brilliantly colored. There are many route options for paddlers looking for a multi-day float, with a total of 132 river miles beginning in the town of Ponca. Head there for the fishing, but make sure to enjoy the tall bluffs on this scenic river.
5. Green River, Utah
If north country whitewater or alligator swamps aren’t your speed, paddle one of the best flatwater routes in the country on the Green River in Utah. Start in the town of Green River Utah and paddle 120 miles to the confluence of the Colorado River. Most people can complete the trip in 3-5 days, but make sure to plan time to hike the surrounding country. The giant rock formations of Labyrinth and Stillwater Canyons will keep you awestruck.
6. Tuolumne River, California
Designated a Wild & Scenic river in 1984, California’s Tuolumne River starts in the High Sierra mountains and runs for 62 miles before it enters the Stanislaus National Forest. Besides the gorgeous views, like lush meadows between glacially carved canyons, there is also a chance for serious paddlers to test their skill. Starting From Lumsden Bridge to Wards Ferry a series of tricky rapids run one after another for 18 miles. If you’d rather run it than portage it, this may be the route for you.
7. Noatak River, Alaska
On a list of the best canoe trips in North America, of course you have to include one within the largest undisturbed watershed on the continent: the Noatak River in Alaska. You have almost 400 miles of river to plan your route on, but if you’re going to paddle the whole thing (why not, right?) a good place to put in is Kotzebue. There’s also the option to split it up and come back again year after year. It is after all a clear, arctic river with serious fishing and great wildlife, like bear, sheep, caribou, and musk ox.
8. Wabakimi Provincial Park, Ontario
With over 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) of some of the best wilderness canoeing routes in the world, Wabakimi Provincial Park must be explored over a lifetime. You just have to keep going back. There’s plenty of action for whitewater paddlers, chances to explore the park’s long cultural history of Indigenous communities, and of course the fishing. Fly-in lodges put their clients on giant walleye and northern pike, but spending a week (or more) there in a canoe means you’ll have first dibs at all the best spots.
9. Nahanni River, Northwest Territories
Spend two weeks in the backcountry of Canada’s Northwest Territories on the classic Nahanni River. This river features Virginia Falls, a waterfall nearly twice the height of Niagara Falls. It also takes paddlers through some of Canada’s deepest river canyons, leads them past hot springs and other unique geological features. This river is so legendary that the United Nations declared the Nahanni River first World Heritage Site in 1978.
10. The Bowron Lakes Circuit, British Columbia
Paddle along the western slopes of the Cariboo Mountain Range in Bowron Lake Provincial Park. The Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit is world-renowned among paddlers, connecting 116 kilometers (72 miles) of lakes, waterways, and portages through the wilderness. You can spend 10 days paddling the whole circuit, or just paddle 2 to 4 days on the west side of the circuit.
Remember, sometimes the portages between each lake are the best part, at least they are later when you’re talking about them to your coworkers back in the real world.