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5 Beginner-Friendly Canoe (or Kayak) Camping Trips

Think a multiday paddling adventure has to be all about whitewater thrills? Heck, no. Sure, there’s a lot to be said for the adrenaline ride of gnarly rapids. But beginner paddlers—and, truly, even experienced river runners—can eke just as much reward from a camping excursion on a gentler, non-technical stream.

Getting your feet wet (if you will) with a few days on an accessible Class I river isn’t just about laying the groundwork for future whitewater exploits or the most back-of-beyond wilderness paddling. A lazy flow with plenty of flatwater—maybe riffled with a few shoals here and there to mix up the rhythm—gives you more freedom to soak up the scenery and eases you into a refreshingly mellow, even meditative, frame of mind. Easy paddle strokes, lots of quality time just floating downstream, drifting ashore for an unhurried evening at a point bar or riverbank campsite: It’s a truly hopeless adrenaline junkie who can’t fall under the spell of a tamer current.

In no particular order, let’s float our way down a few fine rivers for beginner canoe (and kayak) campers, from the Driftless Area of the Upper Midwest to the heart of the Ozarks.

The Congaree River Blue Trail

A landscape view of the Congaree River, with a river bank exposed and trees in the background The incredibly placid waters of the Congaree River. Photo by Congaree National Park(Se abre en una ventana nueva)

Most of South Carolina’s Congaree River, a 50-mile stretch of it, earned National Recreation Trail status in 2008. The Congaree River Blue Trail(Se abre en una ventana nueva) offers paddlers the chance to segue from an urban waterway—the official start is the Gervais Street Bridge in Columbia, S.C.—into one of America’s superlative “swamplands”: the country’s biggest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest, actually, protected in underappreciated Congaree National Park.

The abundant sandbars below the Fall Line, plus Laurel Oak Backcountry Campsite in Congaree National Park, offer convenient campsites. (Be cognizant of shifting river levels if tenting on a sandbar.) And opportunities for onshore exploration abound, especially within the national park; take-outs here afford access to some 20 miles of hiking trails through the impressively diverse—and rather skyscraping—riverine forest, which includes some very hefty loblolly pines, cherrybark oaks, bald-cypresses, and other bottomland trees. At one point, the trail runs between Congaree National Park to one side and, on the other, Congaree Bluffs Heritage Preserve, where bluffs loom better than 150 feet above the river.

The Buffalo National River

Two paddlers off in the distance on a river, with bluffs in the background and trees on either side Below the bluffs of the Buffalo. Photo by David Brossard(Se abre en una ventana nueva)

Spectacular Ozark scenery awaits along the undammed Buffalo, the nation’s very first National River and still one of its great paddling destinations(Se abre en una ventana nueva). Some 135 miles of National Park Service-managed corridor tempt canoeists and kayakers, who can camp on gravel bars or up on higher ground (following the riverway’s backcountry-camping regulations, naturally).

Huge limestone, dolomite, and sandstone bluffs loom over the Buffalo’s bends. The most popular paddle here is the roughly 24-mile reach in the river’s upper district between Ponca and Pruitt Landing, which includes such iconic formations as Roark and Big bluffs (and lures paddlers on a short hike to see 200-foot Hemmed-In Hollow Falls) and has some semi-spicy low-grade rapids. But incredible views also await on the lower, generally super-gentle stretches downstream, not least on the lesser-visited twists through the Lower Buffalo Wilderness.

The Upper Iowa River

Paddling the Upper Iowa River(Se abre en una ventana nueva)—the first stream to earn a National Wild & Scenic River nomination—reveals a hidden grandeur to the Hawkeye State, which many incorrectly envision as just one vast, unrelenting corn/soybean flat. The free-flowing Upper Iowa runs more than 150 miles from its headwaters in southern Minnesota to its mouth in the Mississippi, and its bluff-land course through the Paleozoic Plateau/Driftless Area of northeastern Iowa makes one of the Midwest’s stone-cold classic paddle trips.

You’ve got multiple itineraries to choose from, but the roughly 30-mile reach between Kendallville and Decorah, where the Upper Iowa horseshoe-bends its way through entrenched meanders, is the most celebrated. And no surprise why: The scenery mounts into killer territory, thanks to limestone cliffs and pillars such as the Chimney Rocks and the Bluffton Palisades—a half-mile-long white wall nearly 300 feet tall—as well as the weeping waterfall of Malanaphy Springs.

A series of mostly private campgrounds offer convenient overnighting along the Upper Iowa. In terms of technical challenge, the flow tends toward the ‘riffle’ rather than the ‘rapids’ end of the spectrum.

The Upper Missouri River

A landscape view of the Missouri River, with rolling hills in the background The Upper Missouri River Breaks covers about 375,000 acres of BLM land in central Montana. Photo by BLM(Se abre en una ventana nueva)

Roll through a riverscape rich with the cultural heritage of native cultures such as the Blackfeet Nation and the White Clay/Gros Ventre on the glorious Upper Missouri, which anchors some of the wildest and most surreally beautiful country in the Great Plains. About 150 river miles are classified as National Wild and Scenic and fall within the BLM-managed Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument(Se abre en una ventana nueva).

This is an easy Class I paddle through stark, remote, history-drenched (and once bison-thronged) country. The best-known stretch being the “White Cliffs” section between Coal Banks and Judith landings, where pale castellations and hoodoos with names such as Archangel and the Seven Sisters—plus occasional darker igneous buttes, such as Citadel Rock—glorify the skyline. Camping abounds, from developed and primitive established campgrounds to dispersed sites, and you’ve got great odds of seeing critters, including bighorn sheep and elk.

The Northern Forest Canoe Trail

Two kayakers on the river, with grass and trees on either side Paddling through the Adirondacks. Photo by Adirondack Watershed Institute(Se abre en una ventana nueva)

Tackling the entirety of the 740-mile-long Northern Forest Canoe Trail(Se abre en una ventana nueva), which runs from the Adirondack Mountains of New York to northern Maine by way of Vermont, Quebec, and New Hampshire, is not really a novice paddle-camper’s undertaking. But there are plenty of stretches of this fantastic river-and-lake thoroughfare suitable for easy two- or three-day trips.

A case in point is the 22-mile run between Long Lake and Axton Landing in New York’s Adirondacks, which includes a few portages around waterfalls, a seven-mile float through the High Peaks Wilderness, and plentiful opportunities to eyeball loons, bald eagles, and ospreys.

Get Your Paddlin’ On

It goes without saying we’re leaving countless beginner-friendly canoe and kayak trips off this roundup, from the world-famous Boundary Waters in boreal Minnesota and Florida’s Suwanee River to Utah’s Green River and Oregon’s John Day.

But, hey: That just goes to show you’re spoiled for choices as a newbie contemplating your first overnight paddle foray—pretty much guaranteed not to be your last.