This article was originally published in the Spring/Summer 2022 issue of Rails to Trails magazine and has been reposted here in an edited format. Subscribe to read more articles about remarkable trails while also supporting our work.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the National Water Trails System, which recognizes exemplary water routes that increase access to outdoor recreation for health and wellness, promote tourism and economic development, and encourage the stewardship and protection of America’s vital rivers and waterways.
Today, there are more than 30 designated National Water Trails throughout the country. Here, we highlight a few, noting their connections to on-the-ground trails for spectacular two-for-one-adventures.
Length: 121 miles
Route: St. Louis to Saverton, Missouri
“It is not a commonplace river, but on the contrary is in all ways remarkable,” wrote famed author Mark Twain of the Mississippi. Experience this iconic American river up close on the Mississippi River Water Trail, which straddles the border between Illinois and Missouri and stretches 121 miles. Developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers along with the American Canoe Association, the mapped route includes dozens of access points, including about 20 primitive camping sites.
The water trail offers experienced paddlers the opportunity to enjoy a multiday adventure, and novices the ability to take shorter trips through backwater habitats. Along the way, travelers will see three locks and dams, two impressive river confluences, picturesque rural areas and the vibrant St. Louis metro region. Two recommended communities to visit with plentiful restaurants and shops are Louisiana and Clarksville, both on the Missouri side of the river.
Want to combine your river trip with a roll or walk on land? The St. Louis region is a growing trail hub thanks to the Great Rivers Greenway offering 128 miles of pathways—and counting—to explore.
Length: 291 miles
Route: Indian Lake to Ohio River
Southwest Ohio is home to the only national water trail in the state: the Great Miami River Watershed Water Trail, which spans 291 miles and includes the Great Miami, Stillwater and Mad rivers, as well as smaller creeks and streams. From its headwaters at Indian Lake, the Great Miami River flows southwest to its confluence with the Ohio River, west of Cincinnati. The surrounding views alternate between farm fields, lush forests, small villages and larger urbanized areas.
In addition to over a hundred access points, the route includes six kayaking whitewater parks, world-class fishing opportunities and campsites in some MetroParks. Outdoor enthusiasts can find river maps on the website of the Miami Conservancy District.
Be sure to stop at Dayton, located roughly midway along the water trail, to visit the popular RiverScape and other parks along the riverbank. The city also hosts the Great American Rail-Trail®, a developing 3,700-mile multiuse trail network across the country.
Length: 57 miles
Route: Williamstown to Leachtown
Gliding along West Virginia’s Ohio River Water Trail, paddlers can feel immersed in remote wilderness. Backwater excursions along the route offer opportunities to explore wildlife-rich wetlands, ponds and river islands that are part of the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Most trips are out and back with no shuttling required.
A handful of cities interspersed along the water trail offer options for food and other amenities. Parkersburg, the largest of these, is also an anchor in the 1,500-miles-plus network envisioned by the Industrial Heartland Trails Coalition that will connect West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York by multiuse trail.
Length: 30 miles
Route: Hoover Dam at Lake Mead to Eldorado Canyon
Part of the Colorado River, the crystal-clear Black Canyon Water Trail was the first national water trail in the Southwest and the first to flow through a desert. Straddling two states, the route can be accessed in Nevada from the base of Hoover Dam or near Eldorado Canyon, and in Arizona at Willow Beach. Gorgeous scenery abounds along the route, which features steep canyons, beaches, rocky caves, hot springs and historic structures.
Check out the Historic Railroad Trail, near the waterway’s northern terminus, for sweeping views of Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam, as well as passage through five tunnels.
Related Link: A View From … The Historic Railroad Trail in Nevada
Length: 371 miles
Route: Hansville to Tacoma
Unlike the freshwater routes on this list, the Kitsap Peninsula National Water Trails offer a saltwater excursion on Washington’s Puget Sound and Hood Canal. This also means you can enjoy another activity for exploring the water: scuba diving. With the jaw-dropping beauty of the mountains and the sound, plentiful marine wildlife and friendly port towns, this is a not-to-miss experience.
Nearby, explore the developing Sound to Olympics Trail, which will one day link the Mountains to Sound Greenway and Olympic Discovery Trail. It’s also a part of the Great American route connecting Washington State and Washington, D.C.
Length: 48 miles
Route: Buford Dam to Peachtree Creek
This water trail has the distinction of being the very first designated national water trail. Nestled within the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area north of Atlanta, the waterway traverses an incredibly scenic corridor with views of forests, wetlands and bluffs.
Length: 256 miles
Route: Whitehall to Manhattan
From the small-town charm of Whithall, near Lake Champlain, to bustling Manhattan, this water trail offers historic sites, wildlife marshes, islands and more to explore. With around 100 access sites, the waterway is easy to get to and perfect for the long-distance traveler or day user.
Length: 135 miles
Route: St. Landry Parish to St. Mary Parish
Louisiana’s first nationally recognized water trail serves as both a premier paddling route and a cultural corridor. The waterway winds through four parishes and more than a dozen towns, offering easy access to attractions, historic sites, camping and eateries.
New to paddle sports? The American Canoe Association provides an online resource library for canoeing, kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding, including educational videos, best practices and safety checklists.
Length: 187 miles
Route: Eugene to Portland
Descending from the Willamette River headwaters in the Cascade and Coast ranges, this serene water trail journeys through Portland to a confluence with the Columbia River. Traversing an emerald landscape, this recreational treasure provides access to dozens of parks that hopscotch along either side of the river.
Length: 167 miles
Route: Lake Glenville to Fontana Lake
Tucked into the western corner of the state, this blueways route is comprised of a handful of rivers and lakes that wind through the state’s Smoky Mountains and flow into Fontana Lake at the edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.