8 Paddle Adventures in National Parks to Do Before You Die

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The Fitness Benefits of Paddle Sports

Kayaking National Parks
Getty Images/Blend Images/Roberto Westbrook

Hopping in a kayak or canoe may not be the first thing you think of when fitting in a workout, but you should adjust your mindset now.

Paddle sports are an excellent way to strengthen your core and upper body while burning major calories and significantly increasing your heart rate as a form of cardiovascular activity. In fact, according to MyFitnessPal's calorie calculator, a 150-pound person who vigorously rows for 30 minutes can burn more than 400 calories. Heck, even if you want to take it easy and row at a moderate pace, the same 150-pound person can still burn almost 300 calories in 30 minutes. 

In other words, it's great exercise. And when you head outside and hit the waterways, you also reap the mental benefits of working out outdoors. For instance, a 2011 review of literature published in Environmental Science and Technology found that individuals who exercise outside are more likely to self-report feelings of mental well being and vitality immediately following exercise than those who workout indoors. 

Not to mention, you're more likely to workout longer if you're in an outdoor environment. A 2012 study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found that older adults who exercised outside at least once a week accumulated significantly more physical activity than those who exercised inside alone. 

The point is, if you love the water and you're up for a new adventure, it's time to give kayaking or canoeing a go. National, state and local parks are an excellent place to find boats and instructors to help make your first attempt seamless, but they're also perfect for the well-established rowers who're looking for their next challenge. Check out the following eight national parks that are perfect for paddle sports, or head to the National Park Service website to find a park in your area. 

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Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida

Paddling the waterways lining the borders between Big Cypress National Preserve and the Everglades is sure to be an experience you'll never forget. In addition to seeing the protected land from a whole new perspective, you're likely to get up close and personal (but not too close or too personal!) with the wildlife of the glades, including alligators. 

The National Park Service suggests intermediate-level paddling skills for these three to seven hour trips. While there aren't rapids to consider, unpredictable weather patterns, gulf tides and headwinds can test your mettle. 

For information on guided tours and longer, 7-10 day paddling and camping trips, head to the Big Cypress National Preserve canoeing and kayaking webpage. 

3
Biscayne National Park, Florida

Biscayne National Park
National Park Service/Matt Johnson

If your idea of paddling in Florida veers more toward coastline and ocean scenery than swamps and alligators, Biscayne National Park may be the perfect place to put in. 

Clear, calm waters in the shallow bay are perfect for relative beginners looking to explore ocean wildlife from just above the water. If you make your way to Jones Lagoon (you can find maps and paddling guides on the Biscayne National Park canoeing and kayaking page), you can get a good look at sharks, rays and large schools of fish. 

If you have your own boats, you can launch from the Dante Fascell Visitor Center for free, and you can even leave a car overnight if you plan to paddle out and camp on one of the park's islands. 

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Channel Islands National Park, California

Channel Islands National Park
Getty Images/Michael Hanson

Sea kayaking on the opposite coast at Channel Islands National Park is beautiful and exciting, but it can also pose risks, so it's important to know your ability and arrange for a guide if you're not sure you'll be able to navigate the waters on your own. 

The biggest danger kayakers face when on the water are quickly changing ocean and weather conditions, particularly in and around the sea caves. Even so, there are guided trips available with no previous experience necessary. Just remember - you must wear a lifejacket at all times, and if you do plan to explore the sea caves, you must wear a helmet as well. 

The most popular location for kayaking is around Scorpion Beach on East Santa Cruz Island due to its proximity to camping, beach access and readily available boat transportation, although other islands - namely San Miguel and Santa Rosa - are popular for kayakers with expert-level skills. 

If you plan to kayak with your own boat, you'll still need to contact a park concessionaire to arrange for your boat to be transported to one of the islands where you can put in. 

To learn more about kayaking recommendations for each island at Channel Islands National Park, head to the park's website. Pay special attention to each island's landing permits and procedures. 

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Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Congaree National Park
US Department of the Interior/Corrine Fenner

The Conagree National Park offers the marked Cedar Creek Canoe Trail for park visitors interested in exploring the park from the water. While the park doesn't supply or rent boats, you can bring your own or rent the necessary equipment from outfitters in the city of Columbia.

The marked trail runs 15 miles through the Conagree Wilderness - a primeval old-growth forest that boasts some of the tallest trees in the eastern United States. Wildlife also abounds, including deer, birds, river otter... and sometimes alligators!

Floats range from several hours to several days, depending on the trip you decide to take. While Cedar Creek is typically a friendly and accessible place to float, conditions can change drastically depending on recent weather, and if the creek is at flood levels (above eight feet), currents can be unpredictable, making it hard to discern trail markers. Unless you're a highly experienced paddler, it's best to canoe or kayak in more predictable conditions.  

Several times a year the park offers a ranger-led canoeing trip. Space is limited, so if you're interested, be sure to check out the park's Guided Canoe Tours page to sign up early. 

6
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Arizona and Utah

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
Getty Images/Demetrio Carrasco

If you're looking for an inexpensive vacation with a lot of outdoor activity, it's hard to beat the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Lake Powell. Visitors can camp for up to 14 days in the area without requiring a permit or fee, and it's always free to launch kayaks from designated boat ramps. 

One thing to keep in mind is that kayakers share the lake with all manner of motorized boats. Because kayakers are so low to the water, it can be hard for boaters to see you. This is particularly true when the lake is choppy due to weather or high levels of boat traffic. To stay safe, remain relatively close to shore, and if you do plan to paddle across the lake, do so in a group and use a flag to increase your visibility. 

Also, because all types of boats can launch from the area's boat ramps, you may want to seek out the lower-trafficked ramps during peak activity to avoid disturbance from motor boats. For instance, The Glen Canyon kayaking page suggests the Antelope Point and Stateline ramps downlake and Halls Crossing uplake. 

For guided tours, contact Colorado River Discovery, a commercial float trip provider suggested by the National Park Service. 

7
Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

Kenai Fjords National Park
Getty Images/Design Pics/Doug Demarest

Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska may by one of the most breathtaking places to hop in a kayak (talk about a front row seat to glacial activity!), but it's definitely not for the beginner. In fact, the park highly recommends that inexperienced kayakers paddle with a guide due to the frigid waters and unpredictable weather. In fact, it's suggested you stay at least a half mile from the glaciers because as ice falls, large waves can upset kayaks, tossing you into the drink. For this reason (and tides, breaking waves and storms), it's recommended you're proficient at self-rescue techniques before attempting a trip. 

Brush up on the park's boat safety recommendations and download the park's kayak brochure to learn more. 

8
Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

Mammoth Cave National Park
US Department of the Interior/Michael King

Mammoth Cave National Park may be known for its, well, cave system, but exploring labyrinths of underground chambers aren't the only way to enjoy this part of Kentucky. In fact, within the boundaries of the park lie 25 miles of the Green River and another six miles of the Nolin River. Both rivers are open and available to paddlers, and because of the relatively slow-moving waters, they're appropriate even for beginners. That said, if the river levels exceed 10 feet on the park's gauges, launching boats is discouraged, as the rivers can be swift and unpredictable during floods. 

You will need your own boat to make a trip, so if you don't own one, check out Green River Canoeing for guided trips ranging from a few hours to a couple days. 

9
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Getty Images/Danita Delimont

North Dakota may not be the first place you think of when planning a trip, but exploring the North Dakota Badlands from a boat as you float through Theodore Roosevelt National Park, may just change your mind about the solitude of this northern state. 

In fact, it's the location's solitude that makes it the ideal trip for experienced outdoor enthusiasts. The 107 mile float from Medora near the south end of the park and Long X Bridge near the north end of the park requires about five days to travel. During that five days, you're pretty much on your own - you have to carry sufficient food and water, be prepared for emergency situations and expect little to no communication with the outside world. Aside from other floaters, of course. 

Admittedly, it's not a trip for everyone, but if you're up for an adventure, and if you're ready to be amazed by the distant buttes, grazing buffalo and winding waterways, it's time to head north for your next floating trip. Just be aware that timing's everything - this shallow river can dry up in places, forcing floaters to drag their boats through the mud. May and June are typically the best months for an excursion. 

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