Top Ten Kid-Tested Rivers for Canoeing

Big River Adventures for Families with Little People

  • Whether you plan to paddle for a few hours or a few days, these basic tips will go a long way toward thwarting potential mutinies: Line the bottom of the canoe with a closed-cell foam pad cut and shaped to match the areas where your youngsters will sit and nap.
  • Kids dehydrate faster than adults, so pack plenty of cool, diluted sports drink, like Gatorade.
  • Tie a sippy cup by string to your child’s PFD (personal flotation device).
  • Pack extra plastic garbage bags to handle the growing mound of dirty diapers.
  • Even in autumn, the sun reflecting off of water can burn. See Sun Smarts for Small Fries for specific advice on protecting kids from the sun. I C-clamp a black umbrella to the bow or sides of the canoe to shade Zach when he naps. Works like a charm unless it’s gusty.
  • A five-gallon plastic bucket serves nicely not only as a camp stool and dry storage but also as a bathtub for wee ones.
  • PFDs (aka life jackets) are required. We tether Zach to mom via a three-foot length of nylon cord.

Neches River, Texas

Slow-moving, without rapids or obstacles, the Neches River meanders across the forests and meadows of eastern Texas and through Big Thicket National Preserve. The placid water eases down bayou corridors, beneath mixed cypress, hardwoods, and pines. With many put-in options, you can plan a trip from one to seven days, camping on sandbars.

  • When: Early spring offers pleasant weather and days without the bother of mosquitoes and biting flies. Fall and early winter, also a great time, bring a stop to camping in some areas due to hunting traffic.
  • Canoe rentals are available. Backcountry camping permits are required.
  • For more info: Big Thicket National Preserve, 3785 Milan, Beaumont, TX 77701; (409) 839-2689.

Saco River, Maine

The Saco River, as it leaves New Hampshire and crosses southern Maine to the Atlantic coast, offers extraordinary family paddling opportunities. One of New England’s cleanest waterways, the Saco’s typically sandy bottom is an invitation to swim in summer. Tall trees shade numerous sandbar campsites. An abundance of put-ins and take-outs allow you to plan a trip as short as four miles or as long as 70 miles.

Twenty miles of river from Swans Falls near Fryeburg to the Brownfield Bridge on State Route 160 attracts the most paddlers, and summer weekends and holidays can be downright crowded. Brownfield Bridge to Hiram, about 14 miles, winds through peaceful countryside and sees medium use.

From Hiram to the coast at Biddeford, the Saco provides pleasant canoeing with scenic views for another 40 miles. The light use of this section is partially explained by the necessity of five short portages around dams, and the possibility of portages around a couple of rapids that can be treacherous at some water levels.

  • When: Fall, colored gloriously by the changing foliage, is an excellent time to see the Saco.
  • Canoe rentals are available. Permits are not required.
  • For more info: Biddeford-Saco Chamber of Commerce, 180 Main Street, Biddeford, ME 04005; (207) 282-1567.

Yampa River, Colorado

The last major tributary of the Colorado River to remain undammed, the Yampa River flows placidly for approximately 60 miles from Craig to Maybell, Colorado, past stunning northern Colorado scenery and a paradise of wildlife that often includes deer and antelope, turkey vultures, and herons.

Below Maybell the river turns extremely dangerous. Put in on Highway 13 where it crosses the river below Craig and you lose about nine miles of quiet water but also lose the unappealing paddle through Craig.

Duffy Canyon, about 20 miles long, offers dramatic trip highlights: pastel “badland” walls sloping a thousand feet down to the greenish-brown river.

Lovely campsites shaded by cottonwoods will give you and the kids a chance to stretch your legs and explore. A rapid below Juniper Hot Springs, not recommended for open canoes, demands a portage. Or you can take out above the rapid, missing the last six miles before Maybell.

  • When: Low water can ruin your trip because you’ll be walking more than paddling. Spring, after high water subsides, typically provides the best conditions.
  • Canoe rentals are available. No permits are required.
  • For more info: Bureau of Land Management, Little Snake Resource Area, 1280 Industrial Avenue, Craig, CO 81625; (970) 824-4441.

Colorado River, California and Arizona

Famous for some of the most spectacular scenery and whitewater in the world, the Colorado River runs quiet and smooth near its end where it forms the California-Arizona boundary. From a put-in at Moabi Regional Park, California, the river enters Havasu National Wildlife Refuge and Topock Gorge, approximately 18 miles of serene and strikingly beautiful paddling.

At Devil’s Elbow red-rock walls soar hundreds of feet higher than the blue-green water. Picture Rock stands covered with numerous Indian petroglyphs. Tell the kids to watch for desert bighorn sheep, often silently standing far above the canoes. You can camp at Moabi Park for a fee, and along the Arizona shoreline south of the gorge. No camping is allowed within Topock Gorge.

  • When: Numerous species of birds call this area home, and thousands of migratory birds may be seen from October to May.
  • Canoe rentals are available. No permit is required.
  • For more info Havasu National Wildlife Refuge, 1406 Bailey Avenue, Needles, CA 92363; (619) 326-3853.

Green River, Utah

The Green flows first through high desert administered by the Bureau of Land Management, and later through the utterly magnificent sandstone depths of Labyrinth and Stillwater Canyons within Canyonlands National Park.

Many dry, mysterious side canyons will entice you to explore on foot. Anasazi ruins, sometimes perched magically on vertical rock walls, are often visible from the river. Coyotes, deer, and desert bighorn sheep come to the water’s edge to drink.

From the town of Green River, Utah, you can paddle 23 miles to a take-out at Ruby Ranch, or 68 miles to a take-out at Mineral Bottom. You can put in at Crystal Geyser and avoid the town and the first five miles of river. No permits are required above Mineral Bottom. The river flows approximately 52 miles from Mineral Bottom to its confluence with the Colorado River, and through the Park where a permit is required (cost, $10).

  • When: October is perfect—the water runs low and it’s not too hot.
  • Canoe rentals and shuttles are available in Moab.
  • For more info: Bureau of Land Management, San Rafael Resource Area, 900 North 700 East, Price, UT 84501; (801) 637-4584
  • Canyonlands National Park, 2282 SW Resource Blvd., Moab, UT 84532; (801) 259-527

Suwannee River, Georgia and Florida

Out of Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp, past moss-laden cypresses and tupelos, the blackwater of the Suwannee River flows easily for 240 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. Below Ellaville, Florida, the river widens and slows past buildings and bridges, losing much of its quiet Old Southern charm. It’s the first 35 undeveloped miles or so that you should see anyway, from Fargo, Georgia, to Big Shoals, just above White Springs, Florida.

There’s a take-out at Big Shoals before the river drops over Florida’s most dramatic version of “whitewater.” If you want to add another half-day to the trip, walk from the take-out down to the shoals for a look. You might decide you’re competent to make the run, or you can portage approximately 200 yards around the drop.

White sandy spits, with room for kids to run, offer fine camping on the upper river. Avoid camping where dirt roads, indications of private land, approach the river.

  • When: Go in October or early November when the heat and humidity have dwindled and the bug swarms have thinned.
  • Canoe rentals are available. No permits are required.
  • For more info: Florida Department of Natural Resources, Office of Greenways and Trails, 325 John Knox Road, Bldg. 500, Tallahassee, FL 32303-4124; (904) 488-3701

Upper Missouri River, Montana

The wild open plains of central Montana break and fall away to the lonely Upper Missouri River, the 1805 route of Lewis and Clark—and not much has changed on this section of the river since then.

From Fort Benton to the Fred Robinson Bridge on US 191, just inside the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, you’ll find 150 kid-friendly miles. The current, running between three and four mph, could carry you the distance in five easy days.

You’ll pass bottoms thick with cottonwoods, sandstone cliffs rising vertically from the water and natural rock sculptures before you enter the Montana “badlands,” where erosion has carved a three-dimensional tapestry. Keep your eyes peeled for elk, mule and white-tailed deer, coyotes, and pronghorn antelopes.

  • Campsites abound along the shores.
  • When: Early September provides the crispness of fall and fewer crowds. Snow often arrives by early October.
  • Canoe rentals are available. No permits are required.
  • For more info: Bureau of Land Management, River Manager, Airport Road, Lewiston, MT 59457; (406) 538-7461.

Niobrara River, Nebraska

If you think Nebraska is flat and uninteresting, try the Niobrara River, which runs through a valley carved by the water, several hundred feet deep in places. Nearby you’ll find a unique meeting of three vast forests: Rocky Mountain, Eastern, and Great Northern. Ponderosa pines grow near red cedars, which grow near paper birches. Above the valley, grass-covered sand dunes roll away for thousands of square miles, the Sandhills of Nebraska.

In three unhurried days, you can paddle the 76 miles of the Niobrara designated Wild and Scenic. From the town of Valentine, Nebraska, after approximately five miles, you’ll enter the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge. You won’t see them from your canoe, but, if you have time, stop and take the kids on a search for bison, elk, and a herd of Texas longhorn cattle.

About 11 miles from the put-in you can camp at Smith Falls State Park and see the state’s tallest waterfall. Campgrounds along the river are often privately owned, and fees are charged. After 32 miles (where you can take-out) the bluffs grow less dramatic but the river flows gently on.

  • When: Late summer and early fall, especially on weekdays, offer cooler temperatures and less traffic.
  • Canoe rentals are available. No permits are required.
  • For more info: Valentine Visitors Center; (800) 658-4024

Buffalo River, Arkansas

Protected as our first national river, the Buffalo splashes through a steep-walled, Ozark Mountain canyon for its first 25 twisting miles. But below the put-in at the town of Pruitt stretch 100 free-flowing miles beneath picturesque ledges and limestone bluffs that lift at times more than 300 feet above the flat water. The Buffalo ranks as one of the most pristine waterways left in the United States.

One of your most difficult decisions will be which lovely wooded or gravel bar campsite to choose each night.

You and the kids can enjoy short side trips to caves, ghost towns, and historic sites. After 50 miles, below Gilbert, you’ll find 15 miles of popular day-tripping water. The last 40 miles of the river, to a take-out at its confluence with the White River, are seldom paddled, providing a rare opportunity to be alone with spring and fall migratory birds, herons and hawks, deer, and otters and beavers. In spring the forest burns with the colors of azalea, laurel, rosebud, and rhododendron.

  • When: The swimming holes are irresistible during warmer months.
  • Canoe rentals are available. No permits are required.
  • For more info: Buffalo National River, P.O. Box 1173, Harrison, AR 72602; (501) 741-5443.

Namekagon River, Wisconsin

From its beginning near Cable in northwestern Wisconsin to its confluence with the Saint Croix River, the Namekagon runs for about 98 clean, clear miles, a tributary of and included in the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway.

Three short portages around dams are necessary to complete the entire Namekagon River, but numerous put-ins below the dams allow avoidance of portages. The abundance of put-ins gives you the chance to tailor your trip to your time.

This river will prove spicy for novices. You’ll find some Class I rapids and a few narrow chutes. But with a depth averaging two to three feet and a width seldom extending beyond 50 feet, the Namekagon offers excellent family paddling if you’ve logged some experience in easy rapids.

Much of the river provides quiet water running through swampy areas or beneath sandy banks topped with birch, oak, and pine. Most of the shoreline lies under the administration of the National Park Service, and campsites are plentiful. Eagles and herons, deer, and smaller mammals are commonly seen along the river, and black bears have been known to raid food caches.

  • When: From late May to early September the river can be comfortably run. The rest of the year tends to be chilly.
  • Canoe rentals are available. No permits are required.
  • For more info: National Park Service, P.O. Box 100, Trego, WI 54888; (715) 635-8346.
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