Top 6 National Parks to Visit on Your Next Kayak Adventure

Water. There’s something magical about gliding across the surface of a lake, river or even the ocean. It engages all the senses. The sense of sight as flora and fauna converge to create the perfect palette. The sense of sound as fish jump to snare a bug, or an eagle screams from a nest overhead. The sense of smell, as nature’s sweet perfume fills the air. The sense of taste as the water splashes onto warm skin. And the sense of touch as hands grip the paddle to propel the kayak through the water. The pristine waters in and around the National Parks are the perfect playground for kayaks – boats that put paddlers so close to the surface they can see the fish swimming below and interact with other mammals who happen to make the water their home.

Here are three must-see places (and three extra stops) for kayaking in and around some of the most famous National Parks in the United States:

Yellowstone Lake is the largest high-elevation lake in North America, perfect for a kayak adventure.
Yellowstone Lake is the largest high-elevation lake in North America, perfect for a kayak adventure.

Kayaking in Channel Islands National Park

Buffalo, eagles and wolves. Visitors expect to see these in and around National Parks. Garibaldis — not so much. Yet, the waters team with the curious creatures kayakers liken to clown fish in “Finding Nemo.” Like a giant aquarium, fish dart through the kelp as humans bob on the surface above.

Kayaking off the Channel Islands connects adventurers with nature like no other activity on earth. Despite the mainland’s dense population, (10 million people live less than 90 minutes away by boat) this string of five islands is one of the most remote destinations in the National Park System. In Anacapa, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz, visitors can be alone. Really alone.

Or not. Kayaking tours often lead paddlers into sea caves where they’re greeted by boisterous sea lions. The belching balls of blubber sprawl across the lava rock shelves under craggily overhangs — acting like they own the place.

For many rare animals and seabirds, this kind of island ownership is critical for breeding. In fact, 145 species of flora and fauna are found here, and nowhere else on earth. And because this is also a National Marine Sanctuary, the Channel Islands – surrounded by ocean and battered by wind and waves – are refuge to nature’s most vulnerable creatures, offering a spiritual connection to both land and sea.

Kayaking in Rocky Mountain National Park

A mountain refuge for kayakers is Lake Estes, just a few minutes away from Colorado’s Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park. With a short five minute drive from Ridgeline Hotel Estes Park, visitors can rent kayaks for gliding along the 185-acre Lake Estes, a jewel with plenty of inlets for exploring. Wildlife sightings are guaranteed in Estes and nearby Rocky Mountain National Park, where some 3,000 elk make their homes. Kayakers scanning the shore may also see bears, which seem as comfortable lumbering through town as they do in the Park. Bobcats are another common sighting along the banks.

Kayaking Near Glacier National Park

Wildlife of a different kind can be seen on a kayak adventure on Montana’s Whitefish Lake outside Glacier National Park. The Pine Lodge in Whitefish, offers kayak rentals for visitors who want to experience nature on the meandering and ultra-clear Whitefish River. A half-mile of gentle upstream paddle allows adventurers to see white tailed deer, Blue Heron and soaring eagles. Reach the mouth of the river and the entire eight miles of Whitefish Lake are open for exploration. There’s even a webcam at the lake’s City Beach for visitors who want a preview of the lake, rimmed by the Whitefish Range of mountains that stretch all the way to British Columbia, Canada.

Other Watersports Near National Parks:

Rent kayaks, stand-up paddle boards, pontoon boats, jet skis and more and explore Bass Lake, 30 minutes south of Yosemite National Park’s South Gate.

Hardy souls with river kayaking experience can take advantage of class II and higher rapids in Olympic National Park’s rivers, fed by the Pacific Northwest’s famous rain and snowmelt. For a more peaceful paddle, visit Lake Crescent in the Olympic Mountains.

For a water adventure surrounded by the grandeur of the Grand Canyon National Park, we recommend booking a half-day or longer guided rafting trip down the Colorado River.




Ginny Prior, executive director of the Bay Area Travel Writers has written numerous articles for AAA Magazines, USA Today and many Bay Area publications. Her West Coast Travel Minutes can be heard daily on Follow her @ginnyprior and

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