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Five of the Best Overnight Paddle Trips in America for Beginners

Updated: May 12, 2021

By Melina Coogan

For those who are brand new to the river life, the idea of planning and executing an overnight paddle trip can feel daunting. In reality, there are only a few simple steps standing between you and a safe, serene float through breathtaking scenery. With morning coffee on the shores of your own island, and evenings filled with campfires and stars, we guarantee your first paddle trip will not be your last.

The first thing you need to do is consider the landscape you’d like to experience. Do you prefer a lush wilderness of lakes and streams, or an arid desert enclosed by canyon walls? The variety of environments you can explore by canoe is virtually unlimited. Second, contact a local outfitter. Their experienced and knowledgeable staff is your ticket to staying safe, being well prepared, and making the most out of your adventure. They will advise you on directions, shuttles, and the best campsites to seek out, fill in any gaps in your gear, or completely outfit your trip.

Rivers are alive and constantly fluctuating, and even a mild stretch can be whipped into rapids depending on rainfall, snow melt, and dam releases. Use common sense, and don’t let these potential hazards dissuade you. River trips are some of the most magical outdoor adventures you will ever experience. Let the current glide you from camp to camp, between islands and side hikes, and even alongside international boundaries.

1. Knife Lake, Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota

Photo by Greg Gjerdingen

The Boundary Waters is an aquatic landscape of pristine beauty and unbelievable proportions. In the secluded region of upper Minnesota, this wilderness area of over one million acres encompasses a few thousand lakes and streams, miles of hiking/portage trails, and vast swaths of forests. For 150 miles, it shares an international boundary with Quetico Provincial Park in Canada. But with 1,200 miles of river trails, innumerable small islands, and over 2,000 campsites, where do you even begin?

One of the most popular trips for beginners is an excursion through Knife Lake, a 3,756-acre lake which boasts some of the clearest water anywhere in the wilderness area. Highlights include hiking to Thunderpoint Lookout from the lake’s largest island, and camping on the Isle of Pines, where the last inhabitant of the Boundary Waters, Dorothy Molter, lived for 65 years. Most visitors spend a week or two, although ambitious paddling guides from the area have been known to stretch their stay to a year!

Start planning your overnight by contacting Ely Outfitting Company. Their staff knows this impressive landscape better than anyone, and they will be happy to recommend the best spots to explore, portage, fish, and camp at Knife Lake and beyond. And Ely Outfitting frequently prepares people who are taking their very first camping trip.

2. Boquillas Canyon, Rio Grande, Texas

Photo by Alan Cressler

The Rio Grande is a Wild and Scenic River in the Big Bend area of Texas. While the 33-mile section of river that travels through Boquillas Canyon makes an ideal float trip for beginners, the splendor of the landscape and tranquility of the water makes this an appealing adventure for any paddler regardless of their experience. You can float the duration of this trip in two days, but most people choose to slow down, relax, and make it a three- or four-day trip. You will not be in a hurry to leave.

Enveloped in massive limestone cliffs that tower 1,200 feet above the river, you will ease your way through Boquillas Canyon on water that is so placid it looks like a ribbon of mirrored glass. There are some gentle riffles here and there, but nothing more challenging than class II. On the Mexico side of the river, you will pass by trace remains of the Candillila Wax Mining Company. By night, sleep beneath a bright strip of stars visible between the cliff tops, and by day listen for the song of the canyon wren. To start your journey, contact Big Bend River Tours, the oldest river outfitter running the Rio Grande.

3. French Broad Paddle Trail, North Carolina

Imagine drifting down one of the world’s oldest rivers as it threads through the ancient Appalachian mountain range. The French Broad River Paddle Trail is a dream for river-minded folks, a 140-mile waterway between Rosman, North Carolina, and Douglas Lake, Tennessee, studded along its entire length with riverside campsites.

The Cherokee called the French Broad River “The Long Man” and referred to its tributaries as “Chattering Children.” It flows through the Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests, through the River Arts District of Asheville and the towns of Brevard and Weaverville, and even alongside restaurants and breweries where you are welcome to dock your canoe and enjoy a cold pint on the river’s edge.

The initial 75 miles of the paddle trail is flat water. It is completely up to you to choose your desired mileage, campsites and scenery. Even if this is your first trip on the river, you can safely plan a single overnight, or stay out for an entire week. The second half of the river includes class I and II riffles, with a brief section of class III near the town of Hotsprings. To prepare your ideal adventure, check in with French Broad Outfitters in Asheville. From advice and shuttles to gear rental and waterproof maps of the Paddle Trail, the folks there are happy to set you up for a successful first trip down The Long Man.

4. Ponca-Pruitt, Buffalo National River, Arkansas

Photo by Jeff Bartlett

The Buffalo National River in Northern Arkansas is a place of staggering beauty. The landscape is so breathtaking that, in March of 1972, it was the first river to be designated as a National River in the United States. It remains one of the last undammed rivers in the lower 48.

One of the most scenic and photographed stretches of the Buffalo River is the 23.8- mile stretch between Ponco and Pruitt. The water is placid and calm while the landscape of massive limestone bluffs is wild and breathtaking. In the autumn, eagles nest below Big Bluffs. (This is a great winter paddling option, too.) On the first day you may encounter a few riffles, which swell to a wavy class II in the springtime. On the second day, the river pools and becomes still and serene.

One of the perks of this float trip is the option to hike 7/10ths of a mile from the river’s edge to the Hemmed-in-Hollow Falls. This narrow veil falls freely for 210 feet over rugged Ozark Bluffs, making it the highest waterfall between the Rockies and the Appalachians. Contact the Buffalo River Outdoor Center to start planning.

5. Colorado River, Cisco to Dewey Bridge, Southeastern Utah

Photo by Alan Cressler

One of the principal rivers of the southern U.S. and northern Mexico, the 1,450 miles of the Colorado, knows many moods, from wild and raging to peaceful and flat. A recommended easy float trip begins where the Colorado River leaves the Westwater Canyon and flows through the Cisco Desert in Southern Utah.

At the confluence of the Dolores River, you will paddle past a sharply tilted pocket of sandstone cliffs, giving you a taste of the typical landscape of the Colorado. Otherwise, you will glide down a rare, open section of river with long-ranging views, unencumbered by canyon walls. Paddle alongside cool groves of Cottonwood trees, the rocks and sand of the Cisco Desert, and lush fields and farmland that reach all the way to the the riverbanks. Bring your binoculars, as this stretch of the river is the best for bird watching.

The trip runs between the put-in on the Cisco boat ramp, and concludes twenty miles later at the Dewey Bridge. You can tack on an additional six miles, and another night out if you’re so inspired, if you continue down to the Hittle Bottom Takeout. Check out the Moab Rafting and Canoe Company for permits, shuttles, and everything you’ll need for a safe, peaceful and unforgettable overnight on this world famous river.

Originally written by RootsRated for Marmot.

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