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Wonderful American Waterways

December 1, 2011
Filed under Camping Destinations

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Few things offer greater relaxation than sitting on the water. Literally sitting on the water — mere millimeters of hull material separating you from the mysterious depths below.

The limestone bluffs along the Upper Missouri River near Fort Benton, Montana, appear much the way they did more than 200 years ago when the Lewis and Clark Expedition passed this way en route to the Pacific.
Whether in a canoe or a kayak, you’ll feel the stress of daily life sliding away as you paddle into the cool aquatic world before you. The slurp/swirl/drip as you dip your paddle, pull it through the water, and then lift it for the next stroke eases the mind even as it works your muscles.

The link between paddling and camping goes way back. Many enjoy their first canoeing experience in childhood summer camps. Others simply found the paddling bug while engaged in their own adult camping adventures. Regardless of the beginning, once you’ve powered a canoe or kayak about a wild waterway, you’ll forever understand that an evening campfire is all the more enjoyable if it’s experienced after a sunset paddle around a wilderness lake.

So pack up your canoe or kayak, load up your camping gear and head out. We’ve found 10 perfect American waterways for you to enjoy camping and paddling!

Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, Oregon
Spanning two states, with countless numbers of waterways, Klamath Basin NWR Complex provides some of the greatest paddling opportunities in the West. One of the great bird-watching regions in the world, Klamath Basin offers year-round paddling opportunities among a huge variety of birds and wildlife.

More than 274 species of birds live in or frequent the basin, including an array of raptors along with the shorebirds and migratory waterfowl attracted to the abundance of water. Fishers, martens, weasels, otters and ermine patrol the rivers and lakes, too, hunting the dense populations of fish that thrive here.

Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge offers some of the best paddling. Upper Klamath Canoe Trail meanders 9.5 miles through fresh water ranging from the broad, open waters of Lake Klamath’s Pelican Bay to the channels of Crystal and Recreation creeks and the rush-lined, still-water paths of the marshes between the flowing creeks.

Camping opportunities abound through Klamath Basin. The U.S. Forest Service maintains several campgrounds near or adjacent to the refuge. The Malone Springs and Odessa campgrounds are just
minutes from Canoe Trail. For more information on the Klamath area, visit klamathbasinvisitor.com; and for information on the refuge complex in particular, call 530/667-2231 or go to fws.gov/klamathbasinrefuges.

Moran State Park, Orcas Island, Washington
Waterfowl thrive at Moran State Park.
One of the largest islands in the San Juan archipelago, Orcas offers an array of both camping and paddling opportunities. Moran State Park covers much of the eastern arm of this horseshoe-shaped island. Within the 5,252-acre park you’ll find two large lakes filled with waterfowl and fish and ideal for paddle adventures.

Mountain Lake Camp, one of five campgrounds in the park, offers ready access to its namesake lake, the largest (198 acres) in the park. Paddling out on this long, forest-lined lake provides grand views of Mount Constitution (2,409 feet), the highest peak in the Salish Sea. South End Camp, on Cascade Lake, provides 12 lakeside campsites ideal for canoe access. Trout and bass share the waters of both lakes, and minks and river otters ply those waters in search of tasty fish.

If you prefer to dip a paddle in the brine, haul your kayak out to East Sound and cruise this gentle inland bay. Sea otters patrol the shores, while sea lions and whales (orcas and grays) occasionally venture up
into the sound to rest in the deep, calm waters between the island’s arms. For more information, go to visitsanjuans.com or call 888/468-3701.

Lyons Ferry Marina Park, Southeast Washington
Canyons at Lyons Ferry
While Washington is known as the Evergreen State, the eastern half of the state sports more sagebrush than fir trees. Through this desert-like terrain, three rivers come together: the mighty Snake, the Palouse and the Tucannon. The cable-pull ferry that gave its name to the area operated across the Snake, near the mouth of the Palouse River, until the mid-1960s when a steel-span bridge was installed. The last of those flat-deck ferryboats remains on site for visitors to explore.

After the ferry shut down, the meadow around the ferry loading area was maintained as a Washington state park, but budget crunches in 2002 forced the state to turn the facilities over to the Port of Columbia County. The port now maintains the boat marina and has moved camping facilities to a property next to the marina, just across the river from the old state park site. KOA has been contracted to operate the new campground. State park camping can be found 15 minutes north at Palouse Falls State Park, although there is no river access there (the park sits on the rim of the deep falls bowl).

The best paddle route heads downstream from the KOA. Point your canoe or kayak north from the marina and campground, cross the broad Snake River, and in less than half a mile, you’ll enter the canyon leading into the heart of this desert country. This is the mouth of the Palouse River. The broad waterway gradually narrows into a tight gorge nearly 300 feet deep that leads to the base of the stunning cascade of Palouse Falls (186 feet tall).

Palouse River flows south through a broad 100-foot-deep coulee before plunging into the deeper gorge on its way to the Snake. The deep basalt canyon of the Palouse is filled with swallows, hawks and, come twilight, bats. During the heat of summer (in August, temperatures frequently reach triple digits), this cool canyon is a welcome escape. For more details, call 509/399-8020 or visit lyonsferrykoa.com.

Topock Gorge of the Colorado River, Havasu National Wildlife Refuge, California
Nestled along the border between California and Arizona, Havasu National Wildlife Refuge offers paddlers the chance to experience the lower Colorado River’s desert splendor before it completes its run to the sea.

Topock Gorge, part of the Havasu wilderness area, carries the Colorado through the desert bedrock from the Havasu NWR boat launch near Interstate 40 to Highway 95 at Lake Havasu. Many paddlers rent their canoes or kayaks from one of the numerous outfitters around the town of Topock or in Havasu City at the southern end of the gorge. Outfitters can also provide shuttle service for paddlers planning to run the entire 20 miles of the gorge. That trip typically takes three to five hours, depending on how much effort you put into paddling.

For a less strenuous outing, launch your canoes into the upper end of Lake Havasu and explore the lower reaches of the gorge for as long as you like. You’ll find the area rich in wildlife, with herons and egrets fishing along the shorelines, and vultures circling overhead. Camping opportunities flourish on both the California and Arizona sides of the refuge, but there is currently no camping in the refuge itself. Call 800/242-8278 or visit golakehavasu.com for more details.

Boundary Waters Canoe Area

Boundary Waters Canoe Area, Ely, Minnesota

Mention canoeing and camping during a conversation and any paddlers who hear you will immediately think of Boundary Waters. Boundary Waters Canoe Area covers much of northern Minnesota and continues into Canada as Quetico Provincial Park. BWCA covers more than a million acres of land and water, with about 1,000 lakes to explore.

The small town of Ely stands as the gateway to half of this aquatic wonderland, while the other half is serviced by the city of Grand Marais, the Gunflint trail, the Tofte area and the Sawbill region of BWCA. A vast maze of “canoe trails” weaves through the seemingly endless network of lakes, river, swamps and streams. The lakes yield trout, pike, perch and walleye to anglers, while the lands between the lakes are home to deer, bears, wolves and a host of small mammals and squadrons of birds.

Outfitters in Ely can provide canoes for rent, guides to lead you through the routes, and information on the local flora and fauna. Camping options abound at both commercial parks and public campgrounds. The U.S. Forest Service’s Fall Lake Campground, within Superior National Forest, offers some of the best camping services and canoe access points. For more information, call 800/777-7281 or visit ely.org. For Superior National Forest details, call 800/832-1355 or go to fs.usda.gov/superior.

Upper Missouri River, Fort Benton, Montana
The Lewis and Clark Expedition used the Missouri River as its primary highway for the westward journey toward the Pacific. More than 149 miles of the Missouri as it loops through northern Montana has been awarded Wild and Scenic River status, providing protection to ensure this national treasure stays pristine and enjoyable by everyone.

The stretch of river around Fort Benton provides miles of Class I flat water suitable for virtually any paddle craft, and registration is voluntary but encouraged. Several outfitters in Fort Benton, Virgelle and Lewistown, Montana, offer canoe rentals for guided or unguided tours. You can paddle along the historic waterfront of Fort Benton — dubbed the Birthplace of Montana — or float along the sagebrush and limestone bluffs beyond the edges of the small city.

The Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery camped just a mile outside the tiny town of Loma, a few miles downstream from Fort Benton at the mouth of the Marias River, for nine days as they debated their route forward. You can drop your boat into the water here and paddle along banks where the expedition members swam, fished and worked as the leaders resolved their route.

Many camping opportunities exist, including Wood Bottom near Loma and Coal Banks by Virgelle. The Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Coal Banks Recreation Area, found just east of Fort Benton, has campsites for tents and RVs, a boat launch and plenty of Missouri River access, pro­viding everything you need to enjoy a Lewis and Clark adventure. For more information, call 800/847-4868 or point your browser to visitmt.com.

Louisville State Recreation Area, Platte River, Nebraska
America’s heartland is known for a lot of great things, but far too often, campers forget the incredible outdoor recreation that exists in the middle of the country. Farm-rich Nebraska offers great camping opportunities, and the Platte River — one of the fur trade’s primary canoe travel routes to the Rocky Mountains in the early 1800s — still offers outstanding canoeing opportunities today.

Louisville State Recreation Area, just a few miles west of the town of Louisville, sits on the banks of the Platte. You’ll find abundant camping in the 192-acre SRA parkland, with great access to the Platte and its plethora of fish and wildlife viewing options. Anglers will find bass, catfish and bluegill in the five lakes that dot the SRA, as well as in the Platte.

Multiple hiking trails explore the highlands above the river as well, so when your arms get tired of paddling, you can exercise your legs by hiking. You’ll find more information by calling 404/471-0641 or by visiting outdoornebraska.ne.gov.

Wind Creek State Park, Alabama
When you’re visiting one of the largest state parks in the country, you should expect something special. Alabama’s Wind Creek doesn’t disappoint. The 1,445 acres of parkland sprawl alongside a 41,000-acre reservoir, providing abundant canoeing, fishing and hiking opportunities. You won’t get bored, no matter how long you stay.

Numerous species of fish call Lake Martin home. From your canoe, you can anticipate catching crappie, bluegill and even striped bass. Lake Martin meanders up many coves and valleys, creating an intensely interesting shoreline to explore in a canoe or kayak. For added adventure, head up the north end of the lake to push into the Tallapoosa River.

Pines and dogwood grace the banks of Martin, and a couple of primitive trails weave through these woodlands for your enjoyment when you want to rest your arms and exercise your legs.

Wind Creek State Park sports 626 campsites, with 187 of them situated along the lake’s shoreline. You can pull in with your large RV or toss up a tent. Wind Creek caters to campers of all kinds. For more information, call 256/329-0845 or check out alapark.com/windcreek.

Everglades National Park, Florida
Remarkably, just beyond the urban sprawl of metropolitan Miami exists one of the wildest national parks in the country. The Everglades — a World Heritage Site — sprawls across the southern tip of Florida’s mainland and extends out into the Keys. This wetland supports an incredible diversity of wildlife, from the endangered Florida panther to the endangered manatee.

Birders will be blown away by the number of species that call the ’Glades home. Large, wading birds such as the roseate spoonbill, wood stork, great blue heron and a variety of egrets are particularly prevalent. The Everglades are the only place in the world where the American alligator and crocodile exist side by side. Even with these formidable reptiles in the water, paddlers revel in the endless channels and waterways they can explore.

Everglades National Park supports temperate and tropical plant communities, including sawgrass prairies, mangrove and cypress swamps, pinelands and hardwood hammocks. There are also marine habitats around the hundreds of islands included in the park between the mainland and the keys. Campers should explore the options provided by the National Park Service.

Everglades National Park’s Flamingo Campground on the southwest side of the park has 237 drive-in sites and 65 walk-in sites. New this year, 41 of those drive-in sites have electrical hookups available. For more details, call 305/242-7700 or go to nps.gov/ever.

Acadia National Park, Maine
Canoeing freshwater lakes in Acadia National Park.
Sea kayaking reigns supreme in Acadia, but an abundance of freshwater lakes and well-sheltered marine bays ensures canoeists will find ample opportunities, too. Mount Desert Island offers the greatest array of paddling potential. Somes Pond provides excellent inland canoeing, and the access stream runs just a short distance to Somes Sound.

The Sound can be heavily influenced by tidal flows, so canoeists should stick close to shore, but even along the shorelines, canoeists can frequently spot porpoises playing in the Sound. Long Pond provides more expansive canoeing opportunities, while Jordan Pond (near Blackwoods Campground) provides incredible birding opportunities on its sheltered, tree-lined waters.

Blackwoods Campground, on the shores of Otter Cove, offers 306 campsites on the southeastern shore of Mount Desert Island. Kayakers can explore Otter Cove by taking their kayaks about half a mile from the cove, but canoeists should stick to the inland waters just minutes from camp. For more information, call 207/288-3338 or visit nps.gov/acad.

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