Paddling's Greatest Getaways

16 wild ways to find backcountry solitude and big-time scenery. All this, and you can bring the ice chest, too.
Avatar:
Author:
Publish date:
Social count:
0
16 wild ways to find backcountry solitude and big-time scenery. All this, and you can bring the ice chest, too.

{Washington}

Best Island Hopping

Sea kayak through the San Juans' emerald water, camp on wild beaches, and call orcas by name.

Don't judge the San Juan Islands by the lines of traffic waiting to board the ferry at Anacortes. Those other folks are there for the islands' quaint towns, busy lodges, and ubiquitous smoked salmon. As a paddler, you can find serenity (and salmon, too) while striking out into one of the planet's premier sea kayaking destinations. A rain shadow cast by the Olympic Mountains creates surprisingly clear weather for the Northwest, with sweet sunsets and good visibility for the life-list sights: orcas and other whales, Dall's porpoises, bald eagles perched in 200-foot Douglas firs, and scores of secluded islands on which to wash up for the night.

For a low-mileage weekend trip, head to Stuart Island, a 5-mile paddle from Roche Harbor on San Juan's north end (add 5 miles if you start at Friday Harbor, where the ferry docks). The current in the mile-wide channel crossing can be strong and fast, so check tide charts (aim to start toward the end of a flood tide; www.saltwatertides.com). Camp at Prevost Harbor for beachfront sites, and be sure to hike the 3-mile dirt road to an abandoned clifftop lighthouse with sensational views across the Haro Strait to the Canadian Gulf Islands. Keep a lookout for the San Juans' famed orcas--more than 80 named individuals inhabit the strait from May to October. Got more time? Make your way to the remote islands north of Orcas Island--Clark, Matia, Sucia, and Patos. Arrange kayak rentals through the folks at Discovery Sea Kayaks (www.discoveryseakayak.com); they can set you up with a local guide to come along and help with route-planning, navigation, and paddling, while you bring your own food and gear.

Get there

Board the ferry at Anacortes (70 miles north of Seattle via I-5). Kayak rentals, groceries, and other services are available at Friday Harbor. Ferry info: (800) 843-3779;

www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries

Season

May through September; avoid the busiest midsummer weekends

Difficulty

Moderate. Basic sea kayaking skills are required, but wind and current can create challenging conditions. Beginners should not attempt open-water crossings without a guide.

Contact

Washington State Parks, (360) 902-8844;

www.sanjuanislandsdirectory.com

{

Oregon}

Top Wilderness Whitewater

Feisty rapids and quiet camping await on the Wild and Scenic Rogue River.

Running whitewater rivers is like drinking wine: For the perfect experience, you want neither too much nor too little. The Rogue's forgiving rapids guarantee the perfect buzz, delivering full-bodied fun but dialing down the spin cycle just enough to suit beginners. The 35-mile run bisects a lush wilderness of fir forests and azalea and rhododendron thickets. Secluded riverside campsites at places like Whiskey Creek and Battle Bar offer ringside seats to watch the Rogue's legendary menagerie: ospreys, bald eagles, bears, otters, steelhead, and other wildlife. Allow time for hiking the parallel Rogue River Trail and for a detour to the smooth-rock water slide at Tate Creek. If you've got the paddling chops for Class II-IV rapids, secure a river permit and do it yourself (rentals and shuttles:

wildrogue.com

). Prefer a guide? Rafting hedonism goes upscale with Wilderness River Journeys, which adds classical music and wine tasting to its 5-day September trip ($925,

www.riverjourneys.com/rogue.html

).

Get there

From Galice, OR, take Galice Road 3 miles to the Rand BLM office to pick up the required permit, then continue 5 miles to the put-in at Grave Creek. The take-out is at Foster Bar Landing, off Forest Route 33.

Season

May through October; upstream dams allow for a long boating season. Check flows for the Rogue and other rivers at

water.usgs.gov/waterwatch

.

Difficulty

Moderate. It's Class II-IV, but at average flows even beginners paddle the Rogue in inflatable kayaks.

Contact

Bureau of Land Management, (541) 479-3735;

www.or.blm.gov/rogueriver

. To run it this year: Call for permit cancellations and open slots in the fall. Next year: Apply for private permits after November 15, 2005.

{

Arizona/California}

Best Winter Escape

Paddle through Topock Gorge in January;

pack beer and sunscreen.

If you have an extra few grand to give yourself a Christmas present, go ahead and book a flight to the Turks and Caicos. We won't stop you. But for a T-shirt-and-Tevas escape that doesn't require a home-equity loan, head to the Lower Colorado River's Topock Gorge. The 20-mile red-rock canyon is the crown jewel of the Havasu National Wildlife Refuge, itself a little-known prize of nearly 40,000 desert acres tucked away on the California-Arizona border. Look for rare birds such as the southwestern willow flycatcher, plus frequent visitors like roadrunners, herons, and egrets. The mellow flatwater allows you to soak up the sun while scanning the cliffs for bighorn sheep, bobcats, and Native American rock art. Jerkwater Canoe and Kayak (

www.jerkwater.com

) rents boats and shuttles paddlers on day and overnight trips.

Get there

For a daytrip, paddle 16 miles from Topock Gorge Marina (off I-40 in Needles, CA) to Castle Rock (west off AZ 95 north of Lake Havasu City). Or camp at one of the riverside sites just downstream from Castle Rock (no camping is allowed in the wildlife refuge) and take out at Lake Havasu State Park.

Season

October through April

Difficulty

Easy

Contact

Havasu National Wildlife Refuge, (760) 326-385;

www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/arizona/havasu

{

California/Nevada}

Perfect Hot Springs

Enjoy mild rapids and a wilderness soak on the remote East Fork of the Carson River.

If this stream were on the Sierra Nevada's west side, boaters would be lining up like frappuccino addicts at Starbucks. Instead, it runs down the east side--starting high near Sonora Pass, tumbling through pine forests of the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness, and leveling off in Nevada's high desert--leaving it to a few paddlers in the know. The 20-mile run has a short, snowmelt-dependent season, but here's why it's worth watching the water gauge: Continuous Class I-II+ rapids serve up a perfect float for beginners, and the 104°F hot springs located just past Sidewinder, an S-turn rapid midway through, will satisfy boaters of any ability. Good campsites are located on benches nearby.

Get there

Start at Hangman's Bridge on CA 89, near Markleeville. The take-out is just above Ruhenstroth Dam (5 miles south of Gardnerville off of US 395). Be sure to heed the graffiti warnings to take out on river right, before the dam. Shuttle and outfitter info:

www.c-w-r.com/rivers/east-carson

.

Season

May and June

Difficulty

Moderate. This section is Class I-II; start 7 miles upstream for Class III.

Contact

Carson National Forest, (775) 882-2766;

www.fs.fed.us/r4/htnf/districts/carson.shtml

{

Arizona}

Best Southwest Wilderness

Fire and water mix on the Verde River.

Spanish explorers nabbed naming rights for many Southwest landmarks, and with the Verde River they went for the obvious-with good reason. The perennial stream cuts a startling green swath through the Sonoran Desert in central Arizona. From dull jade water to emerald-bright cottonwoods and willows to a prickly green gallery of saguaro, yucca, cholla, and agave, the Wild and Scenic Verde is one of those rare places where life doesn't just survive in the searing desert heat, it thrives. Riverside cottonwood stands shelter more than 1,000 pairs of birds per 100 acres, the highest avian density in North America. Rare resident Southwest bald eagles nest on clifftops, and native fish such as the Sonora sucker, roundtail chub, and Colorado squawfish swim in pristine pools.

Between Camp Verde and Horseshoe Reservoir, the river runs for 58 free-flowing miles through the sprawling Mazatzal Wilderness, a vast chunk of desert so wild and empty it's used for NOLS courses. The stream descends in a series of moderate rapids and calm pools. (The river is suitable for all ability levels, but beware of Verde Falls, a Class V drop just a few miles downstream from Beasley Flat. Portage around it on river left.) The rest of the way is desert perfection: sun-baked beach camps, star-filled skies, and hot springs at the Childs and Sheep Bridge take-outs. Multiple access points allow either a

2- or 5-day trip; do the upper section from Beasley Flat to Childs if you're short on time. Few outfitters operate on the Verde because of unpredictable flows; check with Mild to Wild (www.mild2wildrafting.com) for spring trips.

Get there

The put-in at Beasley Flat is about 10 miles south of Camp Verde via FR 529 and FR 574. For the Childs take-out, head east 7 miles on AZ 260 from Camp Verde, then turn right onto FR 708; go 14 miles, then take another right onto FR 502. For the Sheep Bridge take-out, start on I-17 south of Cordes Junction and drive east 38 miles on Bloody Basin Rd. (FR 269); high-clearance vehicle recommended.

Season

The runoff-dependent Verde can be boated all year if there's enough water (look for flows above 200 cfs; call 602-236-5929 or see "World Wide Water," below). Best times are February through April, and after monsoon rains in August and September. Beware of flash-flood conditions after storms.

Difficulty

Moderate. The Class II-III rapids are rocky and technical-and hard on canoes-at flows below 400 cfs.

Contact

Prescott National Forest, (928) 567-4121;

www.fs.fed.us/r3/prescott/about/verde.shtml

{

North Dakota}

Best of the Badlands

Lose yourself in a prairie dreamscape on the Little Missouri River.

Theodore Roosevelt claimed he never would have become president if not for his experiences hunting and camping in North Dakota's Badlands. Paddling through big-sky country in TR's namesake national park-a land so vast the locals call it "miles and miles of miles and miles"-is still a life-altering event. The slow, coffee-and-milk river snakes through a steep-banked channel bordered by rolling prairie, surreal clay buttes, and starkly beautiful badlands dotted with sagebrush and juniper. The best 4- to 5-day trip is a 110-mile section that bisects the North and South units of the park. Camp on cottonwood-shaded sandbars and big-view benches by night, and scan for bison, elk, and bighorn sheep by day.

Get there

Start at Medora on I-94 at the park's South Unit, and end at I-85 just past the North Unit.

Season

April through June, but check with the park on flow. You want at least 2 feet of water at Medora to avoid boat dragging.

Difficulty

Easy. It's all flatwater.

Contact

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, (701) 623-4466;

www.nps.gov/thro

{

Montana}

Killer Mountain Scenery

Float the wildlife-rich west side of Glacier National Park on this local-secret river.

What a difference a few miles make. While boatloads of summer tourists crowd the Middle Fork of the Flathead River on daily outfitter trips, the quiet North Fork goes almost unnoticed as it flows out of Canada, just a couple of hours away via a rough gravel road. The 58-mile, moderate whitewater journey on the Wild and Scenic River starts with views of Glacier's Kintla and Numa Peaks, then passes through remote elk, moose, and bear habitat on the park's border (watch for grizzlies, store food properly, and keep a clean camp). Some of this stretch burned in the fires of 2000, but showy wildflower displays are the dividend today. Superb backcountry campsites can be found all along the river, but stay only on river right, on Forest Service land (avoid private property), as camping is prohibited on the national park side. You can do the whole section in 4 days, but allow more time if you want to cast for the river's legendary cutthroat.

Get there

The North Fork Road parallels the free-flowing Flathead. Drive north from Columbia Falls and put in at Polebridge if the water level is low, or another 10 miles upstream if flow is good. Take-out is at Blankenship Bridge on Blankenship Bridge Road.

Season

May through September (avoid earlys-eason high flows)

Difficulty

Moderate, Class I-III

Contact

Flathead National Forest, (406) 758-5200;

www.fs.fed.us/r1/flathead

{

Colorado}

Top Fish-and-Float

Pack a fly rod for the wild Gunnison River Gorge.

Ever been bounced from a restaurant for being underdressed? This river's difficult put-in unceremoniously rejects underprepared paddlers. But come ready for the notorious Chukar Trail, a mile-long path that descends 550 switchbacking feet from trailhead to launch, and you're in for the best wilderness float-and-fish trip in Colorado. The fat rainbows and browns have inspired anglers to dub this section the Gold Medal Gunny. You start just downstream from Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, where the cold, clear river slices through a deep rift of dark granite and basalt and blood-red sandstone. Sealed in by high walls, you paddle 14 miles of alternating whitewater and quiet pools through Gunnison Gorge, where it's just you, the fish, and perhaps a bald eagle or three. It's possible to make the trip in one long day, but it's a better vacation to spend one or two nights in the canyon. No permit is required, and designated campsites (first-come first-serve, register at the trailhead) ensure solitude. Stay at Boulder Garden, midway through, and the sound of the next morning's rapids will lull you to sleep-or keep you awake.

Get there

The Chukar Trail is located at the end of a 7-mile high-clearance 4WD road. From Olathe, drive south 2 miles on US 50, then east 11 miles on Falcon Rd. and follow signs. Hire pack horses to carry gear down the Chukar (970-323-0115). The take-out is at Forks of the Gunnison, 14 miles east of Delta on CO 92. Gunnison River Pleasure Park (970-872-2525) provides shuttles.

Season

May through September. Avoid June, when the salmon stonefly hatch attracts high numbers of anglers.

Difficulty

Advanced. The Class II-IV rapids are best at 800-2,000 cfs (much below and it's very rocky; much above and the hydraulics become expert level).

Contact

Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area, (970) 240-5400;

www.co.blm.gov/ggnca

{

Arkansas}

Swimming Hole Heaven

Perfect your backstroke in warm, clear, and plentiful pools on the Buffalo River.

One of the perks of canoe camping is the deluxe carrying capacity (porterhouse, anyone?). Maximize your grilling time on the Buffalo River, which has a mind-blowing number of perfect campsites. Will it be a primitive backwoods site or a solitary gravel bar by one of those must-skinny-dip swimming holes? Between camps, you'll float on crystalline spring-fed water past hardwood forests that turn gold in the fall, azaleas and dogwoods that bloom in spring, and fern-draped hollows that stay green all summer. The surrounding wilderness is an ecological crossroads, where Southwest meets Southeast, where armadillos and roadrunners cross paths.

As America's first national river and one of its last major free-flowing waterways, the Buffalo gets a fair share of paddle traffic in summer. But unlike some lottery-only premier streams, you can put in on the Buff without so much as a permit. Bring your own boat, or rent from one of the many local canoe/shuttle outfitters (

www.buffalorivercanoerental.com

;

http://silverhill65.com

). You could easily spend a week on the 135-mile river, but the best 3-day trip is along the 50 miles between Ponca and Woolum Ford. Immediately after your launch, sheer 500-foot cliffs loom over the swift, twisting river. On the first day, pull off at Hemmed-in-Hollow, where you can scramble up a narrow, dead-end chasm to a 200-foot waterfall.

Get there

The Ponca put-in is at the junction of AR 43 and AR 74, near Boxley. Take out at Woolum; from St. Joe on US 65, drive west on AR 374.

Season

March through October; the upper section may get low in fall

Difficulty

Easy to moderate, with Class I-II+ rapids

Contact

Buffalo National River, (870) 741-5443;

www.nps.gov/buff

{

Missouri}

Perfect Family Float

Easy paddling and great sidetrips (bat cave, anyone?) distinguish the Eleven Point River.

This is the kind of low-key, backwoods river where the local sheriff's deputy doubles as a canoe outfitter and will happily tell you stories about arresting uppity out-of-towners. Message: Mooning strangers is frowned upon when floating this family-friendly river. Our suggestion? Paddle the Eleven Point-with or without kids-and keep your pants on. Start with a mile-long hike to Greer Spring, where 220 million gallons of agua bubble up through the dolomite every day, more than doubling the river's flow and making it boatable year-round. Stop for a night at Whites Creek Float Camp, on river left about 12 miles from Greer. There you can pick up trails through the Irish Wilderness and explore nearby Whites Creek Cave, a 500-yard-deep cavern full of wild formations (and bats, after mid-September, at which time it's closed).

Get there

Put in at Greer Access, north of Greer on MO 19.

Take out at MO 142, east of Billmore. Multiple access points allow daytrips. Rentals and shuttles:

www.missouricanoe.org/eleven.html

Season

Year-round; spring and fall are best

Difficulty

Easy. It's mostly Class I with a few Class II riffles.

Contact

Mark Twain National Forest, (573) 325-4233;

www.fs.fed.us/r9/forests/marktwain

{

Michigan/Minnesota}

Best Island Kayaking

Is there another national park where boaters, wolves, and blueberries mix so perfectly?

Like a day at the stock market, Isle Royale National Park's story can be told in numbers: More than 98 percent of this 850-square-mile island is designated wilderness, and it takes at least 2 hours to get there by ferry. The first two numbers are powerful attractors, but the last one keeps the kayaking crowds away. Result? Paddlers who make the effort to reach Isle Royale will find hermit-worthy solitude even in midsummer, when hikers flock to the park's trails but leave the coastal areas to kayakers. Two options: Camp near the Rock Harbor Lighthouse on Caribou or Tookers Islands, and explore the coastline and small offshore islands nearby; or tackle the three-portage route linking Chippewa Harbor, Lake Whittlesey, Wood Lake, Siskiwit Lake, and Intermediate Lake (a special permit allows you to camp anywhere along the shorelines; elsewhere, camping is restricted to designated sites). From Chippewa Harbor, ambitious paddlers can actually connect lake-to-lake portages all the way across the island and catch the ferry at McCargoe Cove. When you're not on the water, look for moose, listen for wolves, and hunt for blueberries.

Get there

Board the Voyageur II at Grand Portage, MN, and get dropped off at Chippewa Harbor (for the inland route) or Rock Harbor (for coastal paddling). Ferry service:

www.grand-isle-royale.com

. Kayak rentals and guided trips:

www.superiorcoastal.com

Season

May through October

Difficulty

Moderate. Bad weather can make coastal kayaking tough for inexperienced paddlers.

Contact

Isle Royale National Park, (906) 482-0984;

www.nps.gov/isro

{

Maine}

Best of The Maine Woods

Paddle, portage, and camp along the wild Allagash Wilderness Waterway.

The Allagash is to paddlers what the John Muir Trail is to hikers: a must-do journey that any motivated camper can make. In both places, the scenery is world-class, and the main challenge is time, not difficulty. You'll want at least a week to cover the Allagash's 92 miles; allow a few more days as a cushion for weather and rest.

The waterway is a classic Northeast canoe trail linking lakes, ponds, streams, rivers, and portages. In the fall, the North Woods catches fire with the reds and golds of maple, beech, and other hardwoods, while fir and spruce dominate the vast evergreen forests. You'll hear zany loon laughter, see bald eagles and moose and bears, and-if you're lucky and quiet-perhaps spot elusive locals such as the lynx or fisher. Spend nights in secluded camps where solitude is guaranteed; the state of Maine has installed more than 80 designated sites along the route. Most of the paddling is flatwater, but novices will be tested at the Class II Chase Rapids at mile 38. Allow plenty of time to savor Allagash Falls, then portage your boat and gear 200 yards around the drop. The only other portages are a couple of short walks around dams.

Get there

Put in at Chamberlain Lake (take Pinkham Rd. from Ashland); take out at Allagash Village on ME 11. Rentals and shuttles:

www.northmainewoods.org/business.html

.

Season

September and October; summer is possible, but buggy

Difficulty

Moderate. It's mostly flatwater (with some Class I-II paddling), but the route is long and remote.

Contact

Maine Parks, (207) 941-4014;

www.state.me.us/doc/parks/programs/db_search

. North Maine Woods, (207) 435-6213;

www.northmainewoods.org

{

Kentucky/Tennessee}

Top Whitewater Gorge

Rapids and remote wilderness come together on the Big South Fork River.

The Southeast has rivers the way a well-stocked iPod has songs: one for every mood. But few compare to this largely unheralded stream on the Cumberland Plateau, which has so much diversity in 80 miles it's like a giant paddling anthology. Want something upbeat? Put in at Burnt Mill Bridge and paddle 11 miles of fast-paced whitewater, where a string of Class II-III rapids leads into Double Falls, Washing Machine, and the Ell-all Class III-IV and packed close together in a 1-2-3 punch. The daytrip passes through a spectacular gorge lined with 600-foot cliffs, house-sized boulders, and hemlock-lined waterfalls. Prefer to tone it down? Choose the 25-mile, 2-day trip on the lower river, where you'll find tranquil water and quiet riverside campsites (there are easy portages at Angel Falls and Devils Jump). And these are just two among many options on the Big South Fork. Everywhere on the river, look for otters, bobcats, and black bears.

Get there

The gorge section starts at Burnt Mill Bridge, east of Allardt, TN (check status of bridge closure for best access). Take out at Leatherwood Ford, on Leatherwood Ford Road west of Oneida, TN. For the overnight journey, start at Leatherwood and take out at Blue Heron, off KY 742 west of Revelo, KY. Guided trips and shuttles:

www.ky-rafting.com

.

Season

April through June for the gorge, April through October for the lower section (though it can get low in dry years)

Difficulty

Easy to Advanced; Class I-IV, depending on section (the gorge is for experienced paddlers only)

Contact

Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, (423) 569-9778;

www.nps.gov/biso

. Camping permits required.

{

New York}

Canoe ClassicOld-school wilderness paddling meets weekend convenience in the Adirondacks. To state the obvious, canoes are not made for walking. But some of the country's best wilderness paddling requires portaging. The Adirondacks' 6 million acres are a crazy-quilt of lakes, bogs, rivers, beaver meadows, and forests, serving up scores of legendary portage trails. The payoff? A bonanza of secluded waterways and crowd-free campsites set amid stunning hardwoods and teeming with wildlife. The classic Seven Carries Route in the St. Regis Canoe Wilderness Area lets you practice hike-paddling while traversing 10 quiet ponds and lakes, but it's short enough to do in a long day or an easy overnight (wilderness campsites are located on St. Regis Pond and Little Long Pond). The historic 9-mile route once connected two Adirondack resorts, and requires-you guessed it-seven portages a few hundred yards long or less. Get there Put in at Little Green Pond, off of NY 30; take out at Lower St. Regis Lake, near the junction of NY 30 and NY 86. To shorten by one carry, start at Little Clear Pond (for route details see www.adirondacklakes.com/canoeguide/stregisinfo.htm). Rentals and shuttles: www.canoeoutfitters.com; www.adirondackoutfitters.comSeason June through October. Go during fall for riotous colors and fewer bugs. Difficulty Easy Contact Adirondack Regional Tourism Council, (800) 487-6867; http://adk.com/recreation/z-canoe.ht{Florida}Best Tropical PaddlingDozens of clear-water springs and easy navigation make the Santa Fe River a perfect day. During the hot months, crowds of tubers, divers, and swimmers swarm to northern Florida's spring-fed streams like mosquitoes to bare skin. But paddle the Santa Fe River in any other season, and you'll share it mostly with turtles, otters, and the odd alligator. The Santa Fe rises as a swampy, tannic trickle upstream from O'Leno State Park, then plunges underground for 3 miles before emerging at River Rise State Park-suddenly much bigger with an infusion from a local aquifer. From there, the Santa Fe flows past hardwood hammocks and through lush swamps, and both gains and loses water through dozens of 72°F springs and mysterious siphons. Twenty-six miles from River Rise, it merges with the Suwannee River-itself a 207-mile waterway with numerous state campgrounds that allow for overnight trips.Get there Put in at the US 41 bridge 2 miles northwest of High Springs, FL. Take out at the FL 47 bridge (13 miles) or US 129 bridge (26 miles). Rentals and shuttles: adventureoutpost.net; www.santaferiver.com.Season Fall through springDifficulty EasyContact Florida Greenways and Trail Systems, www.dep.state.fl.us/gwt; River Rise State Park, (386) 454-1853, www.floridastateparks.org/riverrise/default.cfmLarry Rice is a contributing editor to Canoe & Kayak, and has paddled on all seven continents during 30 years of boating.