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Wisconsin Interstate Park to Osceola Landing, St. Croix River, Minnesota
Sometimes the easy way really is the best way. Case in point: You could hike alongside the St. Croix’s glacially carved cliffs—or you could kick back and float the lazy river below them. For the latter—a 7-mile paddle through a flatwater section of this National Wild and Scenic River—launch from Wisconsin Interstate State Park (leave a shuttle car at Osceola Landing; commercial option below). Nab your first glimpse of the 50-foot cliffs near mile 1; they’re covered in fragrant and rare Oregon cliff ferns. Keep your eyes peeled for eagles and herons overhead and foxes, beavers, pine martens, and white-tail deer near the shore. Peer in the clear water to see vast mussel beds, too. Look for a channel to the southeast (paddler’s left) after Franconia Landing near mile 3; take this about a mile to Peaslee and Lower Lakes for primo swimming (overnight option here; free permit required). Link back up with the main river and continue south to Osceola Landing. Before heading out, call to check water flow; if it’s below 3,000 cfs, avoid the lakes channel (or get ready to portage). Boat rental and shuttle Riverwood Canoe ($30/day canoes with free shuttle; riverwoodcanoe.com) Contactnps.gov/sacn
Ross Island, Willamette River, Oregon
Not only could you do this paddle in a day, but you could do it after work: The 5-mile loop around 400-acre Ross Island makes our list because you can get a full dose of nature without leaving the urban jungle. Ross Island (located in the Willamette River) hosts beavers, river otters, and more than 50 bird species—as well as a spectacular skyline view of downtown Portland. Put in at Sellwood Riverfront Park and head north, staying in the shallows for easier paddling. Reach Ross Island near mile 1; either paddle to shore to explore the beaches or continue circumnavigating it to the great blue heron rookery on the northern shore. Access the island’s lagoon from its east shore, and then watch for bald eagles, kingfishers, and ospreys. Paddle back into the Holgate Channel and head south by the Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge, scanning the shores for deer and mink, en route back to Sellwood Riverfront Park. Boat rental Alder Creek Kayak & Canoe ($40/half day; aldercreek.com) Contactwillamettewatertrail.org
Nine Mile Pond, Everglades National Park, Florida
The only thing that might raise your hair more than spotting a gator while you’re on a hike? Seeing one cruise past your canoe. To get that thrill—plus a chance at spying double-crested cormorants, great blue herons, endangered snail kites, and garfish—paddle 5 miles through grassy marshes and past
mangrove islands on this loop that doubles as an animal funhouse. It’s only accessible by boat, so put in at the Nine Mile Pond parking area and head east (counterclockwise) past carnivorous, ferny bladderwort plants and pink bromeliads (in bloom November through July). Stay alert in the final miles; the best spot to see animals along the way is in the two small ponds near trail markers #115 and #116. Dawn and dusk are the best times to spy most wildlife, but keep an eye out for gators sunning themselves midday. (Prepare for humidity, but September is a great time for paddling because it’s the wet season. Still, call ahead to check water levels; some sections are impassable in low water.) Boat rental Flamingo Marina ($32 for eight hours; bit.do/FlamingoMarina) Contactnps.gov/ever