Can You Canoe Anywhere? (Places to Go & Places to Avoid)

Canoeing is a perfect way to relax and spend a few hours away from the humdrum of the cities and towns, provided there is a right of public access to the waterways where you intend to canoe. Unfortunately, not all places are suitable or allowed for canoeing, and there are even some places where you would need a river license to canoe.

You cannot canoe anywhere, as most government agencies and landowners only consider exceptionally large rivers fit for canoeing. However, this is hotly debated as the Supreme Court considers that the public owns rivers where it’s possible to run small watercraft, such as canoes.

This article will delve deep and explore the various aquatic landscapes where people generally go canoeing and look at those places where a river license is required and those where canoeing is absolutely prohibited. You will also find information on identifying popular destinations for canoeing.

Aquatic Landscapes Where People Typically Canoe

There are beautiful aquatic landscapes all around the US where people go canoeing. People take their canoes to paddle on a wide assortment of aquatic landscapes, including lakes, rivers, streams, ponds, swamps, and oceans.

Some even plan on venturing on canoe camping expeditions. Essentially, these are multiple-day canoeing trips through gorgeous landscapes with intermittent breaks that allow for camping in the wilderness.

In the US, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and the Voyageurs National Park – both in Minnesota, Everglades National Park in Florida, Ozark National Scenic Riverways in Missouri, and the Ross Lake in Washington State are some of the most beautiful aquatic landscapes for canoeing. Let’s take a look at each of these aquatic landscapes in greater detail to have a better sense of what kinds of areas people go canoeing.

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota

This location is a vast wilderness zone located within the Superior National Forest in Minnesota. It is under the administration of the US Forest Service. This place is blessed with glacial lakes, forests, and streams and is a popular destination for canoeing, fishing, and hiking.

The lakes in this region have been formed due to large-scale erosion over two million years. These depressions eventually filled with water and became the lakes that we see today.

Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota

Minnesota is known as the land of a thousand lakes. The Voyageurs National Park is another lake that offers unparalleled scenic beauty and is a great place to canoe. It has outstanding water sources and even houses an entire Kabetogama Peninsula within its bounds.

The entire park has facilities for boat ramps and is also equipped with visitor centers on the periphery. In the winter months, a snowmobile or a ski is needed to access the park as the water gets completely frozen.   

Everglades National Park, Florida

This national park is considered to be the largest wilderness on the east of the Mississippi River. UNESCO declared this park to be a World Heritage site in 1979. It is a network of wetlands and forests and has a unique and extraordinary ecosystem. It is also the breeding ground for tropical wading birds from North America.

There are visitor centers within this National Park that give canoers access to the waterway, which is almost 99 miles (roughly 160 km) long.  

Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Missouri

This riverway is located in the Ozarks area in Missouri. The park measures 80,000 acres (324 sq. km.) and houses various flora and fauna. Needless to say, it is a very scenic landscape that attracts canoeists from all across the nation.

The entire aquatic landscape is peppered with caves, springs, and camping grounds, making it ideal for canoeing and exploration.

Ross Lake, Washington

This canoeing destination is a large reservoir in the northern part of Washington state and runs 23 miles (37 km) in length. Tall peaks surround the lake in all directions. Rivers and creeks originating from the high-altitude glaciers flow in from these mountains down to the lakes.  

Paddlers travel from far and wide to witness this place for themselves because of its beautiful aquatic landscapes and the many available fishing opportunities. If you plan to canoe and camp, then backcountry camping permits may be required, though this is easy to obtain from the National Park Service offices in Marblemount.

If you would like to better understand what canoeing on Ross Lake feels like, check out the video below!

Places That Require a River License for Canoeing

Seven states in the US require canoe owners to register their watercraft. They are Alaska, Ohio, Illinois, Oklahoma, Iowa, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania (source). Apart from these seven states, other states such as Oregon, New Hampshire, Washington, Connecticut, and Maine are considering new registration requirements for paddle crafts.

There are also specific river bodies where you would need a permit or a river license for canoeing (source). Some of these places include:

Tyger River, South Carolina

This river body is home to a variety of plants and animals. Eagles and waterfowls are often sighted here. However, you will need a permit before you get your canoe into the river here. Also, unlike many other places, this place does not provide canoes or kayaks for hire, and you are expected to bring your own.

There are also white-water rapids that you may find here. Though, it does not require much skill to navigate these rapids as they are relatively serene. It offers you a chance to admire the natural flora and fauna as you glide through the river in your canoe.

Salmon River, Idaho

Canoeing through this wondrous place will offer you sightings of bears, eagles, sheep, and even otters who call this place their home. You do not need to be an expert at canoeing to tackle the waters here. Instead, you can sit back and enjoy the scenery as you take your canoe out for the day.

A permit is required to navigate the waters of the Salmon-Challis National Forest. As a bonus, camping facilities are also offered.

Tuolumne River, Yosemite National Park

Located in the Yosemite National Park, accessing the Tuolumne river’s waterways is allowed with a permit. This place is full of Class 4 rapids that are a perfect getaway for adventure-seeking enthusiasts.

There are waterfalls and canyons as you make your way across the river. Usually, people choose to make this a multi-day tour, so campsites are also available alongside the river body.

Devils River, Texas

This river is of outstanding beauty running between two deserts—the Chihuahua and the Tamaulipas and provides great scenery for anyone who takes the route. A diverse variety of fish thrives in this river, making this an ideal spot for fishing.

The rapids here are quite strong, and it’s recommended that only those who are experts in navigating strong rapids take this route. The entire course of the Devils River takes three days to complete. You are also required to obtain a permit before you go into this river.  

Eleven Point National Scenic River, Missouri

This river is calm and perfect for canoeing. However, you do require a permit before going into the river. It offers glorious views of the surrounding and abounding nature with sycamore trees standing tall and gracefully under the Missouri skies.

The place is also steeped in history. The river makes its way through the Ozark Hills of Missouri, which were once used as gold mines in the past. Fishing is also a common activity around here. However, if you’re looking for certain specific species, you might need a permit before you go on the fishing expedition.

Lake Tahoe, California and Nevada

Sprawled across two states, going out canoeing on this lake requires a special permit. The place is known for its marvelous sunsets. The skies are clear, and so it makes a perfect spot for some stargazing.

As you canoe your way down the lake, you can enjoy the beautiful scenery of this place, complete with forests and mountains. It makes for an excellent getaway if you are looking to escape from the bustle of civilization and take a break amidst nature.

Aquatic Landscapes Where People Cannot Canoe

The laws governing canoes vary in that they’re largely contingent on the body of water and the government agency with jurisdiction.

The United States Coast Guard lists out a set of regulations with regards to canoeing. This, together with the local laws of the government agency in a particular jurisdiction, usually decides whether the water body is suitable for canoeing or not (source).

There are also regulated navigation areas and areas with limited access where canoeing is not allowed (source). In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in 2001 and the earlier attacks on the USS Cole in Aden Harbour in Yemen, the government established certain safety and security zones to keep US Naval vessels—and other cruise and commercial vehicles—safe.

For this reason, you may be required to maintain a 100-yard distance if a naval vessel passes near to where you are canoeing. The coast guard will not hesitate to reprimand anyone who decides to canoe too closely. Therefore, abiding by this rule is critical to avoid getting involved in legal jeopardy, or worse, risking personal injury.

The same rule applies to other military vessels, cruise liners, and even some commercial vessels. Non-compliance with these laws may result in a hefty fine of $250,000 and/or 6 years in prison.  

If you are canoeing under a bridge or a chipping channel, you cannot stop or anchor yourself under the bridge or shipping channel. You must keep moving without delay. If you choose to anchor yourself there, then there’s a high probability that you’ll be asked to move by law enforcement officials.

How to Identify if a Water Location Is Safe for Canoeing?

Canoeing is considered to be one of the safest outdoor activities. However, a bit of precaution is always a good idea.

Generally, any flat water surface is a great choice for canoeing. Things start to get a little more complex as rapids and white water rafting gets introduced to the picture, though many have been able to canoe in class 1 through 3 rapids quite comfortably. Nonetheless, more advanced skills are required if you cross over to something like class 4 rapids.

Choosing a paddling spot that is fairly sheltered—both from wind and waves—makes a great spot for canoeing. Also, look for places that are easily reachable and accessible from land along the entire course, as that will help you steer to safety should things abruptly go south.

Apart from choosing the right water location to ensure maximum safety for canoeing, there are a few other things that you can do to make sure that you’re safe during your entire trip on the canoe. Some of these things include:

  • Avoid Drinking When You Go Canoeing – Alcohol has been the cause of many road accidents and many boat-related accidents.
  • Wear a Life Jacket – Life jackets are quite light and easy to wear. It is just an added precaution that you can have when you go canoeing and ensure that you are safe even if it gets windy or counter unforeseen large waves.
  • Dress According to the Weather – If you are canoeing in particularly cold weather, you must dress conservatively, and vice versa.

Choosing the right spot for canoeing is not enough unless you also invest in all the other ancillary requirements that go along with it. Of course, having a safe water location is of the utmost importance when you go canoeing. To make it more enjoyable, you should also take some precautions and be prepared for a sudden turn in the weather conditions.

Popular Locations Where Paddlers Go Canoeing

There are many canoe trips that you can take all around the United States. Some of these places are unbelievably scenic and refreshing. After the hectic weeks in the city, taking a canoe out into the waterways surrounded by nature can be a welcome break. Fortunately, the US is privileged to have many such places where you can go canoeing. Here’s a list of some of the most popular locations where paddlers go canoeing:

Northern Forest Canoe Trail, New York to Maine

It is 740 miles (roughly 1190 km) long and is connected from New York to Maine. The trail passes through other lovely places along the way, including Vermont, New Hampshire, and Quebec. Of course, making the entire trail will take some time, which you may not have in your hands. Rather you can pick your route around the many rivers and streams that dot this trail and create your own itinerary.

Noatak River, Alaska

If you are looking for an isolated spot that opens up to an idyllic remote wilderness, the Noatak River in Alaska would be just the right choice for your canoe trip. It is located above the Arctic circle, and so it is quite cold year-round. Various landscapes will catch your eye along this route—right from glacial valleys to deep canyons, open plains, and the alpine tundra. Look out for the Alaskan wildlife as you navigate your way along this region.

Allagash Wilderness Waterway, Maine

If you are looking for a scenic setting for your canoeing adventure, it does not get any more interesting than this. The entire area is speckled with lakes, ponds as well as streams, and rivers. There are blueberry shrubs and bear and moose inhabited woods flanked on either side of you as you row down the water. Autumn is one of the best times to visit this place. The entire forested area is ablaze in soothing autumnal hues, and the weather is not that cold yet.    

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia

This is a heavily forested region with swamps and watery terrains, which you will find quite alluring. This is not as cold as the Noatak River in Alaska, and it could be rather humid due to the swamps in the region here, but it does offer a different kind of view and a different adventure altogether.

Green River, Utah

The calm waters in Utah’s Green River are a great option if you’re going out canoeing with little children or lack the experience necessary for rougher waterways. The river is vast, and the water is not at all turbulent. On both sides, you have excellent wildlife and scenery to keep you company.

If you’re new to canoeing, consider investing in these Intex Boat and Kayak Oars series. It comes in a pair, and each paddle is 48 inches (approximately 122 cm). It is lightweight and relatively easy to assemble. In addition, the paddles are very durable and perfect for small canoes.


Canoeing is very enjoyable if you have planned your route meticulously to have no hiccups along the way. Ensure that you have researched the region where you want to canoe. Also, it doesn’t hurt to give a wide berth to those landscapes where people are prohibited from canoeing.

Hopefully, this article has helped shed some light on places where you can and cannot canoe. Feel free to refer to the list of popular destinations for canoeing when planning your next trip.

Sources: 1 2 3 4 5 6

Austin Carmody

I am the owner of HydroPursuit. I enjoy kicking back and getting out on the water as much as I can in my free time.

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