Water Trails in the West

Five water trails offer unique ways to explore natural areas from the comfort of a kayak or canoe.

Columbia River Gorge with an orange hued sunset, picture
The sun rises over the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon.
JPL Designs / Shutterstock

One of the best ways to explore nature is to drift along in a canoe or kayak and take in the sights. These five water trails offer a unique way to see historic sights and local birdlife. It's an adventure you won't forget.

Lower Columbia River Water Trail

Meandering between Washington and Oregon, the Lower Columbia River Water Trail runs 146 miles from Bonneville Dam to the Pacific Ocean, passing through wetlands and wildlife refuges, alongside historic sites and abandoned riverfront towns, and between the towering cliffs of the Columbia River Gorge. There are plenty of launch and landing sites for canoes, kayaks, and even rowboats along the way, as well as campsites and bed-and-breakfasts for multi-day trips. Scappoose Bay Paddling Center offers rentals and guided tours.

Upper Klamath Canoe Trail

Located within Oregon's 15,000-acre Upper Klamath Wildlife Refuge, the Upper Klamath Canoe Trail offers an alternative way to observe local bird life. The self-guided, day-use trail flows through freshwater marsh and open lakes and features four distinct segments including Crystal Creek, which provides a great view of nearby Mt. McLoughlin. Keep an eye out for herons, osprey, and river otters. Rocky Point Resort has one of trail's two launch sites and also rents out canoes and skiffs.


San Francisco Bay Area Water Trail

The San Francisco Bay Area Water Trail is a continuously growing, non-linear trail linking various Bay Area counties. It is designed for all types of human-powered water activities, including kayaking, paddleboarding, windsurfing, and even dragon boating. Spend a day paddling around San Francisco or take a multi-day trip up the bay, setting up camp along the shore. There are numerous access points along the trail, as well as dozens of rental shops and boating clubs open to the public.

Black Canyon National Water Trail

Not only was the Black Canyon National Water Trail the Southwest's first national water trail, it's also the only one that travels through a desert. Beginning at Nevada’s Hoover Dam (where a launch permit is required), the 30-mile trail winds its way through the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, passing among steep canyons—where you can often spot desert bighorn sheep—and by historic sites and easily accessible hot springs. There are more than a dozen kayak and canoe outfitters in the area, some even offer guided tours.

Willamette River Water Trail

Flowing 187 miles along Oregon's Willamette River—along with several more miles along two fork rivers and one of the Willamette's tributaries—the Willamette River Water Trail winds past floodplain forests and open farmland, and even features a 30-foot drop at one point (portage is required to navigate this stretch). The water tends to flow fastest from Eugene to Corvallis, while the stretch from the Yamhill River through Portland is more relaxing and serene. You’ll find plenty of launch and landing points, campsites, and rental places for securing a kayak, canoe, or stand-up paddleboard.

This article was first published in October 2015 and last updated in September 2020.