Canoeing The Upper Kaw River in Eastern Kansas

The Kansas River, also know as the Kaw River, stretches 170 miles from its origin in Junction City, Kansas to its confluence with the Missouri River. It is the only public canoeing stream in Northern Kansas.

Solitary sandbars, bald eagles, pileated woodpeckers, and the subtle beauty of the largest expanse of tallgrass prairie left on earth are good reasons to float the Upper Kaw River. The Kaw is a popular canoe stream below Topeka but farther west on the river few people take the time to float it. The 65 river miles between Junction City and Maple Hill are a dynamic showcase of windswept prairie interspersed with small clutches of oak-hickory and cottonwood-sycamore bottomland forest. Like most farm-country streams there are no rapids but abundant wildlife and the scenic background make the lazy 3-mph pace just about perfect.

Put-In: Grant Park, Junction City, KS.
Take-Out: Bridge on Maple Hill Road, Maple Hill, KS.
Miles of Paddling: Up to 65.

On a three-day recent trip, while ensconced in a frozen bank of fog so thick we briefly couldn’t see either shore, the Kaw felt like a place trapped between two worlds – the old world of the Kansa Indians who lived along the river until the 1840s and the new world of modern agriculture that made this valley the “Breadbasket of the Nation.”

With so little traffic the upper Kaw is a great place to view wildlife. Near the community of Swamp Angel we saw a log in the middle of the river that turned out to be a white-tailed deer crossing the channel. We caught up to her right as she reached shore and disappeared into a thicket of scouring rush. I couldn’t help but wonder what made her cross the river knowing we were so close. Was she being pursued by one of the mountain lions that some people think are repopulating the Kaw Valley?

You can camp on any of hundreds of sandbars and dream of the buffalo that once crossed the river by the millions or overnight in Manhattan and Wamego. For a day trip put in under the Ogden Bridge (river right) and float to Manhattan’s river park under Kansas Highway 177. This stretch of river was sacred to the Kansa, and although broken pottery shards and worked pieces of chert on sandbars attest to its long human history, today you’re more likely to see a beaver or a mink than a person.

If You Go
There are no commercial trips but the Web sites of Kansas Canoe and Kayak Association ( and Friends of the Kaw( offer plenty of tools and tips for planning your float.

Manhattan has a great outdoor and paddle shop, The Pathfinder, 304 Ponytz Ave (, 785-539-5639).

The river is ice-free from March to November but consider going in October when the prairie grass has turned orange and russet and wintering bald eagles return.

While You’re There
Three miles into the float from Junction City walk up the hill at river left to visit the first territorial capital of Kansas.
In Manhattan hike the public trail at Konza Prairie and then grab a beer in Aggieville or have dinner at Little Apple Brewery, 440 Westloop, 785-539-5500.
In historic downtown Wamego get a haircut at Scizzors of Ahhhz, 319 1/2 Lincoln Avenue, and then cross the street for lunch at Toto’s Tacoz, 517 Lincoln Ave 785-456-8090.
Puffy’s Ice House, 215 N. Main Street, Maple Hill, 785-256-4329, is famous statewide for locally raised beef.

Fast Fact:
Manhattan, home of Kansas State University, was supposed to be located at the head of the Kaw where Junction City is today, but in 1855 the steamboat Hartford grounded on a sandbar and its 75 passengers, weary of travel, founded the town on a site one mile east of the Big Blue River.

“George Frazier is a software engineer and freelance writer who lives in
Lawrence, Kansas.”

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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