Paddle to Your Next Hike — Eight Spots to Explore

Canoeing Ross Lake to the Desolation Peak hike. Photo Freya Fennwood

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Maybe the boat doesn’t appear anywhere on your hiking gear list, but it should. Turns out that some of the best spots to get to on foot require paddling. Consider the rugged coastline of Maine, or the many wonders off the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, the wave-worn northern shore of Lake Superior, or hot springs along the Rio Grande. All of them are best approached and appreciated by boat. Most are inaccessible any other way, or involve an epic effort overland. Dabble in eight of North America’s best here, and the next time you load up the backpack … throw in a boat.

Sand Island, Wisconsin

overnight kayak trip apostle Islands
The Apostle Islands offer a gentle introduction to open-water kayaking for beginners. Photo: Courtesy of Tim Wilson/Flickr Courtesy of Tim Wilson/Flickr

The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is packed with kayak destinations that connect to trails, lighthouses, quarries and sweet beaches on 21 islands. Sand Island is one of the most accessible: an easy, one-hour paddle from Little Sand Bay boat launch (visitor center open in summer) on the northern end of Bayfield Peninsula. Once across, check out the amazing sandstone sea caves along the island’s eastern coast. Park the boat and hike to the Sand Island Lighthouse where you’ll also find picturesque beaches to enjoy. Indulge for a day, or make an overnight of it at several established campsites. Sand Island is just off the radar enough to tamp down the tourist numbers. There is plenty more to do in the Apostles, and in the bucolic Lake Superior country of northern Wisconsin, but kick it off with Sand Island. More information at and

Thacher Island, Massachusetts

More of an urban outing, Thacher Island provides relief from the hustle-bustle of greater Boston. Rent a boat, sign up for a guided tour, or put your own kayak in the water at the boat launch in Rockport, Mass. A short, 2.5-mile paddle gets you to the island, where you can tour the twin lighthouses, get a unique perspective on the city of Boston and Massachusetts coastline, or wander and birdwatch in the National Wildlife Refuge, free from big city hassle. Camping is also available on the island, if you want to settle the pace on an overnight. Contact the North Shore Kayak Outdoor Center in Rockport ( for all the options.

Hole In The Rock, Montana

Canoeing along the White Cliffs of the Missouri River through Montana’s Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. Photo: Alamy

Get your Lewis & Clark on by canoeing the Wild and Scenic Missouri River in central Montana. Take two to three days from Coal Banks Landing to Judith Crossing, camp in some of the same sites the Corps used in 1805, and experience scenery little changed by the centuries. One of the most remarkable landmarks is Hole in the Rock, a short hike from the right bank, about 22 miles downstream of the put-in at Coal Banks. Scramble to the exposed fin of rock, walk it if you dare, and take in the wide views over the Big Sky state. Many other scenic spots come your way, including the White Cliffs section, also worth a side excursion. Go for an overnight or a week, start as far upstream as historic Fort Benton, Mont., and go as far down as Highway 191, just upstream of Fort Peck Reservoir, for the entire Wild and Scenic experience. Check it all out, from shuttles to guided trips, at Missouri River Outfitters.

Honaker Trail, Utah

Hiking the Honaker Trail, high above the scenic San Juan River. Courtesy Alan Kesselheim

Deep in the desert landscape of southern Utah, the San Juan River scribes its remarkable course through layers of ancient rock. Along the 56-mile section between Mexican Hat and Clay Hills Crossing, and just below the spectacular Goosenecks, it’s well worth spending a half-day hiking to the rim on river-right along the old Honaker Trail (roughly 16 river miles downstream of Mexican Hat). Built by miners in the late 1800s, the trail ascends a seemingly impassible set of cliffs on surprisingly well-graded switchbacks to reach the rim of the canyon and some sweeping views back over the Goosenecks and Monument Valley. The miners never struck it rich here, but the hike they built is truly a treasure. Find out about permits, river flows, shuttle services and more at the BLM office in Monticello, Utah (435/587-1544)

Perdido Key, Florida

Big-sky sunsets on Perdido Key. Photo: Tyler Domingue/Unsplash

The eastern-most island in the Gulf Islands National Seashore, Perdido Key showcases several historic sites worth strolling and snorkeling around. The seven-mile paddle across protected waters gets you to Battery 233, a WWII concrete feature still preserved in the sandy setting. Nearby lie the underwater remains of Fort McRee (circa 1837), now submerged, but visible through a snorkel mask. A boardwalk birding trail offers a chance to stretch your legs before the return paddle. Launch from Big Lagoon, at the Johnson Beach Ramp, which is a relatively quiet section of the shoreline and enjoy a day’s paddle trip into history. Details at

Dharma Bum Fire Tower, Desolation Peak, Washington

Ross Lake_RobLyon
Paddling, and then hiking Desolation Peak. (Read more on fishing and exploring Ross Lake.) Photo: Rob Lyon

If you’re a Kerouac fan, this is your pilgrimage. Jack Kerouac was here, manning the fire tower, back in the summer of 1956. Part of North Cascades National Park, Desolation Peak looms over Ross Lake, with the notable fire tower perched on top. Ross Lake is a worthy destination in its own right, with bays to explore, scenic camping, waterfalls to paddle to. Organize a trip through the Ross Lake Resort, where you can rent gear and go as rustic or plush as you’d like. Paddle a dozen or so miles up the lakeshore to camp, and then make the steep, three- to four-hour hike to the top of Desolation Peak. As you break out above treeline, the views of the Cascades, north into Canada, and west toward the Pacific are exhilarating. It’s a great long weekend, which could extend to a week’s worth of exploring the big lake and surrounding country. Start the Beat Generation trip planning at and

The Doll House, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Paddling through the dramatic canyon landscape near Spanish Bottom, Utah, just past the confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers. Photo: Alamy

Hard to know where to start with the hiking potential along the Green River through Stillwater and Labyrinth canyons. It’s endless. Among the many high points is the Doll House, a short hike (4.3-mile loop) above Spanish Bottom, just past the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers. Get there by descending the Green River from either the town of Green River (120 miles) or the launch at Ruby Ranch (100 miles). Class I water makes the journey dead easy in canoes, with many sweet desert campsites and daily opportunities for side-hikes. From Spanish Bottom, follow signs to the Doll House, a 1,000-foot climb into an amazing playland of eroded sandstone pinnacles and windows and slots. Got time and energy? Keep going into the remote Maze section of Canyonlands. Unless you paddle a packable boat and want to backpack out through Canyonlands on trails, make arrangements for a pickup by jet boat with an outfitter in Moab. Contact the BLM office in Price for river details. Also check for park details. Start contacting an outfitter for your pickup with Tex’s Riverways in Moab at

Sunset at the Doll House in the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Ghost Trains of the Allagash, Maine

Photo Courtesy Alan Kesselheim
The author, paddling the Allagash

Just west of Baxter State Park and Mount Katahdin lies the fabled Allagash Wilderness Waterway, one of the most iconic stretches of water in New England. At the head of the route sits an odd juxtaposition of history, a set of locomotives rest in the quiet woods along a tramway between Chamberlain and Eagle Lakes. The two steam engines are relics of the logging industry, hauling timber out of the north woods in the 1920s and ’30s. There they sit in the quiet headwaters of the wilderness where Thoreau traveled, reminders of the evolution of human history taking place in this part of North America. Take it in as part of a descent of the entire wilderness corridor, or make a two- to four-day canoe excursion from the Chamberlain Bridge boat launch and ranger station at the southern end of Chamberlain Lake. A handful of scenic campsites dot the lakeshore along the 20-plus mile route to the Tramway Carry where you can walk to the ghost trains. Plan two to four days to enjoy the paddle and the historic detour. Check out Map #12 from the Northern Forest Canoe Trail series for details. Go to for more information. Also check out Katahdin Outfitters for guided tours, rentals, shuttles and more.

Ribbons of water through the dense North Maine Woods invite paddlers to enter Allagash Wilderness Waterway. (Read more on canoe-tripping in northern Maine.) Photo: Aaron Black-Schmidt

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