Paddling the National Parks of the Northwest


The greater Pacific Northwest is packed with amazing National Parks renowned for their hiking and backpacking. But these parks have a lot more to offer, including miles of waterways perfect for exploring on a SUP, kayak, or canoe. Getting out on the water helps ease congestion on popular trails and gives visitors a new perspective on these PNW gems.

Leigh Lake, Grand Teton National Park.

I strongly encourage visitors to do their own research into park-specific paddling regulations. With the growing threat of Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS), ever-increasing visitation rates, and the impacts of COVID-19, parks are regularly updating rules. It’s up to you to make sure you’re following the most current regulations. Use the links provided to do your own research.

Importantly, these parks are all remote and rugged. The water is cold. Paddling conditions can change in a moment, even in the dog days of summer. Safety is paramount, and paddlers should be ready to self-rescue, have all the necessary safety gear, and good maps. Even “easy” paddles should be treated with respect and caution.

Glacier National Park | Montana

St. Mary Lake, Glacier National Park. Photo: Ken Thomas

Lake McDonald and St. Mary Lake anchor Glacier National Park. Lake McDonald is on the park’s west side and St. Mary Lake is on the park’s east side. Both allow motorboats, so familiarize yourself with right-of-away laws and triple-check that you have a whistle. They’re also both cold and notoriously windy, so keep that in mind when you plan your paddle. Point-to-point paddles that incorporate the wind are great options if you can arrange a shuttle.

Lake McDonald has a few different access points: Apgar Campground and Village, Fish Creek Campground, Sprague Campground, and an old ranger station on the lake’s far eastern shore all provide relatively easy lake access.

St. Mary Lake is a bit harder to access. The easiest location is the Rising Sun Campground which is basically right on the lake. Other access points require walking a bit. From the Sun Point Nature Trail, paddlers can carry their boats down to the water with just a bit of scrambling. The St. Mary Campground isn’t too far from the eastern edge of the lake and paddlers could walk from the parking area to the shore without too much trouble.

In the northwest corner of the park, Bowman and Kintla Lakes offer quieter paddling opportunities because they’re harder to get to, requiring a long drive over a rough dirt road past the off-the-grid hamlet of Polebridge. But they’re worth it. Both are long lakes surrounded by steep, rugged mountains. They’re also windy, so be prepared to battle stiff headwinds later in the day.

Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine are great, beginner-friendly options in the remote and scenic Many Glacier area of the park. Swiftcurrent is the closer of the two and access is easy. A short 5-minute hike from Swiftcurrent’s far end leads through the woods to Lake Josephine, where you’re likely to find solitude (though a tour boat does operate here as well as Swiftcurrent). A small creek connects the two lakes, and you can paddle it back to Swiftcurrent after you’re done exploring Josephine. It’s probably best to take your fins off on this shallow section and be ready to duck or portage a low bridge just above Swiftcurrent.

For moving water, the North Fork of the Flathead River runs along Glacier’s west side and provides excellent day and overnight options along its entire length. There are a few Class II rapids (pushing Class III at high water). Also, be prepared for crowds and cold water.

The Middle Fork of the Flathead runs along Highway 2 on Glacier’s southern edge. It’s mostly a whitewater river, and some sections are truly expert-only. Intermediates can hit the Paola Creek to Cascadilla section but watch for one Class II/III rapid called Brown’s Hole about halfway through the run. The stretch from West Glacier to Blankenship Bridge is also a nice run for paddlers with solid skills and confidence in pushy Class II water.

Key details: Paddling season limited to specific dates. Daily AIS inspections are required for lakes.

Yellowstone National Park | Wyoming, Idaho & Montana

Shoshone Lake, Yellowstone National Park.

America’s first national park is truly amazing. Unfortunately, the paddling options are limited to Yellowstone Lake, Lewis Lake, and Shoshone Lake. In reality, all the paddling in Yellowstone requires intermediate skills or better, save a rare calm, hot summer day when beginners who stick close to shore could try their luck.

Yellowstone Lake is HUGE and HIGH. At 136 square miles (which is more than 87,000 acres) and above 7,000 feet in elevation, it’s intimidating. Water temps rarely rise to swimmable levels (low 60s in late summer and 40s in spring) and winds create large waves that quickly topple small craft. It’s not really a great spot for standup paddlers or open canoes. An expedition-worthy sea kayak is the best craft for paddling Yellowstone Lake.

Lewis and Shoshone Lakes are more manageable. Less experienced paddlers should stick to Lewis Lake and stick close to shore. Mornings and evenings are the best time to avoid winds (and motorboats, which are allowed on Lewis).

The Lewis Channel connects Lewis Lake to Shoshone Lake. It’s a four-mile ribbon of water that is open to paddling, which is a good thing, because Shoshone Lake isn’t accessible by a road. At more than 9,000 acres, it’s the largest “backcountry” lake in the U.S.

Many folks paddle across Lewis, up the Lewis Channel and onto Shoshone Lake where they camp at one of several backcountry campsites before retracing their route back to Lewis Lake. Be prepared to walk your boat or board up the second half of the Lewis Channel as it gets too shallow for paddling.

Snagging a Shoshone Lake campsite for a few nights is the best way to experience this area. One bummer: campfires are prohibited year-round at all Shoshone Lake campsites.

Key Details: Paddling season limited to specific dates. AIS inspections and permits for all craft, including SUPs, are required.

Grand Teton National Park | Wyoming

String Lake, Grand Teton National Park. Photo: Andy Mitchell

From massive Jackson Lake to tiny String Lake, the flatwater paddling in Grand Teton is exceptional and varied. Add in the Snake River and you’re well served leaving your hiking boots at home and just bringing your water booties.

String Lake and Jenny Lake are two of the most accessible and paddling-friendly lakes in the park. Jenny Lake allows motorized craft (with less than 10 horsepower motors) and there’s a tour boat that takes hikers to the Paintbrush Canyon trailhead, so it can be busy. The parking lot fills up early in the day—plan accordingly, early mornings and late evenings are best.

String Lake is narrow and shallow, making it great beginner and family spot. It’s also right at the base of the Tetons (as is Jenny) so the scenery is absolutely stunning. A large parking area and easy access to the lake make it popular. A short portage from the far end of String Lake puts you on Leigh Lake, which is larger and more remote. There are a few backcountry campsites scattered around Leigh Lake, so if you can score a backcountry permit, it’s a great multi-day option.

On calm days, Jackson Lake is a compelling option, but it’s busy with motorboats and wind affected. Only experienced paddlers should venture out onto Jackson when conditions are anything but perfect.

Below Jackson Dam, the Snake River flows through the park. The first few miles from the dam to Pacific Creek are mellow and flat. In fact, there’s an oxbow shortly after the dam site, which is a great option for beginners and families. There’s an access on the oxbow itself, and paddlers could use it for both their put-in and takeout as long as they don’t miss the turn back onto the oxbow after they reach the river proper (a GPS unit or phone app would be helpful here).

After Pacific Creek, the river picks up speed, wood, and braids into a maze of channels (many with log jams). Solid intermediates with good heads-up paddling and well-honed river-reading skills shouldn’t have much trouble at lower water, but this isn’t a place for beginners or for early season paddling. The stretch from Deadman’s Reach to Moose is incredible. Huge views of the Teton Range dominate the entire stretch, and the paddling is bouncy and fun at lower water.

Key Details: AIS stickers and permits for all craft, including SUPs, are required.
Editor’s Note: Read more about stand-up paddling in the Grand Tetons or why you should raft in Jackson Hole.

North Cascades National Park | Washington

Diablo Lake, North Cascades National Park. Photo: Bob Collowan

Often called the “American Alps,” Washington’s North Cascades National Park is a landscape of towering, snow-capped mountains and lush tree-choked valleys. All of the paddling in North Cascades requires intermediate skills. Sea kayaks and canoes are generally the crafts of choice here. The water is COLD since it’s fed by glaciers and snowmelt. Winds can be fierce and cell service is unavailable.

Ross Lake is the main paddling attraction in North Cascades. This massive reservoir stretches for 23 miles from the Canadian border south to Highway 20, which cuts through the park. Nineteen boat-in backcountry campsites are scattered around Ross Lake’s shores, making it a great multi-day option (campsite permits are required and the process is confusing, start planning early).

While Highway 20 runs close to Ross Lake, it doesn’t actually provide access to the lake itself. The only road access is from the north, through Canada, which is doable but logistically difficult—especially with current border closings. Most paddlers put in at Colonial Creek Campground on Diablo Lake, immediately below Ross Dam. After a five-mile paddle across Diablo, paddlers need to portage around Ross Dam. Fortunately, Ross Lake Resort (which is on the southern end of Ross Lake) provides a portage service for boats and paddlers.

Lake Chelan, North Cascades National Park. Photo: David Ansley

Somewhat obviously, Diablo Lake is another option that’s easier to access than Ross while still providing big views and camping (get details and reservations well in advance). Put in at Colonial Creek Campground, off Highway 20. If you’re not planning to camp, you can simply put in and paddle this turquoise-colored lake without any permit or AIS inspection. Gorge Lake is another option for day paddles that is situated along Highway 20 as well.

The far southern end of North Cascades includes the northern part of Lake Chelan. Similar to Ross Lake, access here isn’t easy. Two passenger ferries will get paddlers and gear to Stehekin, the small community located on the shore of Lake Chelan, but no roads will. Once there, paddlers can head to backcountry campsites on the lake or spend the day on the water and return to Stehekin for the night. Lake Chelan lies mostly in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, so regulations are different from Ross Lake or Diablo, but equally as confusing. Call the Okanogan-Wenatchee if you have questions after reviewing their website.

Key details: No AIS for small craft, no permits required.
Editor’s Note: For more paddling options in Northern Washington, check out this guide to whitewater kayaking in the area

Olympic National Park | Washington

The Hoh River. Photo: Zach Williams

Known for verdant temperate rain forests and towering peaks, Olympic National Park is one of the wildest national parks in the Pacific Northwest. Intermediate and advanced paddlers will find fun options in Olympic NP. If the weather cooperates, beginners could poke around the lakes detailed below.

Adventurous and skilled paddlers looking to get onto one of the Olympics many rivers should focus on the Hoh or the Queets Rivers, both of which have a few mellower sections in the Class II to III range and generally flow throughout the summer. These are not read-and-run rivers; the Olympic is a rainforest and these rivers are often log-jammed at all seasons.

From the Hoh Campground to the park’s entrance station, paddlers can hit the Hoh for a 6-mile stretch that’s doable at low water. Be ready to portage log jams at a moment’s notice; this section is particularly known for wood. Just outside the park boundary, the Hoh runs for 14 miles from the entrance station to the Oil City Trailhead. The Washington Department of Natural Resources provides campgrounds and access in a few locations along this stretch.

Like its northern cousin, the Queets rises from the flanks of Mt. Olympus before dropping to the coastal plain. Road access was complicated by a landslide in 2005 but the park’s website has access details and maps. For a 9-mile float, put-in at the Queets Campground, off FS Roads 21 and 2180 and takeout at Hartzell Creek Boat Ramp. Watch for a solid Class II rapid called Sam’s Rapid immediately below the campground put-in. Also like the Hoh, this river is best paddled at lower water and by experienced paddlers who can quickly and safely avoid log jams.

Fortunately, the Olympic’s lack of river paddling is made up for by great lake options. Don’t be lulled into complacency though, these lakes are cold, big, windy, and remote. The park’s boating website notes that water temps are typically below 50 degrees and wet or drysuits are recommended year-round.

Lake Crescent serves up a classic Olympic paddling opportunity. Access right off of Highway 101 also makes this a great destination for visitors basing out of Port Angeles (about 17 miles to the east). The lake is about 12 miles long at its longest and nearly 600 feet deep, making it the second deepest lake in Washington, behind Lake Chelan.

On the park’s far western edge, Lake Ozette provides adventurous paddlers with a secluded paddling experience and access to backcountry camping. Lake Ozette is close to the coast making it a nice option for a hiking and paddling adventure. Lake Ozette Campground and the Swan Bay boat ramp provide access, and a backcountry campsite on Ericson Bay allows paddlers to really get away from it all.

While Lake Quinault is managed by the Quinault Indian Nation, it’s bordered by the park, the Olympic National Forest, and the Quinault Reservation. Relatively easy access off Highway 101 makes this spot fairly popular, but excellent hiking among the towering old-growth trees also makes it a great sport to spend a few days exploring.

Key details: No AIS or permits required for small craft.
Editor’s Note: Read about flyfishing on the Hoh River

Rainer National Park | Washington

Mowich Lake, Ranier National Park. Photo: National Park Service

Rainier National Park is best known for its namesake volcano. This massive chunk of rock and ice dominates the park and the view. Of all the parks in this guide, Mt. Rainier offers the fewest paddling options, though Mowich Lake (inside the park) and the Nisqually River (just outside of the park) do make bringing a craft here worth it.

Beginner and intermediate paddlers should head to Lake Mowich in the northwest corner of the park. It’s basically the only road-accessible lake in the park that allows paddling. Get to Mowich (and a lake-side campground) off Highway 165/ Mowich Lake Road (a rough, dirt “highway”). Paddlers will be rewarded with crystal-clear water and choice vistas, including Mt. Rainier from the lake’s western edge.

Solid intermediate and expert paddlers will have fun on the Nisqually River, though the paddling is outside of the park proper. The Nisqually is a Class II river that can push Class III in a couple of spots. Logs, braids, glacially cold water, and a relatively remote setting add to the danger (and the fun if you have the skills). Open canoes aren’t recommended on the Nisqually. The 11-mile run from Skate Creek Road to Highway 7, near the town of Elbe is the most challenging section. Below Elbe, the Nisqually is impounded by the Alder Dam. Alder Lake, the reservoir created by the dam, provides great flatwater paddling options for families in the area, though it’s well outside of the park boundaries.

Key Details: No AIS or permits required for small craft. 

Two Medicine Lake, Glacier National Park.

While these parks may be better known for their terrestrial recreation, those visitors that do bring their crafts will be richly rewarded. Yes, the regulations can be cumbersome, parking is a challenge, and booking campsites requires advanced planning. But all that drifts away once you hit the water and the views open up.