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11 Best Fall Foliage Paddling Trips in the U.S.

With the end of summer comes the end of long family vacations, the start of school, and the return to normalcy. While these aspects of the end of summer can feel like a bit of a letdown, there is one perk to the end of summer, and that’s the dawn of fall.

If you live somewhere that experiences four seasons, fall is considered a favorite to many. The cool evenings inspire homeowners to light fires in the long-idle indoor fireplaces, and pumpkin spice is everywhere. But more than anything, people love autumn for its stunning colors. Fall foliage is a beautiful natural phenomenon, and it is a truly majestic sight to behold. While there are many ways to enjoy fall foliage, one of the best ways to soak up these autumn colors is by paddling in a kayak or canoe in one of America’s top foliage destinations.

To paddle through some of the best foliage in the United States, consider one of its national parks, including New River Gorge, Acadia, and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks. Jackson Lake in Grand Tetons National Park Wyoming, The Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and The Boundary Waters of Minnesota are great paddling destinations in more-central U.S. Oregon, Vermont, and New York are also great places to paddle among the color-changing leaves.

1. Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is home to lots of incredible paddling locations, most notably the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. This region is always a great place to kayak and canoe, but it has a little bit of extra magic in the fall.

The Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, and other great paddling spots come alive with various colors as the leaves change colors in this wilderness region. Paddling in Lake Superior or down one of the various rivers in this area will reward you with truly magnificent foliage viewing opportunities.

  • Peak Foliage Dates: Foliage in this region peaks at the end of September and into early October, with off-peak viewing possible two weeks before and after in most years.

2. Acadia National Park, Maine

Acadia National Park in Maine might have lots of evergreens, but it is also loaded with deciduous trees that turn all sorts of bright and burnt colors each fall. Many visitors hike or drive up the famous Cadalac Mountian for sunrise. While this is a great place to view foliage from a high vantage point, paddling is a great way to see it up close.

Canoeing in Jordan Pond is a tranquil way to witness some of the best foliage in the entire National Park. You can also paddle in some protected coves, or along the Schoodic Peninsula on tranquil days.

  • Peak Foliage Dates: Beautiful fall colors peak in this Maine coastal National Park in mid-October. Being along the shore, Acadia National Park experiences slightly later peak foliage than inland Maine.

3. Potomac River, Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia

The Potomac River has some of the nation’s most important history along its banks, it passes through the nation’s capital of Washington D.C. after all. But in addition to the history along this river, there are also some exceptional color-changing trees as it twists and turns along Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia on the historic C&O Canal Tow Path.

There are several places along the Patomic that are great for paddling and foliage viewing. Some of the best include the historic and quaint town of Harpers Ferry, where all three of these states meet. Great Falls Park is another great place for kayaking and viewing the stunning leaves as they reach their peak colors.

  • Peak Foliage Dates: The region of the Potomac River near Harpers Ferry, Great Falls Park, and Washington D.C. tends to peak around mid-October, with foliage as early as the end of September and as late as mid-November.

4. Jackson Lake, Wyoming

The East Coast might be known for its fall colors, but there are other states, including Wyoming, that have equally impressive fall views. Jackson Lake in Wyoming sits within the awe-inspiring Grand Tetons National Park, and is an exceptional lake to paddle while taking in fall foliage, and even snapping some professional-level photos in the process. This lake is placid and serene on good weather days, and ideal for taking in the majesty of this park and the beautiful colors that define this time of year.

  • Peak Foliage Dates: Foliage here peaks around the third week of September, but you can usually experience lovely colors for most of September and the first two weeks of October.

5. Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota

Almost near the Canadian border sits the remote Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. This area is a vast wilderness of hundreds of lakes and bodies of water that create a maze for eager adventures and long distance paddling lovers.

This region is serene throughout the year, but September and October are great times to visit this wilderness area, as you are bound to experience even more quiet and pristine wilderness. At this time, various tree species, including Maple Aspen and birch trees, give off stunning bright and burnt colors, giving all sorts of new pigment to this remote wonderland.

  • Peak Foliage Dates: Mid-September Into early October, with leaves changing as early as the start of September, and up to the end of October.

6. New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia

New River Gorge in West Virginia is one of the newest National Parks in the country, but it is one of the oldest rivers in the entire world. This river winds in a serpentine fashion around hills and mountains in a stunning way. It is a great place for several paddling activities, from SUP boarding to kayaking and canoeing, and even white water rafting. While these activities are great for cooling off in the summer, they are truly spectacular when the surrounding hills and mountains light up in an array of bright and burnt colors. This is an incredible fall foliage destination, and the river snakes its way through some of the best viewing locations.

  • Peak Foliage Dates: The last two weeks of October, with colors visible at the start of October, into early November.

7. Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

The Smoky Mountains are known for its rich pockets of biodiversity, with endless flora and fauna species existing throughout this rolling green mountain chain. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park spans through both North Carolina and Tennessee, and even encompasses parts of the Appalachian Trail. There are endless hikes and waterfalls to enjoy as the leaves change colors. But for the best paddling in this stunning wilderness, try River John’s on the Tennessee side of the park.

  • Peak Foliage Dates: While elevation and the exact location in the park can impact the peak foliage season, this national park enjoys peak foliage typically between the middle of October into early November.

8. Bend, Oregon

If you are looking for a hip river town, great beer and wine, and some great paddling when you take a fall foliage trip, then look no further than Bend, Oregon. Bend is a lovely town with breweries, great restaurants, amazing Oregon wine, and the fabled Deschutes River running alongside all the action. This river is great for kayakers, and canoe enthusiasts, and even has some rafting activities. Thanks to all sorts of color-turning leaves on trees like the red Adler and pacific dogwood, this area also looks incredible in the autumn months.

  • Peak Foliage Dates: Foliage in this Oregon River town normally peaks in mid-October. But you can start noticing the leaves change as early as the start of September, and remnants remain into November.

9. Catskills, New York

The Catskills are another quintessential spot for fall foliage viewing. This rolling hills region is located just two hours outside New York City. This makes it a wildly popular foliage destination for those living in the city. This region is pretty large, but there are a few exceptional spots for paddling to view this region’s epic foliage.

The east branch of the Delaware River is arguably the best spot for paddling and foliage viewing. There are even kayak and canoe rental locations by the river (call in advance to ensure they are still open for the season). If you want a tranquil lake paddle consider Alder Lake, where the waters are calm and great for photo taking on a nice day.

  • Peak Foliage Dates: You typically notice the leaves really changing color in late September, and foliage is at its peak the first two weeks in October in this quaint New York region.

10. Columbia River Gorge, Washington

The Columbia River runs through some of the most incredible wooded mountain land in the United States. This river is equally stunning in Oregon and Washington, but the Columbia River Gorge in Washington is quite exceptional for paddling and foliage viewing. The river flows through the Cascade Mountains, so it is easy to spot lots of foliage as the trees climb up the mountain chain.

  • Peak Foliage Dates: The best time to check out the stunning color-changing leaves in Wasington’s Columbia River Gorge tends to be at the end of September into the first week or two in October.

11. Missisquoi River, VT

No fall foliage list of any kind is complete without including Vermont. This state is known for its New England skiing, maple syrup, and its magnificent fall colors. In the far north of the state, close to the Canadian border, sits the marvellous Missisquoi River. While there are endless places to take in Vermont’s fall foliage, this river is perhaps the best place to paddle and soak up the fall foliage in this state.

On your way up to this river, you can stop in charming towns like Stowe, and enjoy walks and paddles on your way to your final paddling destination.

Peak Foliage Dates: Vermont is known for its epic fall colors, and it peaks rather early. For the best foliage, try paddling the Missisquoi River between the last week in September and the first week in October.

Tips For Paddling In The Autumn

Check The Foliage Report Before You Go

Weather, especially these days, is unpredictable. The peak foliage seasons can vary from year to year depending on weather patterns. Also keep in mind that a period of high winds or a major rainstorm can strip lots of leaves prematurely, leaving less-than-ideal conditions. So make sure you pay close attention to foliage reports in areas you hope to paddle.

Consider A Wet Or Dry Suit

The autumn months might not feel frigid, but as the days shorten and cool, water temperatures plummet quickly. It is great to bundle up, but on the off-chance you fall in the water or get particularly soaked, it is great to have a wet or dry suit. This will help maintain your body temperature and prevent you from hypothermia and other temperature-related health issues.

Anything But Cotton

When you choose your clothing for fall, you will likely choose to layer. This is great, but make sure you are thoughtful when choosing clothing materials. Fleece dries easily and is a great insulator when paddling in cold conditions. Cotton, however, does not dry quickly. In fact when wet, cotton can pull out heat from your body. So avoid wearing cotton on autumn paddling adventures.

Plan Your Paddle During Peak Warmth

The weather in the fall can be very moody. Weather can fluctuate a lot in one day. Try to choose your paddling trip to maximize the warmest parts of the day. This will make for a more pleasurable paddle, so check the weather and plan your itinerary accordingly.

Consider The Light Angle And Intensity

You can get some truly incredible photos while paddling among the fall foliage. There is so much color, reflection, and even moody weather worth capturing on camera. To get the best photos of this natural phenomenon, consider the light and its angle. Plan your photos for when the light is favorable, at times like “golden hour.”


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