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America’s Most Important Paddling Rivers, And Why They Matter

America’s rich and rugged history has played out on some of its most scenic lands and waters. From the early settlements and battles along the Roanoke and Delaware Rivers to the importance of the Rio Grande and Colorado Rivers as the country expanded, so much of America was realized and shaped through its rivers. But which of these rivers are still important and paddled today?

There are many rivers in the United States that are full of history and still full of natural wonder, and worth exploring. From the far-reaching Yukon River in Alaska and the tropical Wailua River on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai, or the central but critical Mississippi and Colorado, this nation is filled with rivers that continue to define and shape the nation, while also providing some of the best paddling opportunities in the world.

So if you have a passion for paddling and an interest in history, it is worth taking a closer look at some of America’s most important paddling rivers. Some rivers on this list were the country’s earliest freeways, while others were the locations of famous battles, townships, and even important settings in classic American literature. And while nearly every river in America has an important story to tell, the rivers on the list below are truly exceptional and significant to the United States.

The 10 Most Important Paddling Rivers In The United States

1. Rio Grande

The Rio Grande has been one of the most important, strategic, and famous rivers throughout America’s history, and it remains just as important today. What has always made the Rio Grande so important is the fact that it also doubles as a natural border between the two countries of the United States and Mexico.

This means it has occasionally been a battleground and is always a strategic location for those trying to find their way into the United States.

But it is not only those trying to cross the border from one country to another who venture into the Rio Grande. This river is also a popular and fascinating paddling river. There are several sections of the Rio Grande that make for great paddling. Mariscal Canyon is stunning and quite popular. For a longer journey, paddlers can float through Boquillas Canyon, which is a great three-day journey in southern Texas.

2. Colorado River

The Colorado River has been crucial to the Southeastern United States for centuries. It still provides water for several states, and it is currently at dangerously low levels. As a result of these low water levels, it is the most talked about river in the United States at the moment. The low levels of this river are frightening, and the remaining water is some of the most important in the country.

The Colorado River passes through some of America’s most iconic locations. There is, of course, the Grand Canyon, but also Canyonlands National Park, Arches National Park, Lake Mead and so much more. This river is truly iconic, and when you consider all of the locations it passes through, it is probably the most photogenic river in the country.

3. Mississippi River

The longest and most iconic river in the United States is without a doubt the Mississippi River. The Mississippi River runs from Minnesota to the deep south where it spills out into the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana just south of New Orleans.

The Mississippi River is filled with history and stories. It was a critical trade route, as well as a formidable obstacle for those traveling westward. It was even featured prominently in Mark Twain’s masterpiece “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” The Mississippi River continues to be an important river in the United States for trade, tourism, and leisure. Any avid paddler should try embarking on a journey along this vast body of water at least once.

4. Delaware River

Perhaps the most memorable image of the American Revolution is George Washington bravely crossing the Delaware River. That moment will likely forever live in the minds of those who learn about the formation of the United States. It also means the Delaware River will remain an important river in this country.

Today, the Delaware River is a fantastic river to enjoy some recreation. You can lazily tube down the river, or enjoy canoeing, kayaking, or SUP boarding on many stretches of Delaware's most famous river. It is a great experience to enjoy a leisurely day in this historic body of water.

5. Allagash River

The Allagash River is perhaps the most famous and incredible paddling river in all of New England. The Allagash Wilderness Waterway is a 92-mile stretch that is a magical and pristine paradise for canoe and kayak lovers. It is especially fantastic for those who love multi-day trips in a rural and northern landscape.

This river is considered a national treasure and for good reason. In addition to its great importance to Native American tribes throughout history, it is also the best-preserved water system in the Northeast, making it the premier destination for those looking to experience this unique ecosystem. It also has varied paddling opportunities, from white water to tranquil lakes, there is something for all types of paddlers.

6. Salmon River

The Salmon River is Idaho’s pride and joy, and as its name suggests, it is a fisherman’s paradise. In fact, it is not only salmon that this river is filled with. There are several types of trout species, mountain whitefish, and even smallmouth bass, just to name a few. This makes the Salmon River one of the best angling rivers for those who want to try kayak fishing.

This wild river was one of the original rivers to be protected by the Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. It stretches for more than 100 miles and is stunning every step of the way. It remains a well-preserved river and one of the last great wild fishing rivers in the United States.

7. New River

New River has recently become part of one of America’s national parks. New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia is a stunning new addition to the U.S. national park system and weaves both Natural history and American history together beautifully.

At the heart of the park is New River, the real star of the park. There are tons of water activities to enjoy in New River, many of which are paddling-based. One of the most interesting facts about New River and New River Gorge is that it is recognized as the second-oldest river in the world. It is between 10 million and 360 million years old according to estimates. So paddling down this river should inspire those fascinated by ancient history.

8. Yukon River

Perhaps the richest river in the Country, historically anyway, is the Yukon River. This river became famous for the gold found in its waters and continues to be well known for the incredible salmon run that occurs here. The salmon run in the Yukon River is actually the largest in the world.

In addition to the history and stories attached to the gold and salmon phenomena within the water body, the Yukon River is also one of the most rugged and majestic on the planet. From its cold clean waters, jagged landscape, and gargantuan wildlife, this river is the ultimate paddling adventure for those who like to live on the edge. There are giant bears and moose, and packs of wolves all living near this stretch of water. For paddling lovers heading to Alaska, the Yukon River should be at the top of the list of places to visit.

9. Wailua River

The Wailua River is the longest river in all the Hawaiian Islands. Even being the longest river it only stretched for 20 miles, but this 20-mile stretch is packed with historical importance and natural beauty. There are seven different heiaus, which are ruins of Hawaiian temple structures.

This river was very important historically on the island of Kauai and continues to be a hugely popular place to paddle.

There are lush fern forests, as well as incredibly lush jungles to paddle next to while enjoying a day on the Wailua River. This is definitely one of the best paddling destinations in all of Hawaii, and thanks to the ruins and important location, it is also the Aloha state’s most important river.

10. Columbia River

The Columbia River has been essential to the people of the American lands for more than 1,000 years. This river in the Pacific Northwest, which covers 258,000 square miles, has been essential to several Native American tribes. It also acted as a trade route and floating freeway before the times of automobiles and even trains.

The Columbia River continues to be incredibly important, as it is the largest river in the Pacific Northwest Region. It provides water and fertile soil for growing lands in this region, and it is also a great place for those who love paddling. Both the British Columbian region and the American portion of this river are popular among kayakers and canoe lovers. It is a great river for a day trip or a week-long adventure.

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