The Best National Parks for On-Water Adventures

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Millions of people visit national parks each year to experience the great outdoors. While hiking and backpacking are natural choices for a lot of adventure-seekers, if you’re ready to try something new, we suggest heading for the water. Check out our top picks for the best national parks to visit for an unforgettable adventure on the water.

The Best National Parks to Visit in the Winter

Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

There’s no doubt that you can get a good feel for how deep the Grand Canyon is just by standing along the rim at an overlook and peering down into it. But if you really want to have a sense of the power of the Colorado River, go down to the water’s edge and spend anywhere from a day to a few weeks rafting along the mile-deep canyon. There are several different trips to choose from including a 225-mile, 14-day guided trip with Wilderness River Adventures that includes all your meals and camping essentials. 


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Glacier Bay National Park, AK

Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks has been helping travelers explore the wilderness in Glacier Bay National Park for over 40 years. You can opt to rent single and double expedition kayaks from them and strike out on your own or take part in one of their all-day guided trips in Bartlett Cove. You can also hop on board a tour boat, such as the one that departs from Glacier Bay Lodge, sip on a hot coffee, get a ton of photos, and learn from one of the National Park Service naturalists who are on board to help put the gradeur you’re experiencing in proper perspective.


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Denali National Park, AK

There are 6 million acres of protected wilderness for you to ramble around in Denali National Park. Why not float down the Nenana River with Denali Raft Adventures for a unique experience in one of the most undeveloped natural spaces in the world? You can either sit back and enjoy the view in an oar raft, letting a professional guide navigate through the Class I-IV rapids, or you can get your hands a little dirty and complete the whitewater voyage in a paddle raft. Either way, you’re guaranteed to make a memory you’ll never forget.

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Acadia National Park, ME

Your best bet for a quintessential New England experience in Acadia National Park is to get on a boat. The options are plenty: You can rent a kayak or canoe, charter a sailboat, get out on an SUP, or even spend the day on a fishing boat. A good tour for beginner and intermediate kayakers is the half-day (four-hour) guided trip with National Park Sea Kayak Tours. Registered Maine Sea Kayak Guides lead all of the trips and will take you along the western side of Mount Desert Island. For those looking to sail, check out Sail Acadia. You can charter one of the outfit’s historic boats and go for a sunset cruise, or even hop aboard an old lobster boat, where you can try your hand at hauling a trap. Note: If you’re going to boat without a guide, be sure to check the NPS website before you embark, as some islands in the park are closed when the eagles and other seabirds are nesting.

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Channel Islands National Park, CA

Five islands just off the California coast make up this overlooked national park. You can stop in at the visitor centers in Ventura and Santa Barbara, but if you want to get to the islands themselves, you’re going to need to do a little homework, as you can only access the island via boat or plane. But getting there is worth the effort. There’s the potential for surfing, snorkeling, and even diving in kelp forests and sea caves. Exploring the surface via kayak is a natural choice as well as going out on a whale watch with one of the park’s primary concessionaire Island Packers Cruises. Check out the park service’s webcams for a glimpse into what lies in store for you at Channel Islands National Park.


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Biscayne Bay National Park, FL

Get on down to Biscayne Bay National Park for some fishing, snorkeling, diving, boating, and more. The water in much of the park is clear and blue, making for some great opportunities to see marine wildlife due to the reef. The park service added a couple of mooring buoys in 2017 near the Fowey Rocks Lighthouse, which means you can pull your boat up and snorkel without having to throw an anchor and damage the reef. Snorkelers and divers should also check out the Maritime Heritage Trail, which will put you on six different shipwrecks.


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