Recreational activities on rivers at national parks are as varied as the places themselves. Rivers offer places to walk along the bank, boat or paddle, wade in the current, fish, or just sit and relax. These parks provide ideal places to get out on the water, whether you prefer flat water or rapids. National parks provide countless ways to experience our country's great waterways and explore its heritage. Today, many of us lead fast-paced, high stress lives, making the need for places to relax, refresh, and renew that much more important. Our river parks are here for you to enjoy –whether you are seeking quiet contemplation or high adventure.
Paddle Sports and Boating
Boating or paddling a river can be a relaxing way to explore the scenery and see wildlife, or it can be an adrenaline-filled adventure –it's up to you! On a canoe, kayak, or paddleboard, you can access areas that are too narrow or shallow for larger boats and see wildlife that would be scared away by a motorized vessel. Paddling thus gives you the best of both worlds –you can enjoy the scenery above the waves and peer down through clear water at the marine world below.
You don't need to own a boat to experience these possibilities; many parks offer boat rentals and boat tours. If you do own a vessel, be sure to check with individual parks before heading out. Some parks require a permit to operate a vessel in certain areas. Certain parks restrict or prohibit personal watercrafts due to resource protection or safety concerns.
Safely Enjoy Your Parks
Swimming in open, natural waters is very different from swimming in pools. Natural waters can change in depth unexpectedly, going from shallow-to-deep in just a few steps. Natural waters can also have swift currents, waterfalls, cold temperatures, and underwater hazards such as trees and boulders. Distances between shorelines can also be very deceiving. Weather can change very quickly. Every park with natural water has set rules on swimming. In some parks, wading or swimming is allowed and in others it is prohibited, or not allowed, because of the hazards around, on, or in the water.
Many national parks across the nation offer great opportunities for swimming, and safety is essential for all ages when enjoying this activity. If the park you are thinking about visiting has lifeguards, make sure you swim when and where the lifeguard is present. If you are at a park without lifeguards, be sure you are completely qualified to be swimming there, and use the buddy system. Some parks have swimming locations that are particularly susceptible to changing environmental and weather conditions –in places like this, use sound judgment before entering the water, and stay alert.
When you are boating, weather, water, and wind conditions can change quickly, so being prepared for these unstable weather conditions is essential. Safety is a top priority for boating in any national park. To learn more about safe boating, visit these resources:
In addition, most individual park sites offer more locally specific information on boating safety. To learn more about boating safety at a certain national park, visit that park's website or contact its staff for more information.
If you are paddling, be aware of what conditions are expected in the park. In rivers with rapids, paddling can be a high-risk activity that should not be undertaken alone, or by any novice, first-time, or inexperienced paddler. Check the safety rules for any national park site you plan to visit and experience through paddling. Make sure to choose a form of paddling that is appropriate to your experience level –flat water vs the varied classed rapids –so that you can have the best possible experience exploring your national parks with rivers.
Read this before you go: Water Safety in National Parks
Discover interactive maps, paddling and access information, and local managers for rivers in the United States using the National Rivers Project Explorer developed by the River Management Society.
River Recreation in Your National Park
The images below provide the name of a national park and the river recreation activity(s) allowed in the park. Always check park rules, regulations and safety advisories before taking part in any river recreation activity.
River Recreation in National Parks
Last updated: January 3, 2018