6 Fall Foliage Paddles for Beginner Kayakers

Soak up America's most stunning foliage on a kayakno matter your level of skill. 

By Trent Jonas

6 Fall Foliage Paddles for Beginner Kayakers
Photograph Courtesy of Jack Spaeth of Voyageur Canoe Outfitters

There’s nothing like being on the water, surrounded by the reflection of fiery fall colors, breathing in the crisp autumn air. That’s why paddling is one of the best ways to experience fall and all the splendor of its foliage. Even if you’re not an experienced kayaker, you can still get out and enjoy the colors of the season. Here are some of our favorite fall foliage paddles for beginner kayakers.

Lake Gogebic, Ottawa National Forest, MI

Lake Gogebic is the largest inland lake on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (as opposed to the three Great Lakes that touch the region). It is surrounded by the one-million-acre Ottawa National Forest as well as Lake Gogebic State Park on the lake’s western shore. Gogebic is also a long, narrow lake, so when you slip onto the water in your kayak, you’ll see gorgeous fall foliage on both shores for miles.

If you bring your own kayak, consider launching it at the state park, which has a public boat ramp and free parking. Camping is also available in the park, if you don’t mind cooler autumn temperatures. On the other hand, AJ’s Walleye Lodge, on the lake’s northern tip, offers homey accommodations, a boat launch and beach, as well as kayaks available for your use. Another benefit to staying on the north end of the lake is your proximity to Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, which contains almost 60,000 acres of pristine forest lying across small, rolling mountains, dotted with lakes, and looking out over Lake Superior. What better place for a fall foliage hike after a day of paddling? 

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Northern Forest Canoe Trail, Adirondack Park, NY

Although the Northern Forest Canoe Trail covers 740 miles of waterways in the New England and the Northeast, novice paddlers will appreciate the New York stretch of the trail not only for its gorgeous Adirondack Mountain scenery but also for its relatively flat water. Put in at Axton Landing on the Raquette River, near the village of Coreys. From there, you can enjoy an easy upstream paddle to Raquette Falls, or simply let the river’s gentle, meandering current glide you downstream to Tupper Lake

Along this section of the trail, the river banks are lined with maple trees, which burst into stunning crimsons that dance off the water in autumn. 

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Lake Kabetogama, Voyageurs National Park, MN

If you’re a beginning kayaker, you’re probably not ready for a seven-day paddle trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in the great swath of forest that covers northern Minnesota. But you can see the same rugged, tree-lined shores on Lake Kabetogama, in Voyageurs National Park, which is contiguous with the BWCAW but far more conducive to a day trip.

Use the dock at Ash River Visitor Center for your put in, and then follow the shoreline eastward to Blind Ash Bay. Paddle into the narrow bay, and you’ll be surrounded by trees on all sides, blazing aspens, birches, and red maples painting the banks and the surface of the water. Bring your own kayak or rent one from Voyageur Outfitters, which is located in International Falls, on the north side of the park. If you’re feeling adventurous, camp at one of the park’s many paddle-in sites (permit required). Otherwise, head a few miles down the road to Island View Resort in Orr, where you can practice your paddling skills on Pelican Lake.

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Grand Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO

Every fall, Colorado experiences a gold rush, as gilt-leaf aspens start to turn at higher elevations in August and then spread their color downward over the course of several weeks. Rocky Mountain National Park is the perfect place to witness this progression and peep the foliage at several different peak times.

Grand Lake, at the headwaters of the Colorado River, is a fantastic place to find fall foliage from a water vantage. This placid alpine lake is surrounded by peaks and forested mountainsides, so you’ll find plenty of fall color and clear, flat water to view it from. Put in at the boat dock at the east end of the lake, near the park’s West Portal, and explore. Stay at Western Riviera Lakeside Lodging, so you can get the same gorgeous views from your hotel room as you did from the water.  

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Lake Ouachita, Lake Ouachita State Park, AR

Lake Ouachita is the biggest lake in the state of Arkansas, and its collection of narrow bays, hidden coves, and quiet inlets offers a smorgasbord of opportunities for beginning kayakers. What’s more, the lake lies smack-dab in the middle of the 1.8-million-acre Ouachita National Forest, so it’s surrounded on all sides by gorgeous trees that explode with color in the fall.

The marina at the state park is on a peninsula that’s embraced by two narrow arms of the lake. Jump in and explore the shoreline as you take in the beautiful reds, oranges, and golds of autumn. Book a cabin at Echo Canyon Resort and Marina, and you can stay right on the lake. 

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Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park, MT

When fall settles into Glacier National Park, the Crown of the Continent is graced with a dazzling display of fall color, courtesy of the park’s maples, cottonwoods, aspens, and mountain ash. A paddle on the crystal waters of Lake McDonald, following the shoreline as you look across to Howe Ridge and back toward Snyder Ridge.

Use the public launch in Apgar Village at the south end of the lake. The water is cold, and because of the lake’s size, could be rougher in the center. Beginners will be just fine sticking close to the shoreline and enjoying the stunning scenery from there. Stay near the lake at Glacier Guides Lodge, which remains open well into the autumn.

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