Paddle Your Way To See The Best Fall Colors

See America’s best fall foliage on these 5 amazing canoe adventures.

By Eugene Buchanan

Paddle Your Way To See The Best Fall Colors
Photograph Courtesy of Steve Piragis

It’s hard not to get a scenic vista when you’re paddling. Throw in the changing colors of autumn, however, and you’re in for a real treat as your own strokes take you into a world seemingly made of paintbrush strokes. Add the golden reflections off the water and, unlike the trees, you may not want to ever leave. The following are five of my favorite places to paddle among fall foliage.

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Photograph Courtesy of Grand Teton Lodge Company and Flagg Ranch Company
Float trips down the Snake River provide spectacular views of the Tetons as well as gorgeous fall colors when the aspens and cottonwoods turn to gold.

Whether it’s canoeing on Jackson Lake or taking a scenic float on the upper Snake River, few places can compare to the raw beauty of the Teton Range, especially when its draped in the colors of fall.

The allure of paddling in Grand Teton National Park is the water’s proximity to the mountains—you’re literally at their base, staring up at the splendid pastels of autumn. And, more likely than not, a dusting of fresh snow high on the peak tops will augment the setting.

Best Place to Paddle: For a point-to-point river float, try the Snake River from Jackson Lake Dam to the town of Moose, where the snow-capped behemoths frame fall’s golds, reds and yellows.

Bonus: For a flatwater lake stretch, head out on Jackson Lake; but good luck staying on course as your eyes drift toward the surrounding mountains. 

Outfitters: Grand Teton Lodge Company (307) 543-2811, www.gtlc.com; Jackson Hole Kayak School (307) 733-2471, www.jacksonholekayak.com.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

Known for its autumnal colors, Pictured Rocks National Lake Shore along Lake Superior's southern edge could easily be renamed “pictured forest.” The park is one of the Midwest’s most scenic places to kayak in a kaleidoscope of color.

Climbing anywhere from 50 to 600 feet up from the lake's lapping waves, the shore’s 15 miles of sandstone cliffs present a spectacular array of colors themselves. Mix their red and orange hues dripping down the cliff faces with the clear blue of the lake and the tints of fall foliage lining the lakeshore, and you have a complete palette any painter would envy. (The area’s trees change colors almost overnight, when the hardwoods explode in reds, oranges, yellows, purples, browns and greens.)

Best Place to Paddle: The official Lake Shore boundaries extend along 40 miles of coastline and include miles of sand beaches and dunes, sea caves and arches. Head out for a simple day paddle or stay longer and camp in the backcountry.

Bonus: The journey also features such landmarks as Miners Castle, Lovers Leap, Rainbow Cave, Indian Head, Gull Rookery, Grand Portal, Chapel Cove and Chapel Rock.

Outfitters: Northern Waters Adventures (906) 387-2323, www.northernwaters.com

St. John River, Maine

While it might not be any more colorful that other fall waterways in the area, Maine’s St. John River offers perhaps the longest stretch of such mesmerizing hues. As the lengthiest free-flowing river east of the Mississippi, the St. John is the granddaddy of all Maine canoe trips, winding through several headwater lakes and on for 100+ miles through forests, rolling hills and open valleys (large portions of shore are owned by The Nature Conservancy).

Best Place to Paddle: The best, most accessible stretch for fall foliage is a multi-day trip from Baker Lake to Allagash Village, where your 100-mile northward journey begins on a river lined with fir and spruce before giving way to colorful hardwoods. Expect steady gradient with no portages, but scout Big Black and Big rapids.

Bonus: Campsites are maintained by the North Maine Woods Association.

Outfitters: Allagash Guide Service: (207) 398-3418, www.allagashguideservice.com; Katahdin Outfitters, (207) 723-5700, www.katahdinoutfitters.com.

French Broad, North Carolina

Come October, leaves don't get any more colorful than on western North Carolina’s historic French Broad River, where an 8-mile canoe trip down Section 1 takes you from summer to autumn in all its glory in a peaceful, southern Appalachian valley. With wedding white clouds dotting a Carolina blue sky above, joining the banks’ leaves reflecting off clear water below, you can’t script a finer setting for fall’s colors to work their magic.

Best Place to Paddle: Using one of the world’s oldest modes of river transportation while traversing one of the world’s oldest rivers, after leaving Champion Park you’ll paddle by an array of pastels owing themselves to a riverbank lined with old and young hardwood trees. Gigantic sycamores bring yellows and browns, while black cherry and sourwood trees add deep, rich reds, tulip poplars add a dose of yellow, and deep-rooted beech trees complement it all with honey gold.

Bonus: For wildlife, keep your eyes peeled for osprey, great blue heron, kingfisher and more.

Outfitters: Headwaters Outfitters, 828-877-3106, www.headwatersoutfitters.com

Photograph Courtesy of Grand Teton Lodge Company and Flagg Ranch Company
Whether you plan on getting out for a quiet morning or taking a multi-day canoe adventure, take the time to get out on the water this fall.

Boundary Waters, Minnesota

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) outside Ely, Minnesota, in conjunction with Canada’s nearby Quetico Provencial Park, is home to over 2,000 lakes connected by rivers and portages only accessible to paddlers.

Hit it in the fall, when the bugs and tourists are gone, and it turns into a melting pot of colors that change with every stroke of your paddle. (It’s also one of the few places on earth where you can drink water straight from the lake).

In autumn, its boreal forest bursts with vibrant splendor into a mix of yellows and reds, offset by the dark green of balsam, spruce and pine. The colors start early in September with the maples and peak with forests of aspen and birch in late September and early October.

Best Place to Paddle: the Boundary Waters and Quetico Provencial Park areas are so vast, paddlers can put in at any number of places and have a great experience. Piragis Northwoods Co. (see below) can help you narrow your options down as they offer trips tailored to specific interests with routes for great fishing, waterfalls, wildlife, solitude and more. Boundary Waters Outfitters also offers a number of route suggestions depending on how much time you have and your ability level.

Whether you head out for a day or week, en route you paddle through swamps, bogs, streams, wetlands, rivers and lakes, in as pristine a setting as you’ll ever find.

Bonus: With wildlife on the move in the fall, you’ll have a good chance at seeing moose, bear, otter, beaver, eagles and more, while listening to loon calls and the howl of wolves as you fall asleep under the northern stars.

Outfitters: Piragis Northwoods Co., (800) 223-6565, www.piragis.com


About The Author: The 14-year editor-in-chief of Paddler magazine and founder of www.paddlinglife.net, Eugene Buchanan has written about the outdoors for more than 25 years, from covering the X Games for ESPN.com to working for NBC at the Beijing Olympics. With freelance articles published in the New York Times, Men's Journal, Sports Afield, Outside, National Geographic Adventure and more, he’s a member of New York's Explorer's Club and the author of five books, including Brothers on the Bashkaus, Comrades on the Colca and the recently released Tales from a Mountain Town. Learn more at www.eugenebuchanan.com.

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