Three Great Paddle Camping Destinations In North America (That Aren’t The BWCA)

canoe on the beach

Paddle camping is a great summer adventure for the whole family. Somehow the silence and solitude are deeper when paddle camping. Whether you’re using canoes or kayaks (and some people even use paddleboards), there are countless paddle camping trips and destinations to experience and explore!

Of course, the one that seems to get the most press is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. All the attention is definitely warranted. The BWCA is a spectacular paddle camping destination that every canoeist or kayaker should visit. But, there are other paddle destinations across North America equally worthy of a visit.

Here are three must-visit paddle camping destinations (that aren’t the BWCA) that you should add to your bucket list.

Summit Lake in Deschutes National Forest, Washington

Crystal clear waters and breathtaking views of Diamond Peak are just a few of the reasons you should paddle camp on Summit Lake. For those willing to navigate the poorly maintained road access, late snowmelt, and seasonal mosquito infestation, there are stunning views and wonderful paddle camping opportunities.

Summit Lake is located on the southern end of the Diamond Peak Wilderness area. Late snowmelt often turns Forest Service Road 6010 into a treacherous maze of deep ruts, large boulders, and snow or mud that sucks at your tires.

Photo by Rodrigo De Mendoza on Unsplash

Once you arrive at Summit Lake, shove off and paddle among islands and peninsulas. The lake is fed by pure snowmelt, and there are no creeks or inlets. The rocky terrain keeps the sediment to a minimum, meaning you’ll get to enjoy water so clear you can see your canoe’s kayak on the lake bottom!

Many of the islands are too small for campsites, but they are definitely worth exploring. Stop and spend a leisurely afternoon sunning on one of the sandy beaches. Hike inland to pick wild huckleberries. Climb to the top of one of the island peaks to enjoy the breathtaking panoramic views.

If you’re feeling lucky, you can bring your fishing gear to try to catch your dinner. The water is clear, providing some challenging fishing conditions, but fortune favors the bold… and persistent.

Most of the paddle-in campsites are located on small islands on the north end of the lake. Be prepared to go without a campfire. Fire restrictions are commonplace, and many of the islands don’t have enough trees to provide firewood.

The best time of year to visit Summit Lake is after Labor Day. The weather is usually beautiful, and the lake water has warmed enough for swimming. Night temperatures are cool enough to keep the mosquitos at bay. Don’t attempt a trip anytime in June, July, or August or you’ll fall victim to the hoards of mosquitos and flies that seem unfazed by even the most powerful insect repellant.

Buffalo National River, Arkansas

One of Arkansas’ hidden adventure treasures is the Buffalo National River, America’s first national river! This unique designation protects the river from commercial or residential development, guaranteeing you’ll enjoy miles of uninterrupted and undisturbed natural beauty.

Whether you would like to paddle for a few miles or a few weeks, there are countless trip options. Most outfitters estimate people can comfortably cover around 8 miles per day of paddling.

The Buffalo River begins in the Boston Mountains where it flows north then east. It cuts a 135-mile long valley through the heart of the Ozark Mountains. To this day the area remains sparsely populated. There are countless excellent pre-planned paddle camping trips along the river.

November through May are the best months for paddling or floating down the Buffalo River due to water levels. The upper district of the Buffalo River is best to paddle in April and May. Plan your trip to the “Middle District” in June or July.

One of the popular paddle trips along the Buffalo River is paddling from Ponca to Pruitt. A 23.9-mile paddle downriver, this trip usually takes about two days and features some of the best views along the Buffalo River, including the majestic Big Bluff and Hemmed-In Hollow waterfall.

Before you begin paddling from Ponca, check the low water bridge. If there are less than 10 inches of air space under the bridge then only experienced paddlers should attempt the trip. If there are 10 to 30 inches of airspace, then novice paddlers should be just fine. If there are more than 25 inches of airspace, under the Ponca low water bridge, then you will likely need to walk your kayak or canoe over some of the shoals.

No matter what your experience level or trip goals, there is definitely a paddle camping adventure down the Buffalo River for you!

Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit, British Columbia

Tucked into the western slopes of the Cariboo Mountain Range is the Bowron Lake Provincial Park, home of the Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit. It is 75 miles (116 kilometers) of paddling bliss through 13 lakes, six rivers, and over seven connecting portages.

One of the many things that makes this circuit an ideal paddle-camping destination is that motorized boats are not permitted along the route, only canoes or kayaks.

The full canoe circuit takes an experienced paddler six to 10 days. A shorter, two to four-day option is on the western side of the circuit.

Photo by Kristopher Kinsinger on Unsplash

There are countless breathtaking views along the circuit. Don’t forget to bring your fishing rod and tackle box! All the lakes and rivers are open to fishing, and the area is teeming with bull trout, kokanee, rainbow trout, and lake trout.

There are short hiking trails along the route for you to take in views of Hunter Lake, Cariboo River Falls, and other beautiful areas. Feel free to stop at one of the natural sandy beaches for some swimming and sunbathing. Though all the lakes are usually warm enough for a summer swim, the lakes on the west side of the circuit tend to be a little warmer.

This circuit takes you into some of the most remote, undisturbed wilderness areas and the region is bursting with wildlife to observe along the way. Keep an eye out for bald eagles soaring above or fishing. The haunting calls of loons echo across the water. You might even see a moose or two!

Be prepared for seven portages, about 10 kilometers total. After the first few, the portages are very easy to navigate. Portaging with canoes is almost always easier than with kayaks, though it is possible to complete the circuit in either canoe or kayak.

Don’t forget to make your reservations to paddle the Bowron circuit! The reservations are open from May 15 through September 29. Though you can make reservations as close as two days ahead of your trip, it is recommended that you reserve your spot at least three months out to make sure you get your preferred dates.

The best time of year to paddle the Bowron Circuit is late August through September. If you visit mid-May through early August, you’ll have to deal with the onslaught of mosquitos, “no-see-ums,” black flies, bees, hornets, and horseflies.

There are a lot of designated camping areas all along the route. Each site has a fire ring with a grill and firewood. Every campsite also has a pit toilet. For safety, there are six emergency radio phones located around the Circuit as well as emergency shelters. The shelters are not meant for camping. They are available for emergencies or during severe weather.

Don’t be surprised when you’re required to sit through an orientation before you can begin your paddle trip. This ensures you understand what to do in an emergency and that everyone does his or her part to preserve this largely undisturbed wilderness area.

While the Bowron Lake Circuit is not for the very beginner paddler, it should be on every person’s paddle camping bucket list. Many people return for more time in this breathtaking area.

Do you have a favorite paddle camping destination or trip? Or do you have a paddle camping trip planned this summer? Share in the comments!


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