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Paddling and Water Trails

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Boating enthusiasts are expanding the nationwide trails community to include networks of mapped waterways with improved access for kayak, canoe, and other watercraft users.

arrow Learn about National Water Trails System designation

arrow See more water trail examples, projects, and plans in resources on water trails


An introduction to water trails

Is a trail on water really a trail? Winter recreation enthusiasts argue that a trail on snow is still a trail, even if it melts every spring. What makes a trail is the journey, whether it’s on dirt, through a railroad tunnel, over a boardwalk, or along a scenic waterway. Trails in all their variety connect us to our world, our history, and our heritage of wild places.

photo of marine trail campsite signs

Signs marking the Cascadia Marine National Recreation
Trail in Washington


Essential ingredients

Unlike bikeways, water trails already exist. What is needed is help for trail users to get to the water and to find their way around. Signs, route markers, maps, and promotion of water routes are essentials. Trail supporters can create more opportunities by providing facilities like parking, boat ramps or docks, and places to camp and picnic.

Stream and waterway stewardship

Trails help people appreciate the natural world and the value of open space. Water trails, too, are a way to build more awareness and stewardship of our resources and habitats. In northeastern Illinois, for instance, TrailKeepers is an initiative of the Illinois Paddling Council and Openlands, that uses volunteers to monitor and maintain waterways and water trail access. StreamLeaders is a hands-on training course that promotes community participation in stream habitat conservation.

Water trail systems

Ohio has one of the newest statewide water trail programs among several other states. The goal is to encourage stream access along with safe boating and respect for private lands. Ultimately, we will have more statewide systems of well-signed and promoted water trails that facilitate safe use of these great recreational resources. Some of the longer water trail systems include:

• The 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail through northeastern U.S. and Canada
• The 1,500-mile Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail from Pensacola to the Keys and Georgia
• The 367-mile Northwest Discovery Water Trail along Idaho, Oregon, and Washington rivers

Promoting water trails

The Washington Water Trails Association (WWTA) is hosting a major water trail conference September 16-18 (see page 7). According to WWTA, “There are many, many new completed water trails that celebrate history, promote access, and connect communities and there are scores in various stages of development. Paddle sports continue to be among the fastest growing recreational activities in the United States.”

In 2012, the Department of the Interior created the National Water Trails System to launch "a new national network of exemplary water trails that will increase access to water-based outdoor recreation, encourage community stewardship of local waterways, and promote tourism that fuels local economies across America." The National Water Trails System is administered by the National Park Service.

National Recreation Trails designations of water trails have increased in recent years. The program brings awareness to the importance of trails of all kinds, ranging from long-distance trails to short nature trails, and including paddling routes along with snow and land trails.

Some water trails that are designated National Recreation Trails:

More information on National Recreation Trails:

More information on National Water Trails System:

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