10 great family paddling trips in the Northeast
July 6, 2012

By Katharine Wroth

From AMC Outdoors, June 2012

"I'm bored." Every parent has heard it at some point during the summer, that languorous stretch of time that feels at once endless to a child and impossibly short to an adult. Sure, you can fight boredom with camps or crafts, but why not seize a day or two of summer this year and get the whole crew pulling in the same direction? We asked a few of our guidebook authors and trip leaders to recommend their all-time favorite paddling destinations for families. From quick afternoon getaways within easy reach of urban areas to deeper dives into the remote woods, these are easy adventures, suitable for all ages and skill levels, that mix nature, culture, and history—and they're 100 percent guaranteed to put boredom at bay.

Jordan Pond
Acadia National Park, Maine

Why dip in: This bite-sized adventure is drawn to scale
Difficulty: Easy paddling with an optional easy hike
Best bet for a bite: Jordan Pond House, on-site, or Bar Harbor, less than 10 miles away
For more info: See AMC's Discover Acadia or visit National Park Service

If you're looking for the perfect place to paddle with kids, you don't have to look much farther than Acadia National Park's Jordan Pond. Everything about it seems to have been created with kids in mind: The peaceful pond is just a mile long, the modest mountains at the far end are fondly known as "the Bubbles," and an easy 0.5-mile hike to the top of 768-foot South Bubble lets little ones feel like the king of the world. "Our kids love heading out to Jordan Pond for a paddle and a hike up the South Bubble," says Jerry Monkman, author of AMC's Discover Acadia. Monkman says it's worth leaving extra time for side adventures like watching loons and mergansers and trying to catch (and release) giant bullfrogs; you can even pick blueberries in season. Afterwards, he says, "nothing beats iced tea and popovers at the Jordan Pond House," the on-site restaurant where families have been getting their fill since 1870 (open May-October).

Lobster Lake
Millinocket, Maine

Why dip in: Nothing says "Maine" like a lobster-shaped lake in the North Woods
Difficulty: Easy, although the waters of Big Claw can get rough in windy conditions
Best bet for a bite: Load up in Greenville or Millinocket on your way in
For more info: See AMC's Quiet Water Maine or visit North Maine Woods

Getting there takes some doing, but wide-eyed visitors to Lobster Lake say it's well worth the effort. "I've done a lot of paddling in the Northeast over the past 20 years as I worked on the AMC Quiet Water guides, and Lobster Lake stands out in my mind as the most beautiful of any body of water in the region," says AMC guidebook author Alex Wilson. The Maine Department of Conservation says the lake, located northwest of AMC's Maine Woods conservation lands, offers "some of the most spectacular geology found anywhere in the state." Sheer cliffs, towering hemlock and pine trees, and flitting songbirds catch the eye immediately, while lumbering moose and the distant mirage of Big Spencer Mountain reward the more far-sighted. The shore of the 3,000-acre lake is dotted with campsites, many of which feature sandy swimming beaches, shallow water that's perfect for kids, and great views. Just remember to pack everything you need—the nearest towns, Millinocket and Greenville, are close to two hours away by car.

Lake Umbagog
New Hampshire

Why dip in: Find a taste of the wild within easy reach
Difficulty: Easy to moderate (wind and waves come up quickly)
Best bet for a bite: Head a few miles into nearby Errol, N.H., for a snack, or drive half an hour south to Berlin, N.H., or Bethel, Me., for more variety
For more info: See AMC's Quiet Water New Hampshire and Vermont or visit Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge

Straddling the border between New Hampshire and Maine, Lake Umbagog offers a real taste of wilderness, but it's still a relatively easy day trip from the region's cities—Portland, Me., and Concord, N.H., are both within two to three hours. Nearly seven miles long, but only 15 feet at its deepest point, Umbagog—an Abenaki word said to mean "shallow water"—offers no end of explorations. "The numerous deep coves, marshy inlets, and islands make Umbagog a place one could spend a week exploring," says Wilson, who first visited the lake with a small group when his daughters were two and five. On that same trip, he peeled off with a member of his party for a "two-day, marathon circumnavigation of the whole lake," spying moose, otters, osprey, bald eagles, and other wildlife. Perched in a 26,000-acre National Wildlife Refuge, Umbagog has earned a place in Wilson's heart: "It's one of my very favorite lakes in New England."

Portsmouth Harbor
New Hampshire

Why dip in: Leave the mainland behind—but not too far behind—for an island hop
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Best bet for a bite: Portsmouth offers a slew of options, or dock and dine at BG's Boathouse
For more info: See AMC's Discover Southern New Hampshire or visit Portsmouth Kayak Adventures; find tide charts here

"We love paddling with the kids around the islands between New Castle and Portsmouth," says Monkman, who lives in the area. "It's a really fun place to paddle close to town, and you can land on some of the islands for a picnic lunch and a dip in the water." Monkman recommends putting in at the Pierce Island boat launch downtown and paddling toward the sheltered waters beyond the US 1B bridge, and says it's best to go at slack tide—the period of relative calm between high and low tide—to avoid strong currents. Keen-eyed observers can catch a glimpse of great blue heron, common terns, and white-tailed deer, especially in the morning before boat traffic picks up, Monkman says. You'll also get an eyeful of local history, passing Wentworth by the Sea, a sprawling hotel built in 1874 that was renovated and reopened by Marriott in 2003, and the Wentworth Coolidge mansion, former home of the state's first royal governor (tours available). You can extend your trip with a 1.5-mile paddle up Sagamore Creek, docking at BG's Boathouse for lunch on the deck.

Pamet River, Cape Cod
Truro, Mass.

Why dip in: Pilgrims, artists, and blue herons mix on Cape Cod
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Best bet for a bite: Try the independent eateries in Truro or nearby Wellfleet, or stick to Route 6 for fast food galore
For more info: See AMC's Discover Cape Cod or visit Discover Wellfleet

The meandering Pamet River is "one of the loveliest rivers on Cape Cod," says Michael O'Connor, author of Discover Cape Cod. Starting at the town marina, you can paddle the four miles out to Cape Cod Bay, reaping incredible views that stretch from Eastham to Provincetown. Or stay within the river for closer explorations of Fisher Beach, which provided inspiration for the artist Edward Hopper, and the back side of Corn Hill Beach, where the Pilgrims purportedly gobbled a stash of buried corn belonging to the native Payomet tribe, then hosted a dinner to make up for it: the first Thanksgiving. You're likely to spot osprey, blue heron, and other shore birds as you venture through the half-mile-wide salt marsh on the way to and from the bay. With careful planning, the tides will be in your favor in both directions, and you'll have, says O'Connor, "a very pretty ride, out and back."

Selden Creek and Whalebone Creek
Lyme, Conn.

Why dip in: Discover solitude in the midst of ritzy suburbia
Difficulty: Easy, but stick to the creeks, as the Connecticut can be a rough ride for an open boat
Best bet for a bite: Cross the river to Chester or Deep River, or head east toward Salem on Route 82
For more info: See AMC's Quiet Water Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island: Canoe and Kayak Guide or visit Lyme Land Conservation Trust

Tucked into the eastern edges of the Connecticut River as it travels toward the sea, these modest creeks might not seem like a magnificent destination. But Wilson says they hold plenty of surprises. "When I first paddled into Whalebone Creek, I was astounded by twelve-foot-tall grasses. Examining them closely, I discovered that it was wild rice. It must have been late summer or early fall, because the rice was ripe." Just downriver, Selden Creek is home to "wonderful wildlife," says Wilson, "including the rare diamondback terrapin turtle, which is uniquely adapted to brackish water." You can poke around for a few hours or make it an overnight by staying on Selden Neck, at campsites that are accessible only by canoe or kayak. On both creeks, Wilson notes, "You're just a few miles from some of the wealthiest suburbia in America and cabin cruisers are just out of sight on the river, but you find protected solitude."

Little Tupper Lake

Why dip in: Commune with loons in a crown jewel of the Adirondacks
Difficulty: Easy, though windy conditions can make it hazardous
Best bet for a bite: Nearby Tupper Lake and Long Lake both offer a buffet of options
For more info: See AMC's Quiet Water New York or visit New York State Department of Environmental Conservation

Privately owned until the late 1990s, this 2,300-acre lake is now part of the state-owned William C. Whitney Wilderness Area, "one of the crown jewels of Adirondack Park," says Wilson. With easy parking and access, the lake—located about 5.5 hours north of New York City—is also a very popular destination; Wilson recommends a mid-week visit in summer to secure one of the 24 campsites along the shore. Whenever you go, you'll find 20 miles of rocky shoreline dotted with shrubs and ferns under towering hemlocks and pines, and "except in late fall, you can be fairly sure of seeing and hearing loons," Wilson says. If you're looking for a longer trip, he says, "you can paddle up into Round Lake (which isn't round), and at the other end of the lake you can portage into the much rounder Rock Pond. Both are beautiful."

Mullica River
New Jersey Pine Barrens

Why dip in: Escape the city for year-round fun
Difficulty: Easy, with occasional current
Best bet for a bite: From Atsion Lake, head a few miles north on Route 206 to Shamong
For more info: See AMC's Quiet Water New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania or visit Pinelands Preservation Alliance

The largest waterway in New Jersey's forested coastal plain, the Mullica River is "the epitome of the southern pine barrens, with pine, oak, and cedar groves, along with the famous tea-colored water," says AMC guidebook author Kathy Kenley, a kayak racer and guide who has lived in the area for more than 20 years. For an easy day or overnight, explore Atsion Lake at the headwaters of the Mullica, which offers lakeside log cabins, camping, playgrounds, swimming, and nature trails. If you're in the mood for more of an adventure, head 11 miles down the Mullica to Pleasant Mills for a long day trip, or make it an overnight by stopping at Mullica Camp (permit). Most rivers in the region are nearly empty on a weekday, says Delaware Valley Chapter leader Eric Pavlak, but their proximity to urban areas—about an hour from Philadelphia and two from New York—means they can get crowded on summer weekends. Still, he says, there's good news: "One of the nice parts about the pine barrens is they're runnable all year long."

Schuylkill Canal
Oaks, Pennsylvania

Why dip in: Barge through history on a unique tour of an old canal
Difficulty: Canal is easy, but watch for (and avoid) roiling conditions on the river proper
Best bet for a bite: Fitzwater Station, an historic tavern along the canal, or the town of Oaks
For more info: See AMC's Quiet Water New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania or visit Schuylkill Canal Association

From the early 1800s to the 1920s, the sixty-two-mile Schuylkill River Canal system was the key to transporting coal and other goods to Philadelphia, seeing 1,700,000 tons of cargo travel through in its busiest year. These days, only two stretches of this impressive industrial system remain. This one, about an hour northwest of the city, offers a pleasant few hours of paddling—either out and back along the canal, if the river is running rough, or out along the canal and back down the river. A short, grassy portage trail makes it easy to cross between the waterways. "Kids like to explore the islands in the river, keeping an eye out for turtles, fish, geese, and ducks," says Pavlak. "I like it because it's a wonderful trip on a summer afternoon. The water is cool in the hottest part of the day, it's never crowded, and it's close to the city. It's not a wilderness experience...just a pretty day on a river."

Mason Neck State Park
Fairfax County, Virginia

Why dip in: Explore the past and present in the heart of Colonial American history
Difficulty: Easy
Best bet for a bite: Grab something along Route 1, or picnic at the park
For more info: Visit Virginia State Parks

Just 20 miles south of the D.C. metro area, an emerald peninsula juts into the Potomac River. This prime real estate was once the vast plantation of Virginia statesman George Mason, whose Gunston Hall still stands on the site. Later threatened by logging and pollution, the area was protected in the late 1960s, partly to serve as habitat for the bald eagles that also call it home. Now paddlers enjoy exploring easy offshoots of the Potomac, including tidal Belmont Bay and Kane's Creek, in the area. "We've had many family outings to Mason Neck, mainly for the paddling and birds—sometimes snow geese as well as eagles," says Washington, D.C., Chapter leader Carl Lohmann. The destination's proximity to the city, rental boats, and kid-friendly attractions—including Mount Vernon, the former estate of George Washington, which is just a few miles north of Mason Neck, and Pohick Bay Regional Park, which shares the peninsula and boasts a swimming pool and paddle boats—make it a great family destination, Lohmann says. In fact, he hopes AMC members from throughout the Northeast will make a point of incorporating paddling into their next trip to the D.C. area. Not a bad idea, in summer or most any time of year.


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