When you’re thinking of where to paddle, the Midwest is probably not the first place you think of. But sometimes we forget that the Midwest is made up of 12 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Dakota, South Dakota, Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Ohio, and Missouri. Six of those states border the Great Lakes. The state of Michigan alone has over 3,200 miles of freshwater shorelines. Minnesota is home to the headwaters of the Mississippi River. You could paddle until your arms fall off. Or at the least, paddle something different every single day for the rest of your life and still only scratch the surface of paddling the Midwest has to offer.
Let’s talk about lakes.
You can pretty much throw a rock and hit a lake in any direction. Ok you probably cannot physically throw a rock that far, but that’s what it feels like here. Everyone tends to think Minnesota has the most lakes...probably because our slogan is the “Land of 10,000 Lakes”, but we actually have more around 11,800 lakes. This is overshadowed by our Wisconsin neighbor, who houses more than 15,000 lakes.
The surrounding states have plenty of lakes to offer as well, but Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan have the most by far. Plus, each of those states is a shoreline to one of the biggest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Superior. Toss in Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, and Lake Erie to make 4 of the 5 Great Lakes in the United States accessible from a Midwestern state.
Whatever size lake you are looking for, there is one for you. Looking to get away from everyone? There is a lake for you. Looking to toss out a line for some freshwater fish? There is a lake for you. Looking for something a little more extreme? How about paddling 3-5+ foot waves, exploring sea caves, with an average year round water temp of 39 °F (4°C)? There is a lake for you, too, just remember to bring your wetsuit. Needless to say, we have plenty of lakes to paddled up here.
Not feeling a lake. How about a river?
There are some awesome rivers flowing throughout the lands, along with a plethora of brooks, streams, creeks, runnels, and tributaries. Typically, you will see those flowing into 1 of the 5 major rivers in the Midwest. The 2 biggest are the Mississippi River and the Missouri River, followed by the Arkansas, the Red, the Platte, and the Ohio Rivers - gaining you access to over 8,700 miles of flowing water! Taking multi-day river trips is pretty simple, with easy access to primitive camping or full fledged campgrounds right along the river banks.
Not looking for a river trip? What about whitewater? YES, the Midwest does have whitewater!
A pretty popular whitewater destination is Vermillion River near Ottawa in Illinois. This river runs south to north, with up to class III rapids.
Looking to kick up the class to IV? Head up to the border of Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to run the Menominee River. There are plenty of other whitewater rivers options to run and several whitewater parks to head to throughout the Midwest.
When is a good time to paddle in the Midwest?
The answer all depends on your skill level, gear, water conditions, and how far north you are looking to go. Summer and fall are my personal favorite times of year to paddle anything up here. Summer because it gets hot and humid, so if you fall off your SUP, you can experience a lovely cool down swim. Fall because all of the leaves are turning, water is typically warmer, and bugs are starting to die off.
Spring is great for whitewater to catch the snowmelt swell or to get out before the bugs, but the water is icy cold. Winter is a challenging time of year for the northern states. Most of the lakes freeze over, which is great for ice fishing, but not so good for paddling. Your best bet for winter paddling is going to be on rivers, but keep in mind you are dealing with freezing cold water and air temperatures.
Please be safe and use your best judgment when paddling any time of year. Talk to the locals, get the data, study the maps, and make sure you have a solid game plan. Weather can turn on a dime! I have been on a lake for a sunny day paddle and then thunderstorm sweeped in out of nowhere twenty minutes in. There are no mountains or oceans in the Midwest to alter our weather, but we do have lots of open area for a storm to build and carry its momentum across vast distances. Again, get the data and be prepared for all weather at all times.
Where do I paddle?
A super common question I get asked all the time. I will paddle anything with water, but I will still give you some must paddle destinations in this neck of the woods.
Boundary Water Canoe Wilderness Area, MN
This area, located on the border of Minnesota and Ontario, boasts over a million acres of wilderness, including 1,100 lakes. Most of these lakes have banned motorized vessels, making it the perfect place to portage on a SUP. Sprinkle in some rivers, streams, around 2,000 campsites, fantastic fishing, and a few waterfalls to make it a must-paddle destination. The best part: you can go days without seeing a single person. Just make sure to pick up a permit, since they only allow so many groups/people to enter per day. Hands down, the Boundary Waters are my favorite place to paddle in the Midwest.
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, WI
This lakeshore features twenty-one islands off the tip of Wisconsin, jutting out into Lake Superior. It’s protected and serviced by of the National Park Service, so you will need to obtain a permit for overnight camping. There are motorized boats, but you can SUP to any of the twenty-one islands. There are six lighthouses spread across the islands to make sure boat traffic stays on the right path. Devil’s Island features a few lighthouses and some amazing sea caves. Be careful with this one, however, as it is a very exposed paddle. Most of the islands have no human inhabitants, giving you the feel of having your own personal island. If you are looking for a day paddle, check out the sea caves between Little Sand Bay and Meyers Beach, or pop over to Sand Island.
National Scenic Riverways, Mix Locations
There are twenty-six National Scenic Riverways in the Midwest. Most are in Michigan and are a part of the five major rivers listed earlier in the post. Others, like the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, flow into the Mississippi River. I am very familiar with this riverway and paddle it multiple times each year. St. Croix is super beautiful in the fall when the leaves are putting on a show for us humans. You are able to primitive camp on the islands or sandbars (first come, first serve) on most of these scenic riverways. Otherwise, you have to camp in designated public and private campgrounds, in which a permit/registration is required. I highly recommend a hammock camping setup for more unique areas to sleep. Or, you can always just sleep on your Hala board. Simply remove your fins and bed down for the night! Talk with local outfitters or DNR about the details, permits, maps, rentals, and shuttle service.
You have two to pick from: Voyageurs in Minnesota and Isle Royale in Michigan. Voyageurs is on the border of Minnesota and Canada, butting up against the Boundary Waters. There are three major access points and visitor centers: Ash River, Kabetogama, and Rainy Lake - all with great fishing, ramp access, docks on the islands, modern camping setup (with bear boxes), cliff diving, and breathtaking views. The lakes are crusing with houseboats, tour boats, and other boat traffic, but you can stick to the inner routes and use islands as wave breakers.
Isle Royale, located in Lake Superior, is a 45 miles long and 9 miles wide island, accessible only by boat or seaplane. There are three ferry services: Grand Portage, Copper Harbor, and Houghton, which will drop you off at either Windigo Visitor center on the west side, or Rock Harbor Visitor Center on the east side. From there, you can circumnavigate the island, hike the numerous trails, or portage to one of the interior lakes. If you want a treat, you can SUP over to Moose Boulder - which becomes the largest island in the largest lake (Moose Flats, when flooded) on the largest island (Ryan Island) in the largest lake (Siskiwit Lake) on the largest island (Isle Royale) in one of the largest freshwater lake in the world (Lake Superior). Follow that? Anyways, it’s a pretty amazing place to paddle!
So next time you are looking for a new place to paddle, think of the Midwest! We have a ton to offer, and I only skimmed the surface on all the options you have for paddling. From the extreme to the family-friendly, there is everything to fit your skill and comfort level. Make sure to contact the local outfitters, DNR, and resorts for more information - they are always helpful and willing to get you the information you need. We all care about your safety and paddling our beautiful bodies of water. Happy paddling and see you out there!
Pete Rozeboom is a team rider for Hala Gear.