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Avoid the Crowds and Paddle the National Parks

Oru Kayak in Grand Teton National Park

By Johnie Gall

Someone once told me that National Parks are just theme parks that can kill you.

And in some ways, he was right. The lines may be shorter in Disney’s Bear Country than the real thing.

Our National Park system is crowded, and it’s getting busier every year. In 2016, the parks logged a record-breaking 330 million recreational visits. That’s up more than seven percent from 2015. That’s more people than went to “every single Disney Park, NFL, NBA and MLB game, and NASCAR race”— combined.

Hiking with an Oru Kayak

Carrying an Oru Kayak

For a lot of people, myself included, visiting the national parks during the summer high season can be a frustrating and dismal experience. Shuttle buses run full, views are obstructed by selfie sticks, and trails can feel more like conga lines. But it’s also my steadfast belief the parks are incredibly important: They make nature accessible to everyone at an affordable price and they’re home to some of the world’s most beautiful natural features.  And, oh baby, the water’s perfect.

My favorite way to beat the crowds and find a little solitude in even the most over-packed national park is to bring an Oru. Having your own kayak —especially one you can carry on your back — makes some of the country’s most iconic lakes and rivers accessible.

Kayak float bags

Kayaking for beginners

Packing up Oru Kayak

Here are some things to know:

  • A lot of parks have mandated boat inspections for motorized water craft, and sometimes kayaks are included. Either way, taking a few minutes to wash your boat off before you leave from home will help it will help prevent the unwanted spread of invasive aquatic species.
  • It’s up to you to do your due diligence and research the rules for kayaking— the regulations differ park to park. Look into whether or not you need a permit, a fishing license, or a boat inspection, and which bodies of water are off limits to kayakers. Either do a quick Google search and find answers on your park’s official website, or stop in at a ranger station and ask around.

Oru Kayak PFD

  • Bring a PDF. It looks sexy, and chances are your park will require you to wear one. Bring your Oru Pack, too, in case you need to hike back the lake you want to access.
  • Not every river is suitable for an Oru. Some rivers require both whitewater experience and whitewater-specific boats. Don’t just hop on any river—again, a little research goes a long way.

Mountain kayaking

Paddling in National Parks

Here are some of my favorite National Parks for Oru Kayaks:

Acadia National Park: Go seaside rock climbing in the morning, eat lobster roll for lunch, then load up the kayaks for Jordan Pond or Echo Lake, or bring your camping gear and spend a night on one of the tiny islands off this East Coat paradise. Nothing beats paddling through a harbor of lobster pots and fishing boats on a misty morning in the Atlantic.

Big Bend National Park: The Rio Grande is the actual boarder of U.S and Mexico, and paddling part of it made me reconsider everything I’d assumed about Texas. Big Bend is one of most remote and wildest parks in the country, and it’ll feel even more out there when you overnight between the towering canyon walls of the silty river. (Check out Greg’s guide to overnighting in Big Bend).

Shenandoah River: You’ll need to hire a shuttle or have two vehicles to float this gorgeous Virginia river. Do it during the fall when the leaves are changing and see what a show off Mother Nature can be.

Everglades National Park: My first and longest kayaking trip was in this swampy no-man’s land, where mangroves, alligators, and mosquitos thrive. Even in the busy season, you’re likely to go hours or even days without seeing another human. Head here during the winter months to avoid extreme heat, and don’t forget the bug spray.

Glacier National Park: Lower Two Medicine, Lake McDonald, St. Mary Lake and Swiftcurrent Lake are all stunning choices for a quick paddle, but if you’re looking for a challenge, load up your Oru Pack and hike back to Hidden Lake. It’s a crowded trail with some steep hiking, but it’ll be worth the effort to kayak one of the most iconic and visited places in the National Park system — and have it all to yourself.  

Grand Teton National Park: The Teton Range in Wyoming is jagged, jaw-dropping, and as close to New Zealand’s epic peaks as I’ve seen in the States. Paddling Jackson Lake (pictured in this blog post) in the spring is prime time to spot baby bison on the shore, photograph snow-capped mountains, and scrounge up enough grit to skinny dip.

Swimming in the Tetons


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