Imagine kayaking down a beautiful and calm river, where the majesty of nature provides an ambience unmatched in its ability to sooth and inspire. The river is calm enough so that you can practice your skills safely and comfortably.
Even if you’re a more advanced kayaker, finding a more chill river will make it approachable for the whole family (or friend group). Beginner kayaking rivers also make an ideal getaway to relax and unwind without fear of the river getting the best of you.
Does this sound enticing?
If so, then this guide is for you.
Key Point: Below we walk you through what you need to know about how to start kayaking and how to choose the best kayak destination for beginners.
- Learn about Kayaks for Beginners
- Learn about how we ranked the best kayaking destinations for beginners
- Jump to the Ranking of Destinations
But first, you need a kayak
Before heading out onto the water, you’re going to need a kayak.
Here’s a quick rundown on the different kinds of kayaks, and for which kind of kayaking they’re best suited.
Remember though, many of the most popular kayaking destinations offer loads of rental options nearby.
What’s the best kayak for beginners?
- Sit-on-top rec kayak
In this case, “rec” stands for recreational. Sit-on-top rec kayaks are best suited for fishing and family use on lakes. They’re a great choice for beginning kayakers.
- Sit-inside rec kayak
These kayaks are also good for fishing and family use on lakes. They’re also a good choice for a beginner. Some people don’t like the feeling of sitting “inside” the kayak, though.
- Whitewater kayak
Whitewater kayaks are intended to be used on whitewater, and that’s about it. You can use whitewater kayaks for other purposes — on a lake, for example — but that’s not their intended use. Do to their smaller shape and design for turning and cutting, we recommend other options for beginners.
- Sea kayak
Sea kayaks are meant to be used on the ocean, and specifically racing on the ocean. These are for serious kayakers.
- Canoe/kayak hybrid
Canoe/kayak hybrids have features of both canoes and kayaks. They’re a great choice for families, fishing, and camping.
- SUP/Kayak hybrid
SUP/Kayak hybrids are like a stand-up paddle board you can paddle like a kayak. They’re an okay choice for families, and even for fishing, but they’re primarily intended to be used on lakes.
Best Options for Beginners
We recommend the following:
- Sit-inside recreational kayaks
- Canoe-kayak hybrids
Go for the canoe-kayak hybrid if you plan to bring a pet or a partner. Sit-inside recreational kayaks will be more comfortable for solo kayakers.
Want to see these different types of kayaks in action? Check out this helpful video on the best options for beginners from REI:
Pro Tip: When you’re learning to kayak, your kayak will likely take its fair share of abuse. So we recommend choosing a sturdy kayak for beginners that won’t flip easy.
What should my kayak be made of?
Kayaks are primarily made from seven different kinds of materials:
- Carbon fiber
- Inflatable plastic
- Fabric with a frame
- Hard plastic
Inflatable plastic suffices for anyone just getting started with kayaking.
Hard plastic is durable, but heavy. Fiberglass is light but expensive, while carbon fiber and kevlar are extra light, but even more expensive — likely too much for the beginner.
Kayaks are not only made from different materials, they also come in a variety of shapes and sizes.
Our Recommendation: Beginner kayakers will be served well by inflatable kayaks or hard plastic kayaks that are durable, but light and affordable.
How deep and how wide should my kayak be?
The right kayak for you depends on how you intend to use it. First and foremost, you need a kayak that’s comfortable for your body type.
Every kayak offers options to customize the fit, but always keep the length and width of your torso, legs, and arms in mind when you choose your first kayak.
Also, will children or teenagers be using the kayak?
You’ll need a kayak appropriate for their body types as well.
Key Point: Having the appropriate weight and space in your kayak is crucial for having an enjoyable stress-free time as a beginner.
How long should my kayak be?
The answer to this question has a lot to do with how you plan to use your kayak. Longer kayaks are good for speed and tracking, while shorter kayaks are easier to turn.
Also, you’ll need to get your kayak to the water — will a longer kayak fit in your motorized toy-hauler?
How stable is a kayak?
Beginning kayakers should go for a more stable kayak. You’re bound to have some tippy moments. The flatter the hull, the more stable the kayak.
There are two kinds of stability when it comes to kayaks: primary and secondary.
Primary stability measures how stable your kayak will be in calm water, while secondary stability measures stability in choppy water.
Key Point: Beginners will want strong primary stability, so that they feel totally comfortable in calm waters. The best kayaking destinations for beginners will provide calmer waters.
How much does a kayak cost?
We feel it’s best for beginners to not spend too much on their first kayak. You might hate the experience, after all. If you end up loving kayaking, you can always upgrade later.
You might even want to start with a used kayak, as long as it’s in good shape.
Otherwise, kayaks can cost as little as a few hundred dollars, or up to thousands of dollars.
Last, consider whether you’ll be kayaking alone, or with company. If you’ll have some company, choose a tandem or multi-seat kayak.
Will you need rigging? A shock cord helps keep important items from floating away, and paddle float rescues are also handy.
Or perhaps you just need some storage areas for your fishing gear? In addition, rudders and skegs help steer your kayak with a foot pedal, which is almost necessary when kayaking in open water.
Now that you have a better idea of what kind of kayak you need to get started, let’s now take a look at the 10 best kayak destinations for beginners.
As we researched this ranking of America’s 10 best kayak destinations for beginners, we consulted experienced kayakers, kayak instructors, and outdoor enthusiasts.
We also took similar rankings from trusted and reputable sources from all across the internet into account, sorting through their reviews in order to find the very best kayak destinations for beginners.
We rated each location based on the following:
- Kind of water (river, lake, whitewater, ocean)
- Difficulty of water
- Access to fishing/camping
- Nearby accommodations
- Availability of kayaking classes/guides/other kayaking services
- Other natural features
- Difficulty reaching the destination
With each location we also present to you the best places to eat and stay.
With this information we’re confident you’ll find the best beginning kayak destination for you.
The Best Kayak Destinations for Beginners
San Juan Islands, WA
Where to Stay: Snug Harbor Resort
Where to Eat: Roses Bakery Cafe
If you’re new to kayaking, take it slow. For the number one pick in our ranking, we went with Washington State’s tranquil San Juan Islands. While you kayak along this beautiful archipelago, you can also enjoy charming coastal towns and a whole lot more.
And since you’re a beginner, you might want help from a tour or a guide. We suggest booking your tour with Discovery Sea Kayaks, which offers everything from half-day tours to five-day camping and kayak excursions.
Otherwise, the gentle nature of the San Juan Islands makes it an ideal place for beginning kayakers to take in the scenery and maybe even see some whales!
Snake River, ID
Where to Stay: The Lodge at Palisades Creek
Where to Eat: Spoons Bistro
Our second pick for the best kayak spot for beginners is Idaho’s Snake River. We like the Snake River because, even though you’re a beginner, you may still want a little adventure in your kayaking trip.
Snake River offers just that, with thrilling rapids and plenty of sightseeing opportunities. And since Snake River is a little more advanced, we suggest beginners hire a guide. We recommend Rendezvous River Sports on the Wyoming side of the Snake River.
Rendezvous River Sports offers diverse styles of instruction, from inflatable kayak lessons and tours, to an introduction to river kayaking, and even how to roll your kayak.
All of this, plus unmatched scenery, makes the Snake River without a doubt one of America’s 10 best kayak destinations for beginners.
Youghiogheny River, MD
Where to Stay: Smith House Inn
Where to Eat: Lucky Dog Cafe
Not all great kayak destinations are out west. Our third best kayak destination for beginners brings us to Maryland and the Youghiogheny River. It’s tough to say, so the locals just call it “the Yough.”
What caught our attention about the Youghiogheny is how varied the waters are, from rapids to a calm middle section surrounded by beautiful forest scenery. There is something for everyone.
If you’re a beginner looking for lessons or guided tours in the Youghiogheny River area, contact Laurel Highlands River Tours & Outdoor Center.
Some things we liked in particular about Laurel Highlands were the guest house lodging, as well as a range of other activities offered at the Outdoors Centerby, from zip lining to gem mining. The Yough is ideal if you are bringing children who might be more interested in staying on dry land.
Colorado River, AZ
Where to Stay: Lake Powell Resorts and Marinas
Where to Eat: Dam Bar and Grille
The fourth pick in our ranking takes us now to Arizona’s Colorado River, which is a well-known destination for all kinds of river sports, including kayaking. Head to the Colorado River, and you’ll find water ready for all experience levels, from calm and peaceful water for the novice, to more exciting rapids for the thrill-seekers.
A good place for beginners to put in for smooth water kayaking is at Lee’s Ferry, near the Glen Canyon Dam. But be aware, a backhauling service is required. We suggest hiring Wilderness Adventure Services, or KayakHorseShoeBend.
Other great places to kayak are in the lower Colorado River, near Lake Havasu City and Yuma.
No matter where you choose, with a little preparation, there’s no better way to experience the beauty of the American Southwest than from a kayak.
Rio Chama, NM
Where to Stay: Inn & Spa at Loretto
Where to Eat: Rio Chama Steakhouse
Rio Chama in New Mexico is next in our ranking. This destination is especially suited for any kayaker looking for a few thrills as well as some beautiful scenery, including pine forests and fields of wildflowers.
No matter your skill level, the waters of the Rio Chama are definitely a little ornery, so we suggest booking a guided tour with Los Rios River Runners.
We recommend Los Rios since they offer trips for all experience levels, with half-day to overnight adventures. In addition, Los Rios River Runners even has some kid and teen-friendly multi-sport options like Rock and Raft, Pedal and Paddle, and Paddle and Saddle.
Lake Powell, UT
Where to Stay: Lake Powell Resorts and Marina
Where to Eat: Big John’s Texas BBQ
If a lake kayaking experience is what you’re after, check out the next pick in our ranking: Lake Powell, UT.
Those who have kayaked Lake Powell consider it one of America’s top spots to paddle, whether you’re a beginner or an experienced kayaker.
While kayaking on Lake Powell, you’ll take in deep slot canyons and all sorts of other geological landmarks. One of the most popular places around Lake Powell for kayakers to explore is Antelope Canyon.
For lessons or a guided tour, we suggest Hidden Canyon Kayak for all skill levels. Or rent a kayak from Hidden Canyon, and experience Lake Powell all on your own.
The Everglades, FL
Where to Stay: Hoosville Hostel
Where to Eat: Havana Cafe
Kayaking is perhaps the best way to experience the amazing views and exotic wildlife of the Florida Everglades.
Kayak through the Everglades, and you’ll travel through many unique ecosystems, while traversing streams and gliding across what’s called a “river of grass.”
Wildlife in the Everglades is unmatched most anywhere else in the U.S. and kayaking is a great way to get up close and personal with birds and maybe even a gator.
One drawback to the Everglades is it’s quite hot, limiting the best time to kayak to mid-winter and early spring.
If you’re looking for a guided tour of the Everglades, you can’t go wrong with Everglades Area Tours for day and overnight trips, as well as guided kayak fishing.
Lake Tahoe, CA/NV
Where to Stay: Cedar Glen Lodge
Where to Eat: My Thai Cuisine
Eighth in our ranking of the best kayak spots in America is Lake Tahoe. Whether you’re in the California or Nevada section of the lake, there’s plenty to do and see at Lake Tahoe.
Most of all, Lake Tahoe is known for crystal clear water. There’s no better way to see it than from a kayak, while taking in the views of mountains and forests.
Don’t have a kayak of your own? That’s okay! The abundance of kayak rental options is one reason why Lake Tahoe is such a great spot for both beginning and experienced kayakers.
If you’re looking to book a guided tour or just get some lessons before heading out on the lake, we say go with Kayak Tahoe. In addition to kayaks, Kayak Tahoe offers stand-up paddleboards and more.
Sea Caves, CA
Where to Stay: Blue Door Inn
Where to Eat: Patterson’s Pub
For a bit of a different first-time kayaking experience, try the ninth spot in our ranking.
Located near Mendocino, CA, the Sea Caves are truly a sight to see, and a change of pace if you’re looking for something besides the usual river and lake kayaking experience.
At the Sea Caves, you can paddle in and around narrow sea caves and secluded coves like a 19th century explorer. You might even see a seal or spot some nearby shorebirds.
Despite channels in this area sheltering paddlers from the high wind and surf of the Pacific Ocean, sea kayaking has its own set of challenges and safety concerns. If you’re truly inexperienced, book a guided tour with Kayak Mendocino.
Glacier Bay National Park, AK
Where to Stay: Glacier Bay Lodge
Where to Eat: Gustavus Inn at Glacier Bay
The last spot in our ranking is perhaps the most remote — and certainly the coldest — location on our list. Glacier Bay offers amazing views of the Alaskan wilderness, natural beauty, and breathtaking vistas. Bring your own kayak, or rent one when you get there.
While kayaking in Glacier Bay, you can get up-close-and-personal with all kinds of wildlife like puffins, sea lions, orcas, or even a humpback whale. Get to Glacier Bay and see the icebergs and glaciers before they’re all gone.
In such a rugged spot, having a guide with you is a good idea. Contact Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks for guided or unguided day kayak adventures.
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