So, You Want to Start Paddling in Kentucky? Insider Tips for Beginners

Canoes are stable, have room for lots of gear, and can accommodate at least two people, so they’re great for a couple of beginner paddlers.
Canoes are stable, have room for lots of gear, and can accommodate at least two people, so they’re great for a couple of beginner paddlers. Land Between the Lakes KY/TN / Jeff Laird
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The Bluegrass State is home to more miles of navigable waterways than any other state in the Lower 48, so it’s no wonder that paddling is a favorite summer activity. While Kentucky boasts some of the most challenging whitewater in the United States, you don’t have to be an expert paddler or an adrenaline junkie to have a great time on the water. The state’s many lakes, reservoirs, and rivers offer tons of flatwater paddling options, and there’s no shortage of ways to enjoy them all.

Not sure where to start? Here’s a quick and dirty guide to getting started on paddling in Kentucky.

Choose What Kind of Paddling You Want to Do

The beauty of flatwater paddling is that it’s feasible to get just about any boat downstream. Generally speaking, you’ll find plenty of canoes, kayaks, and stand-up paddleboards (SUPs) on Kentucky’s flatwater streams.

Canoes Canoes are stable, have room for lots of gear, and can accommodate at least two people, so they’re great for beginner paddlers or to rent a couple for the whole family to take out. Paddling a canoe is pretty simple: the person in the back steers, while the person up front helps motor. It’ll take a little work to get the strokes right, but once you do, canoes are also maneuverable in light riffles (faster moving sections) and, with some experience, even rapids.

Kayaks Kayaks come in many shapes and sizes, and the ones you see on Kentucky’s flatwater runs are mostly the kind suited for lakes—not the super-long, skinny sea kayaks or the stubby whitewater play boats. These typically have a single hatch for storage and are pretty stable; their low-to-the-water profile handles well in wind and choppy water. They’re ideal for pure flatwater or lake paddling.

Try out stand-up paddleboarding to test your stability.
Try out stand-up paddleboarding to test your stability. Heather Warman/SUP Kentucky

Stand-Up Paddleboards SUPs are growing in popularity and offer a killer workout for your core, too. Light and maneuverable, they’re great for a single-day outing and make it easy to plop a kiddo or dog on board once you’ve got the hang of it. In wind or rougher water, you can kneel for added stability, though it does take some practice. The only time you won’t want a SUP is for trips longer than a day, since they don’t have room for much gear and don’t offer any dry storage space.

Plan Your Trip for the Right Season

Depending what you’re doing and where, you can paddle year round in Kentucky. But it’s important to know that the creeks and rivers you can run in the early spring when water levels are low aren’t likely to be flatwater during other parts of the year.

Many of Kentucky’s thousands of miles of river are dammed, meaning water is released at regularly scheduled intervals. This makes it easy to predict what water levels will be like at a given time, but keep in mind that sometimes release schedules change based on unforeseeable changes in conditions or power grid needs. Always check the water levels for your intended route before you head out on the water.

Decide Where You’re Going Once you’ve picked a boat, it’s time to choose which of Kentucky’s thousands of miles of rivers and countless lakes and reservoirs to make your paddling debut. Unless otherwise noted, you can assume canoes, kayaks, and SUPs are appropriate for any of these incredible flatwater paddling destinations.

Grayson Lake State Park Grayson Lake offers you the opportunity to really explore, with sandstone cliffs, coves, and caves all around. There are also tons of waterfalls to get up close and personal with, including the Grotto, a park highlight. The lake is best from late spring through fall, when water levels are high enough to paddle around without scraping the bottom of your boat or board.

Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area With 300 miles of undeveloped shoreline, Land Between the Lakes is among the best spots in America to paddle uninterrupted for as long as you want. Thanks to the potential for strong currents, canoes and sea kayaks are the best vessels for this area. There are practically endless combinations of routes in Land Between the Lakes, including an 85-plus-mile circumnavigation of the peninsula between Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake. (Note: The Barkley Canal, between the two, is where you’ll likely experience current—its direction depends on which watershed has received rain most recently.) Wherever you paddle, Land Between the Lakes won’t disappoint.

A canoe or sea kayak is your best bet for paddling around Land Between the Lakes.
A canoe or sea kayak is your best bet for paddling around Land Between the Lakes. Land Between the Lakes KY/TN

Kentucky River Palisades You could paddle this dreamscape a dozen times and still not see it all. Put-in for the Palisades at Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park in central Kentucky, then spend the day (or a few days) checking out the Kentucky River’s many tributary streams, caves, and waterfalls. It feels remote because it is remote, which means you’ll also see plenty of wildlife.

When You’re Ready to Start Taking on Class I and II Rapids

When you’re feeling comfortable on flatwater, spend some time getting to know Kentucky’s fantastic entry-level whitewater paddling.

*_Little Sandy River *_The 27-mile run from Sandy Hook to Grayson Lake State Park is an excellent overnight or weekend float trip. Little Sandy River begins as a super-quiet flatwater run, then throws in a few class I and II rapids, so it’s ideal if you are comfortable on flatwater and are ready for more of a challenge. There’s ample camping and plenty of mountain views along the way.

Licking River Blue Water Trail Named for its many salt licks that once attracted woolly mammoths and mastodons, this tributary of the Mighty Mississippi is not to be missed. The 45-mile stretch of well-marked water trail below the confluence of the Licking River’s three forks is an excellent introduction to paddling big rivers. It does have some class I rapids, and though it’s runnable year round, it can be tricky to navigate in the fall when water levels are particularly low.

There you have it—some of our best tips for getting on the water this summer. If you’re a little nervous about that first time, the Bluegrass State has plenty of outfitters who would be happy to help you learn the ropes!

Originally written for Kentucky Tourism.

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