The U.S. state of Ohio is home to some incredible waterways, including its longest river, the Ohio River, and one of the country’s great lakes, Lake Erie. Whether you’re a beginner paddler or an experienced paddler, you’ll without a doubt enjoy the waters throughout Ohio as they offer up calm, relaxing, and serene conditions and views of some breathtaking scenery and diverse wildlife.
If you live in the state, or if you’re visiting to tick it off your U.S. paddling bucket list, we have put together 15 of Ohio’s most incredible waterways that, of course, are best explored by kayak.
Table of Contents
Table of Contents
The first magnificent and mentionable waterway is the Big Darby Creek still water river which runs its course through northwestern, central Ohio. If you’re after a long weekend paddling trip, then look no further than the Big Darby Creek, as this national scenic river runs for a total of 84 miles through some of the midwest's most diverse animal habitats and aquatic systems.
In our opinion, part of the reason why Big Darby Creek is such an exceptional place to paddle is because of the excellent water quality. You’ll find that if you choose to launch your kayak on Big Darby Creek, you’ll be paddling in some of Ohio’s most crystal clear waters, which are home to rare fish and mussel species that you can’t find anywhere else on the planet.
Cowan Lake State Park has become a popular paddling destination partly because of its calm and tranquil waters and partly because of the numerous bird species that frequent the surrounding beech and maple trees. If you’re into bird watching, then we highly suggest packing some binoculars as there is an abundance of species you won’t want to miss.
The area is also a popular site for paleontologists as the limestone on which Cowan Lake State Park lies is laden with fossilized plants and animals that died long before the Appalachian Mountains were formed.
If you aren’t into fossils or birds, however, and instead enjoy the pure beauty of nature, then head over to one of the prettiest parts of Cowan Lake, a large colony of lotus flowers whose leaves can grow up to two feet in diameter.
And then, once you’ve finished up on the water and you’re all paddled out for the day, you can kick back and relax at the park's numerous picnic areas and campsites, head off on the hiking trails, or cast a line in a hope to catch crappie, largemouth bass, and muskellunge.
The Cuyahoga River used to be one of the most polluted rivers in the United Sates, with the levels of pollution being so bad that it caught fire at least 13 times. Since one of the most famous fires in 1969, however, the city of Cleveland has made great efforts to clean the waters of the Cuyahoga River, which in turn even earned it the title of River of the Year in 2019.
There are numerous points down the river where you can launch your kayak, with the Cuyahoga Valley National Park being one of the most popular. Alternatively, the Upper Cuyahoga River is another great paddling spot as the waters contain very few obstacles and flow smoothly enough that even beginner paddlers will feel at ease.
We also recommended paddling further down the river, where you’ll meet the Lake Erie Junction. Here you can either choose to continue on the river or head into the vast open waters that the great lake provides.
Hinckley Lake is an excellent paddling destination for beginner paddlers thanks to its calm and easy-to-navigate waters that stretch for a total of 90 acres. Even professional paddlers can appreciate the superb touring conditions, so it really is the ideal location for kayakers of all abilities.
As well as being a hotspot for kayaking, Hinckley Lake also draws in anglers, bird watchers, and those who simply enjoy relaxing in the expansive green park that overlooks the lake itself.
If you have the flexibility to visit Hinckley Lake, then one of the best times to head down to the waters is during spring, when Turkey Vultures and their 6-foot wingspans return to the area to breed.
Hocking River is a fairly lengthy river that is suitable for professional, and beginner kayakers as the waters in the river are calm and peaceful, and the surroundings only add to that tranquility even further.
Along the river, you’ll find numerous launch ramps as well as campsites to help you break up your paddle and turn it into a weekend-long adventure if you so wish. And one out-of-water experience that we recommend you do if you’re paddling down Hocking River is hiking to the famous Rockbridge which was created thousands of years ago by erosion.
Lake Erie is one of America’s great lakes, and the waters offer up different kayaking conditions and activities depending on which part you paddle in and how far you paddle out. The Lake Erie shorefront, for example, is great for beginner paddlers as the shallow waters make the perfect training ground for paddling techniques and balance.
For experienced paddlers heading to Lake Erie, you can put your touring paddling skills to the test and set off on an expedition to Kelley’s Island or further out Pelee Island if you’re really up for a challenge.
On top of the diverse paddling conditions, Lake Erie is also home to an assortment of alcoves and bays, wildlife species that you can gaze upon from the comfort of your kayak, and historic sites such as the Marblehead Lighthouse.
But if you do plan on paddling Lake Erie, we do want to mention that as the lake is a great lake, the weather can change the water conditions in an instant and create fierce waves that no beginner paddler should even attempt to tackle.
Lake Vesuvius in the Wayne National Forest is a calm and flat 143-acre lake that has rugged hills and cliffs that provide the ultimate paddling backdrop. Many kayak anglers especially enjoy launching their ‘yak in Lake Vesuvius as largemouth bass, bluegill, and catfish call the waters their home.
The Mohican River is very well-known for its slow-moving waters, so if you’re after a relaxing day paddling, you should definitely consider it. Down the 40-mile stretch of water, there are various campsites where you can pitch a tent and enjoy the weekend out in nature, or you can engage in kayak fishing as the water is Class I and easily navigable by even the most beginner paddlers.
As the river is, for the most part, completely tree-lined, you won’t be stuck with things to look at, making it one of the most relaxing and beautiful paddles in Ohio.
There are more than 3,300 rivers in Ohio, and the Ohio River is the longest of them all, and if that doesn’t entice you to grab your ‘yak and get paddling, then we don’t know what will. Along with its colossal length, however, the Ohio River has gently flowing waters that only become unsafe when there have been heavy downpours that cause the water levels to rise.
One of the most scenic spots along the Ohio River in downtown Louisville, where you can paddle under the George Rogers Clark Memorial Bridge and into the state of Indiana. Many kayakers enjoy paddling at sunset because the sky lights up beautiful shades of yellow, orange, and red, reflecting off the river’s surface.
Towards the end of summer, the Ohio River is swarmed by canoers, kayakers, and stand-up paddle boards for the Ohio River Paddle Fest. Over 2,000 participants travel 9 miles down the river in human-powered watercraft to not only meet people with similar interests but also to enjoy the incredible scenery surrounding Ohio’s longest waterway.
The Olentangy River offers paddlers class I to class II waters, and with a 97-mile stretch, before the Olentangy River meets the Scioto River in downtown Columbus, you can spend days paddling along, enjoying the sites and the biodiversity.
If you’re in the Dayton area, then there is no better place to kayak than the Great Miami River. The river originates from the Indian lake before flowing 158 miles southwest into the Ohio River. You'll mainly find class I to class II waters in the Great Miami River, however, there are dams and mall spillways you need to watch out for.
The Little Miami River, which is named a National Wild and Scenic River, is another class I paddling option that joins the Ohio River east of Cincinnati. With only a 40-minute drive between the two, you can paddle both while visiting Cincinnati, or if you’re after a longer paddling adventure, you can paddle down the Great Miami River, along the Ohio River, and up the Little Miami River to cover all three in one trip.
Flowing into Ohio’s biggest lake, Lake Erie, the 107-mile Maumee River has 39 launch points making it an incredible option for paddlers who want both a short or a long paddling trip. The Maumee River is peaceful and scenic, with several small islands in the northwest Ohio section, which you can explore from the comfort of your kayak.
What we find pretty impressive and enticing, however, is the fact that the Maumee River has the largest watershed of any river feeding any of the Great Lakes, as it supplies five percent of Lake Erie’s water.
Paint Creek Lake is amid the beautiful Paint Creek Valley, and with over 1148 acres of water to explore, you can be sure to find a quiet and secluded place to view wildlife, and fish and just relax amongst the surrounding nature.
You’ll find numerous kayak launch points throughout Paint Creek Lake, and then once you’ve finished up on the water, you can hike to the state park’s significant limestone bluffs and gorges.
Now, Put-in-Bay is actually an island in Lake Erie. Still, we felt it deserved a special mention as it not only has an old-fashioned village that you just have to explore, but it also makes an excellent place to launch your kayak from or paddle over to.
Put-in-Bay is only accessible from the mainland by ferry, but of course, if you’re up for the challenge, you can paddle over in your kayak to witness what this quaint little island has to offer. If you didn’t bring your own kayak, there are kayak rentals on the island so you can set off from the shore and paddle out into the open water of Lake Erie.
There is a trail along the Vermilion River and the Black River that works its way down to Lake Erie and offers kayakers quiet waters with numerous access points. The Vermilion River Reservation, Lakeview Park, and the Black River Reservation are some of the most popular, however, you can decide how far you wish to paddle and base your launch point on that.
All segments of the water trail are incredibly diversified. As it's the only state-designated water trail to combine rivers and open waters, it’s a paddling destination you won't want to miss.
The state of Ohio requires all kayaks to be registered, however, you do not need a license to operate one. When it comes to whether you need a permit or not, it is important that you do your research on your chosen waterway to see if a permit is required.
Yes, you can kayak down the Ohio River and as the water conditions are fairly slow-moving and safe, even beginner paddlers can launch their kayak and enjoy the 981-mile-long river.
For the most part, yes, you can use your kayak anywhere in Ohio. With that being said, however, it is important to do your research before heading out on the waterway to ensure you’re allowed to paddle there and the conditions are suited to your skill level.
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