Kayaking In Ohio – Top 10 Paddling Spots In The Buckeye State

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Sam OBrien

Alright, I get it; you’ve got your kayak ready – and you’re hoping to do some kayaking in Ohio. But you might want to learn a little bit about the great state of Ohio before you start conquering.

So, what’s there to know?

Well, a lot, as it turns out. 

Did you know that Thomas A. Edison, Neil Armstrong, and the Wright Brothers were all born in the state? So, Ohio’s got the American father of invention, landing a man on the moon, and the birth of the flying machine all in the local history pages. 

Sure, these bits of knowledge won’t be of much help when you’re rushing down a river, but it’s a pretty impressive list, nonetheless.

But let’s put the history on the side – and focus on kayaking. And yes, Ohio manages to impress in that department, too. The rivers, lakes, and beautiful scenery are plentiful – but I figured that a neat top ten list might be easier to comprehend. 

So, here you go – the best places to kayak in Ohio, the ultimate guide! 

Let’s get this going, shall we? 

Kayaking (And Fishing) Laws And Regulations & Other Things To Be Aware Of

Ohio Kayaking And Fishing Laws And Regulations

Before I get the list going, it’s probably a good idea to cover some rules and regulations paddlers must be aware of before traveling. 

The boating laws in Ohio generally don’t differ much from other states in any big way, but taking a second to go through the summary is always a good start to your paddling adventures – even more so when you’re visiting a new state.

Here are some things to consider when it comes to Ohio’s kayaking and fishing laws:

  • The state of Ohio considers kayaks and canoes to be non-motorized watercraft. 
  • All kayaks and canoes must be registered – but they are not required to have a title. A watercraft with a motor with less than 10 horsepower must be registered but exempt from titling. That includes a trolling motor on a canoe or kayak.
  • As far as having a license goes, if you were born after January 1, 1982, and you plan to operate a vessel powered by more than 10 horsepower, you’ll need a certificate from a NASBLA-approved course or proof that you’ve passed the exam approved by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
  • No individual under the age of 12 can legally operate a motorized boat without supervision from an 18+ old individual. 
  • If you want to fish, you’ll need a license. You can buy a fishing license here,  via the State’s DNR website, or from a local, authorized dealer – yearly licenses cost around $25 for residents and $51 for a non-resident.
  • Operating a boat with a blood-alcohol level of over .08% is considered boating under the influence and is illegal. 
  • All vessels must have a wearable, USCG-approved PFD for every person on board. 
  • According to kayak lights law, running lights are required between sunset and sunrise. 
  • If you plan on paddling a kayak or a canoe, you’re not required to have a sounding device onboard. The exemptions to the rule are the following locations – Lake Erie, the Ohio River, and the Muskingum River. 
  • Likewise, Visual Distress Signals (VDS) are required on Lake Erie, the Ohio River, and the Muskingum River.

Best Places To Kayak In Ohio – Top 10 Spots To Visit

Best Places To Kayak In Ohio Map

Okay, we both know why you’re here. So, let’s get straight to the best kayaking in Ohio – the top 10 spots, that is. 

I couldn’t possibly cover every single location – but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t explore Ohio on your own when you get a chance!

1. Lake Erie

Ariel shot of Lake Erie Coastline Ohio

Best For Historic Sightseeing

Coming in at number one among Ohio’s must-see destinations, we have the great Lake Erie. 

Why did I use the word “great” when there are many other ways to describe it? Well, it’s simple – it’s one of the five Great Lakes of North America. 

Of those five, Erie is the fourth largest in its surface area, and it’s the eleventh largest lake in the world. Now, those are some serious numbers, sure – but what does it mean for paddlers?

Or, to be more precise, what does it mean for paddlers in Ohio?

Well, it means a lot, actually: 

Even though it extends across four states in the US and stretches into Canada’s territory, Lake Erie is, as it turns out, the shallowest and smallest lake (volume-wise) of the five behemoths in North America.

That means that there are many islands found on the lake – and each of those islands offers a number of kayaking and canoeing trails to explore. 

Now, the Kelleys Island Trail, South Bass Island Trail, Middle Bass Island Trail, and North Bass Island Trail are my primary recommendations. But, of course, feel free to explore further – it’s not as if you’ll run out of water to explore any time soon.

Granted, it’s not exactly an adrenaline-pumping adventure – but the area’s rich history makes up for it. 

Kelleys Island Trail, for instance, leads you to the Inscription Rock, featuring nearly one hundred Native American pictographs. That’s just one part of Lake Erie, though; the other islands include historic sites, wildlife sanctuaries, historic wine-making facilities – and more. 

Basically, the chances of you getting bored and feeling like you’ve “seen it all” on this lake are – well, non-existent. 

2. Ohio River

scentic views of the Ohio River at dawn

Best For Recreational Paddling With Beautiful Scenery

I’m continuing the list with another water giant – the Ohio River. And just like Lake Erie, it’s kind of the obvious choice when visiting this state. 

It’s a genuinely massive body of water; the mere sight of the river makes you want to launch the kayak and start paddling. 

The river begins at the eastern part of Pennsylvania and free-flows through – or along – a total of six state borders.

But what makes this river a good paddling destination, really? 

If you ever drove past or over it, you probably noticed the beautiful, calm, and clear water that flows in the Ohio River. Well, that’s something that doesn’t disappear no matter what part of the river you’re on: 

All along its 981-mile stretch, it’s a peaceful, clear river that’s surrounded by stunning scenery. 

No wonder Thomas Jefferson named it the most beautiful river in the world.

The name of the river – and the state as a whole – comes from the Native American word, Ohio, pronounced ohiːyoːh. The literal translation would be “Good River,” which sounds a bit anticlimactic – until you realize how rare it is to have a well-preserved 981-mile river that provides drinking water for three million people, that is. 

Navigating the river in a kayak and admiring the sheer beauty of it is something that deserves a spot on your bucket list. 

If you can pick a specific time of year to come here, I would suggest planning around the Ohio River Paddlefest. It attracts thousands of kayaking enthusiasts from all over the state – and is generally a well-organized event worth checking out. 

3. Hocking River (Hocking Hills)

Lower Falls of Hocking Hills State Park Ohio.

Best For River Kayaking For All Skill Levels

It’s said that you can read the history of Ohio in the Hocking Hills: 

The sandstone’s about 350 million years old, which means that it was there well before the land that we call Ohio was even seen on the surface of the planet. 

Back then, it was all underwater – underneath the ocean and relatively leveled out. But millions of years of uplift and streams slowly created the hills and waterfalls we know and love today.

With that said, the Hocking Hills State Park is pretty much a given if you’re visiting Ohio. It offers more than 200 camping sites, multiple hiking trails, and stunning cliffs and waterfalls – in short, it is a must-see for all those passing through. 

I should be focusing on the Hocking River right now, though:

This 102-mile long stretch of water provides some great kayaking trails – with the advantage of sightseeing, considering that you’ll be surrounded by the beauty of the state park I mentioned a moment ago. 

It’s not all just gentle kayaking through the park, though; there’s a bit more adventure to it, such as tubing and rafting on the sections of the river that have some milder rapids. But overall, this river is a gentle giant of sorts – calm and suitable for paddlers of all skill levels.

The main Hocking River Water Trail is under construction at the time of writing this, but it should be an important mark on the maps of all paddlers soon enough. 

Heck, even if you don’t like what you see – which is highly unlikely – you could just keep paddling away until you hit the Ohio River. The 100-mile stretch could take you a hot minute – but still, it’s an option.

In all seriousness, the Hocking River and state park combo should be an essential part of your Ohio paddling adventures!

4. Vermilion River Reservation

Mouth of the Vermilion River at Vermilion, Ohio,

Best For Plenty of Outdoor Activities and Beautiful Nature

The Vermilion River is a 66-mile tributary of Lake Erie and is by itself quite an interesting sight to see. It’s famous for its red soil across the whole flow of the lake that turns the waters muddy brown once it starts raining.  

A muddy river with red solid is much better than it sounds on paper, I promise.

The actual river is only one part of what I’m talking about here. 

The VRR’s a two-part reservation, separated at the middle by the actual Vermillion River. On the one side, there’s the Mill Hollow, and on the other, the Bacon Woods. 

The first half, Mill Hollow, is a local park that opened back in 1960. It and its neighbor Bacon Woods, along with the river, offer a myriad of activities. Hiking, golf courses, canoeing or kayaking trails, an outdoor amphitheater, the famous Benjamin Bacon Museum – and a lot more.

While here, you’ll also have an access point to the Black River Reservation, another great hiking and kayaking spot that you shouldn’t miss 

Oh, and let’s not forget the Vermilion-Lorain Water Trail, the perfect river and open water blend for paddlers, which leads down to Lake Erie Shorefront. 

All in all, the reservation as a whole has a lot to offer to outdoor enthusiasts – paddlers included. Between the activities and the nature you’ll be surrounded by, it all amounts to good times! 

5. Cowan Lake State Park

Cowan Lake State Park
Image by Ted (CC BY 2.0)

Best For Camping and Kayaking With Kids

Remember how I mentioned the history of Ohio while talking about the Hocking Hills? 

Well, I‘m going to have to repeat myself: 

While Hocking has bedrock and sandstones that are over 300 million years old, you’ll be able to find 500 million old rocks and fossils here at Cowan Lake. Ancient, long-lost animals and plants have been forever preserved in the beautiful sandstone that the area is abundant in – but it’s not just the rocks that are impressive in their history. 

There’s much more to explore here.

The Miami and Shawnee Native Americans once used this area as a stronghold, and there have been numerous battles that played out here and made the area what it is today. You don’t have to search for any of this online – the locals will be more than eager to give you a crash course in the whole thing. 

The park has over 250 campsites, most of them with electricity and everything else you can ask for while camping. But I know that some of you want an experience closer to nature and the “old ways,” so I’m happy to say that there are also about 27 cottages that you can rent out and enjoy the beautiful nature of the area.

Your kids will love it, too!

Now, I know what you’re thinking – what about paddling? 

Don’t worry; this is a lake, after all. You’ll be able to rent – or bring your own – kayak and explore the whole lake, which should take you about a day, given the lake’s surface area of 692 acres.

The beautiful nature and wildlife are always so much better when you’re viewing it while paddling across a calm lake. 

6. Little Miami River

Rock ledges along Little Miami River
Image by Todd Fowler (CC BY 2.0)

Best For Wildlife-spotting and Tackling Mild Whitewater Rapids

Now, I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard of the Little Miami River or not – but it is, without a doubt, among the most important historical areas of the great state of Ohio. 

Back then, the Miami Tribes lived in the area – and, well, the beautiful woods that surround this 111-mile tributary of the Ohio River were what they called “home.” 

This scenic stretch of water joins the great Ohio River east of Cincinnati. This US Congress Of Secretary designated this a National Wild and Scenic River, and it’s protected by the state – and there’s a good reason for that: 

Even if we don’t look at the amazing Native American history of the area, the river has about 87 species of fish. And of these 87, there are 36 species of Mussels, two threatened species – and one endangered. 

Now let’s talk about trails – the ones that matter most to us paddlers. The Little Miami River is full of beautiful trails, surrounded by towering cliffs, rolling farm country, all of which you’ll be able to spot while you’re paddling your way through the clear waters. 

Another worthwhile mention is the incredible wildlife that can be observed above the water. 

Sure, the number of fish species inside of the river is impressive, but the birdwatchers will have plenty to do while hiking beside – or paddling along – the river. With that and over 300 species of wildflowers, the Little Miami River genuinely is a perfect piece of land for nature lovers! 

7. Great Miami River

Trees and reflection by the great miami river

Best For A Recreational Paddle Through A Historic Area

Now that we’re done with the Little Miami River, it’s time to take a look at its big brother – the Great Miami River. It’s another beautiful tributary of the Ohio River that’s about 160 miles long; the river flows calmly through Sidney, Piqua, Troy, Dayton, Middletown, and Hamilton.

Just as the name suggests, it is located in the Miami area of Ohio – a historic Native American area that has a lot to offer. 

The area was home to the Native Americans, the French settlers, and a whole lot more people. And because of all the European settlers, the river has changed its name over 15 times across its history.

I don’t think the history lessons are necessary; you could just go ahead and see it for yourself. 

The calm waters will create a fantastic presentation of nature while you’re paddling through all the cities mentioned above. The nature surrounding the river is stunning – and the local wildlife will greet you like you’ve been there your whole life! 

The start of the whole journey is at Fort Ancient Launch site in the Native American earthworks complex located in Washington Township (Warren County) on the eastern shoreline of the Little Miami River. 

One word of caution, though: 

There might be dams and small spillways along the river; be sure to plan your route with care. 

When you are finished with the main river, why not explore two of its tributaries, the Stillwater River and Mad River – both of which have Ohio Department of Natural Resources water trail and designated scenic river status.

8. Cuyahoga River

Arch bridge spanning a Cuyahoga river in Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Best For Kayak Fishing And Wildlife Viewing

The Cuyahoga River is located in northeast Ohio. Its course runs through the city of Cleveland – and ends when it feeds into Lake Erie. 

The river itself is a scenic route that should be enough for any nature-loving paddler, but there’s more to the story here. I’ll get to that bit in a moment, though.

But first, I feel like I should mention the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. 

Now, you know the deal with national parks that are located around rivers. It’s typically a valley that surrounds the river – woods, cliffs, wildlife, and all that jazz. However, this national park is protected by the US – and there’s a good reason for that. 

Just look at the number of species that you can find in the park: 

Beavers, raccoons, muskrats, coyotes, skunks, red foxes, peregrine falcons, river otters, seven species of bats, bald eagles, minks, opossums, three species of moles, white-tailed deer, gray foxes, Canada geese, and great blue herons. 

That’s a serious list – even if you don’t count in the additional 50 or so species of fish. If you’re hoping to cast a line, Cuyahoga River is the place to do it. 

Along with all that wildlife, there are falls, rolling hills, and wetlands – not to mention the actual river. Paddlers will be completely satisfied with the slower streams surrounded by the beautiful nature – topped off with the somewhat faster parts that give them a bit of an adventure. 

The Upper Cuyahoga River is also named the State Scenic River – and trust me, that name is more than justified!

9. Mohican River Water Trail

Sunset in Mohican State Park

Best For General Recreational Activities

The Mohican River Water Trail – and the subsequent Mohican State Park that you’ll be viewing while going down it – are a true Ohio-based gem. 

Don’t let the fact that it’s a bit lower on the list fool you. It may actually be the most beautiful spot that you could stumble upon in Ohio!

The state park is rich in Native American history and surrounded by breathtaking nature. 

All that beauty and nature can be attributed to the last ice age that the Ohio area experienced. Linear ridges of soil and rock deposited along the edge of the ice and formed the land that we know and love today. In case you were wondering, the bed of the river was also formed in this period. 

Now, let’s get back to the Mohican Water Trail. 

Firstly, let’s mention that it connects both the Holmes County Trail and the Kokosing Gap Trail – so there will be much more paddling here than meets the eye.

The scenic trail is about 5 miles long in total – and there are four main stops along the way. And no, there are no whitewater rapids found along the way – but, honestly, you won’t need the speed to call this trip an adventure. 

The scenic route features an abundance of waterfalls, cliffs, forests, and wildlife along the way – along with campsites and fishing spots. You genuinely don’t need anything else to have a good time!

10. Big Darby Creek

Water flows through Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park in Ohio.
Image by Steven Miller (CC BY 2.0)

Best For Experiencing Ohio’s Diverse Aquatic Ecosystem

Last but not least, we have Big Darby Creek. Well, it’s a creek and a river. Actually, scratch that; it’s a river. 

I know that makes no sense, so allow me to explain:

It’s located in Northwestern Central Ohio and is a tributary to the Lower Scioto River in downtown Columbus. The river runs for 84 miles and stretches through the 7000 acres of the Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park, where it’s finally interrupted by the Little Darby Creek. 

The Creek’s one of the most biologically diverse aquatic systems in the Midwestern US, by the way. 

For starters, it’s home to a large number of fish – including 15 rare species. The birds don’t lag behind in numbers, either, with about 100 species of songsters that you’ll run into – if you know what to look for – so, there will be plenty to see below and above the water. 

Now, let’s talk about the actual paddling options. 

At first sight, it all looks simple and familiar. A lot of scenic routes that you can peacefully paddle through while looking at nature and meeting wildlife. But you might want to plan ahead if you’re coming to the Big Darby Creek. 

The waters are peaceful and slow most of the time – but if there’s a storm coming your way, you may want to get back to shore, especially if you’re not a seasoned paddler. The stream tends to get faster and more violent during harsher weather. 

The locals advise against tackling turbulent waters – and when you think about it, who wants to paddle their way through a storm, anyway? 

Don’t worry, though. As long as the sun is shining, you’ll be able to enjoy this beautiful, natural Buckeye wonder! 

Best Kayaking In Ohio: Summary

So, here we are – finally at the end of the line. With this list, you should be able to start paddling your way through this scenic state. 

The best kayaking Ohio can be found in pretty much every corner of the state. The area’s rich in history and welcoming for paddlers of all levels – and natural scenery lovers in general. 

So, get your kayaks ready, read the rules carefully – and start exploring the great Buckeye State!

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Sam OBrien

As the founder of one of the top-ranking websites in its niche, WaterSportsWhiz.com, Sam has dedicated himself to educating people on water-based activities such as kayaking, paddle boarding, fishing, and diving. When he's not busy writing about water sports or testing out the latest gear, Sam can be found enjoying a good surf or kayak session with friends.