There’s a reason Alabama is prominently featured in kayaking videos. With its rugged scenery and some of the cleanest water in the country, the river veins crisscrossing the landscape have shaped the culture and history of the state. Looking at a map, it’s no wonder it’s also home to the longest river trail in America: the Alabama Scenic River Trail (ASRT).
Regardless of whether you’re looking for a challenging multiday adventure or a flatwater day paddle suitable for the family, you’re likely to find it in North Alabama.
Here are 14 of our favorite places to get your paddle wet.
1 Guntersville Lake
Locals call it “Lake Guntersville” but a lake by any other name would be just as noteworthy: this body of water is Alabama’s largest lake. Surrounded by the Appalachian foothills, this section of the Tennessee River offers some of the state’s best flatwater paddling and kayak fishing.
Its highlight may be the Hambrick Bat Cave. Located about a mile upriver from the Guntersville Dam, it’s home to more than 60,000 gray bats, which emerge en masse at dusk and fly out over the water, making for a one-of-a-kind evening paddle.
2 Flint River
Lauded as a beginner-friendly float, the 65-mile Flint River seems almost designed for day-trippers. A shallow and calm stretch of water, it’s fed year-round by cold springs, with multiple bridges making finding a put-in spot easy.
The three-hour paddle from Highway 72 to Little Cove Creek, for example, offers four islands, caves and scenic bluffs to explore. But if you have more time to spare, there is plenty of camping nearby, as well as excellent bass fishing.
3 Weiss Lake
Much like the other lakes on this list, Weiss is a dammed reservoir on the Coosa River. Another thing it has in common? Excellent fishing.
Known as the “Crappie Capital of the World,” Weiss Lake is surrounded by plenty of accommodations, campgrounds and—you guessed it—boat rentals. Unfortunately, most are of the fuel-powered variety, so if you’re looking for a paddle-powered adventure, you’ll likely have to bring your own watercraft.
4 Wheeler Reservoir
Also known as Wheeler Lake, this dammed reservoir is the second-largest lake in the state. Located just downstream of Guntersville Lake, it’s a popular bass fishing destination, and plays host to kayak fishing tournaments. Also keep an eye out for what’s above, as it’s not unusual to spot bald eagles soaring overhead.
5 Lewis Smith Lake
This three-fingered reservoir, which is also called Smith Lake, is notable for being the deepest lake in Alabama and one of the cleanest in the entire country.
Located on the Sipsey Fork of the Black Warrior River just outside Birmingham, it’s easy to access, with Smith Lake Park offering rentals, around 10 public marinas and countless public launch facilities. Want to make it an overnighter? Launch from Speegle’s Marina and kayak across to Goat Island, where you can camp.
6 Bear Creek
With so many dammed waterways on offer in North Alabama, what makes Franklin County’s Bear Creek so popular? Its dam provides the only recreational release of water every weekend, from Memorial Day until Labor Day, ensuring water levels remain high enough to paddle through the summer months.
7 Lower Bear Creek Canoe Trail
The four Bear Creek lakes are known for having some of the cleanest recreational waters in the state, but that’s just part of their appeal. They also offer trophy fishing, sandy beaches and plenty of campgrounds.
Part of this system of lakes, the Lower Bear Creek Canoe Trail provides a leisurely float for families and beginner kayakers, starting from Red Back and ending roughly 34 miles later at the Pickwick Landing Dam on the Tennessee River.
8 Cherokee Kayak Trail
When the Cherokee Kayak Trail opened on Bear Creek in 2018, it was cause for celebration in the tiny town of Cherokee. Now, the town’s Parks and Recreation Department offers a fleet of canoe and kayak rentals, alongside a shuttle service.
The trail itself is about eight miles in length, taking between four and six hours to complete, with sandbars along the route offering ideal places to picnic and swim.
9 Little River Canyon National Preserve
A landscape of sandstone cliffs, turquoise water, rare flora, and exciting class II, III and IV rapids, Little River Canyon National Preserve is considered the heart of whitewater kayaking in Alabama.
Located in northeast Alabama on Lookout Mountain, it’s been used by Olympic athletes to train—but it also offers calmer waters for whitewater beginners and experienced recreational paddlers. The portion of the river above 45-foot-tall Little River Falls (one of North Alabama’s many waterfalls) is class I and II. Downstream of the falls is where things get a little wilder, with sections like “the Suicide” living up to its name.
10 Terrapin Creek
An ideal paddle (or float) for beginners, families and kayakers who only have a day to spare, the roughly eight-mile Terrapin Creek is only made more accessible by Piedmont’s outfitters, including No Worries Kayak Rental, Terrapin Outdoor Center and Redneck Yacht Club Canoe & Kayak Rentals (the latter of which also has a campground).
Expect calm, clean (it’s said to be the cleanest water in the state) and mostly class I water, with plenty of opportunities to go for a swim or cast your line.
11 Limestone County Canoe and Kayak Trail (Elk River)
It doesn’t matter what time of year you choose to paddle the Elk River—the scenery along the Limestone County Canoe and Kayak Trail is bound to leave you breathless, with dogwoods blooming in the summer months and the leaves of the hardwood trees turning brilliant hues in the autumn months.
This 21-mile trail is relatively cruisey, with class I rapids and five launches that allow you to choose how far and hard you paddle.
12 Neely Henry Lake
Part of the Alabama Bass Trail, the 78-mile Neely Henry Reservoir can be found in northeast Alabama, near the towns of Gadsden and Ohatchee. The lake itself is known for its fishing, but one of its tributaries—Big Canoe Creek—is renowned as a paddling destination.
Kayakers can rent a boat from Big Canoe Creek Outfitters or Yak tha Creek. Most paddlers spend about half a day exploring the lake’s waters, although for those with more time, there are primitive campsites available nearby.
13 Pickwick Lake
Stretching for 50 miles from Tennessee’s Pickwick Landing Dam to Florence’s Wilson Dam in northwest Alabama, this reservoir may technically be man-made, but that doesn’t make it any less majestic. Part of the ASRT, it offers 490 miles of curving shoreline and around 47,500 acres of water to paddle across when it’s full.
Known for its bass fishing tournaments, Pickwick Lake is a popular destination for kayak fishing. It’s also easily accessible; kayak rentals are available from Pickwick Landing State Park, while wild camping and launch spots can be found along both sides of the lake.
14 Wilson Lake
Formed by the Wilson Dam, the 15,500-acre Wilson Lake picks up where Pickwick Lake leaves off in the city of Florence. Like Pickwick, it’s known for its smallmouth bass, catfish and crappie fishing, which can easily be caught from a kayak.
Also part of the ASRT, wild camping is available on both sides of the lake, along with plenty of designated put-in spots.
Want to learn more about visiting North Alabama?
Stay inspired: It’s not just about getting out on the water in North Alabama. The Unexpected Adventures in North Alabama podcast takes a deeper dive into the state’s most unique destinations, including waterfall trails, hikes and communities you might otherwise miss on your road trip. It’s available on Spotify, Amazon Music and anywhere you listen to podcasts.
Find a place to stay: After primitive camping riverside, treat yourself to a stay at one of North Alabama’s quaint cabins or cottages, affordable waterside hotels, luxurious glamping spots or tranquil state parks.
Travel responsibly: North Alabama has a reputation for its pristine waterways and untouched wilderness. We ask you to follow the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics principles.