If you’re looking for a state in the Midwest full of laid-back rivers and lakes to do some paddling, Ohio has you covered. Popular with canoeists and kayakers alike, the Buckeye State boasts over 3,000 named creeks and rivers, 60,000 lakes and reservoirs, and, of course, the mighty Lake Erie. So popular are man-powered watersports in the state that two annual events are held each year: Ohio River Paddlefest and Cuyahoga Falls Kayak Race.
So pack up your car and head out on a road trip to Ohio for a relaxing paddling adventure. We’ve done the work for you and have the best bodies of water, rental information, and other tips listed below to make for a pleasant time canoeing and kayaking in Ohio.
Best kayaking and canoeing in Ohio
Located centrally in the state, the Columbus area offers Big Darby Creek. Beginning on the southwest side of the city, this 84-mile river offers up to class II waters as it meanders southeast of Columbus. This State and National Scenic Creek is noted for its biodiversity and offers easy paddling beginners and families can enjoy.
Trapper John’s is one of the most highly-rated outfitters in the area, providing both canoes and kayaks for rent on the Big Darby. Rental prices are dependent on the length of trip you choose, but begin at $16 per person for a canoe or kayak on their one- to two-hour “Sampler Trip.” Trapper John’s also offers shuttle services for those with their own vessels.
Beginning 97 miles north of the city, the Olentangy travels south where it meets the Scioto River in downtown Columbus. Efforts are currently underway to dredge part of the river near Columbus as sediment getting washed downstream has become somewhat of a problem for local wildlife since dams upstream were decommissioned some years ago. You can learn more about this river on Olentangy Paddle’s website.
For a different view of downtown Columbus, head out on one of the leisurely self-guided kayak or canoe trips offered through Olentangy Paddle as well. No previous experience is needed as the water is slow-moving.
By far the most popular paddling area in the Dayton area, and the entire state, is the Great Miami River. Originating near Indian Lake, which is also popular among boaters, this river flows southwest for 156 miles before joining with the Ohio River near Cincinnati. The waterway generally ranges up to class I, class II at the most, making many sections of it enjoyable for novices. However, it is important to note that there are dams, small spillways and more obstacles along this water trail. Familiarize yourself with portage areas, put-ins and more with this map.
Adventures on the Great Miami is your best bet for hitting the river just outside Dayton. Canoes and kayaks both start at $25 per person. You can find more information on their five-mile trip, shuttle services and more on their website.
On the other hand, why travel when you can put your kayak in right downtown? Need to borrow one? Not a problem. Rent a kayak from RiverScape Paddling Rentals before checking out the RiverScape River Run.
The Stillwater River and Mad River are two other popular kayaking and canoeing spots nearby. Check out Barefoot Canoe to head out on the calm waters of the Stillwater and Mad River Adventures to enjoy some canoeing in Ohio fun on mostly slow-moving water with just enough “bursts” to keep you awake.
Ranking in the top 10 for both the longest rivers and average discharge, the Ohio River is certainly one of the most mighty waterways in the continental U.S. and particularly the Midwest. For one reason or another, many people seem to be uncertain about whether you can go kayaking in Ohio on this river. However, for most of the year, this large river is so slow-moving that you can paddle upstream with relatively little effort. The exceptions, of course, are that it can be quite choppy in winter and dangerous to be on after heavy rains, just like any other river.
You can find out more about the Ohio River Water Trail, which has been expanding in recent years, on the NRT Database and the Ohio River Trail Council website. Although a bit of a drive at 1.5 hours, the Louisville Area Canoe and Kayak site also has a great list of river sections to check out in that area.
One of the most loved vacation and paddling spots in the state, you won’t want to miss a chance to hit up the Hocking Hills area and Hocking River in the south-central part of Ohio. Claimed by many to be one of the most scenic areas of the state, you can take in the views as you slowly meander down the class I Hocking River, a 102-mile tributary to the Ohio River.
There are tons of outfitters nearby to help you get on the river, including Murray’s Landing and Hocking Hills Adventures. Murray’s Landing offers three-, 5.5- and seven-mile trips down the wooded banks and under an old bridge. Head out on Hocking Hills Adventures’ nine-mile paddle to check out the natural arch known as Rockbridge and nature preserves in the area. Both outfitters offer your choice of canoe or kayak rental, and family-friendly tours.
Other than the Ohio, the Little Miami River is the go-to paddling destination near Cincinnati. This class I river flows for 111 miles before emptying into the Ohio. For a nice put-in spot farther away from the city, head about 45 minutes northeast near Fort Ancient. There are several outfitters in the area if you need to rent a canoe or kayak. Enjoy paddling through the verdant valley, stopping off for a picnic or even camp overnight on an extended trip.
Boasting “paddling fun for folks of all ages,” Scenic River Canoe Excursions will have you out in a canoe or kayak with the whole family in no time, starting at just $20 per paddler. Loveland Canoe & Kayak Outfitters offers a cool five-mile trip the whole family will enjoy, involving a chance to check out Loveland Castle. For an extended, 10-mile trip, look into their Seven Bridges Excursion, available to those 16+. Tippecanoe and Kayaks Too offers rentals, guided tours and livery services.
Although we already touched on the Ohio River, it is worth noting Ohio River Paddlefest is held each year in Cincinnati. Plan your trip for August 1 to join in on “the nation’s largest paddling celebration.”
Whether you’re looking for a sea kayaking adventure on Lake Erie or a calm, scenic paddle down one of the area’s rivers, the Akron-Cleveland region has you covered! For a relaxing trip down one of the most scenic rivers in the state, head to the class I Mohican. This 28-mile water trail provides a getaway from city life to the woods as it passes through quiet, forested valleys.
The Upper Cuyahoga River is another popular kayaking destination in the area. There are not many obstacles to worry about and the water flows slowly enough even beginners should be able to traverse it with ease. Other areas of the river mostly flow past privately owned land or are too narrow to paddle. You can find more detailed information on the different sections here. Also, if you are interested in whitewater kayaking, the Cuyahoga Falls Kayak Race, located in the identically named town, is an intense half-mile course through class II and V rapids, among other challenges.
For some well-known and trusted outfitters in the area, check out both Crooked River Adventures companies, one in Burton and the other in Kent, for trips on the Cuyahoga, Mohican River Adventures for kayaking and canoeing trips, and 41° North for rentals and guided tours on Lake Erie.
For some more great resources for planning your kayaking in Ohio trip, check out Ohio State Parks & Watercraft’s page on Ohio river basic paddling maps and Paddle Ohio for more maps, river conditions and access points.
Paddling season in Ohio
The paddling season in Ohio generally runs from April through October. The first and last months are dependent on the finicky nature of both spring and fall weather in the state. Average temperatures range between 48° and 72°F during these months. The summer months of June through August make up the height of tourist season.
What to wear
Here is a list of items to consider wearing on your Ohio paddling trip, no matter the season.
- Sunglasses, sunscreen and a hat
- Shorts and shirt made of athletic material (in other words, synthetics. Avoid cotton, especially during cooler temperatures, as it does not dry quickly and increases your chances of hypothermia).
- Tennis shoes you don’t mind getting wet, water shoes or sandals with straps
- For cooler weather, consider thermal underlayers, an insulated hat and possibly a drysuit or wetsuit
Ohio kayak and canoe laws
Laws pertaining to kayakers and canoeists are pretty standard in Ohio. Here are some of the most important ones you should be aware of.
Before hitting any body of water in the Buckeye State, paddlers must register their kayak or canoe. Proof of ownership is required to register. Your registration sticker must be on your vessel and you need to keep the paper copy on you as well while paddling. However, if you will be visiting from another state where your craft is registered and are visiting for less than 60 days, you are exempt from registering in Ohio.
In terms of Ohio life jacket laws for kayaks and canoes, everyone must have a PFD with them in the boat. However, only children age 10 and under are required to wear them at all times while in the boat. Type I, II or III PFDs are acceptable for kayakers and canoeists in Ohio.
Lights and signals
Distress signals, such as a flare gun, are not required unless you will be paddling at night on Lake Erie. You are, however, required to have some form of navigational light (e.g. waterproof lantern) on your vessel for paddling at night on any lake, stream, river, etc. It is also worth noting that you must have a sound device, such as a whistle, if paddling on Lake Erie, the Ohio River or the Muskingum River.