From the calm, man-made lakes of northern Alabama, to rushing whitewater routes that can be found within a short drive of Birmingham and Huntsville, Alabama is a state that’s been long defined by its 2,856-square-miles of waterways (and that’s not even counting the coastline).
It only takes a quick skim through a list of the dozens of designated river “trails”—including one that runs for over 620 miles from the mountains to the sea—to understand how much locals love getting out on the water, whether it’s in a canoe or kayak, or on a standup paddleboard or whitewater raft. There’s also something here for all skill levels; the languid rivers and calm canals will appeal to beginner canoeists, while more advanced paddlers will be drawn to the very rapids that have become a mecca for the freestyle whitewater kayaking movement.
No matter what you choose, it will only take a day of paddling here to figure out why they call it “Sweet Home Alabama.”
Canoe in Alabama
In addition to 23 public lakes and 600 miles of coastline, Alabama boasts 17 major river systems, adding up to 1,400 miles of navigable channels. That’s the most of any state in the country. With so many rivers, lakes and creeks to choose from, there are countless places to canoe in Alabama.
Here are some of the best places to canoe in Alabama.
Alabama canoe trips
If you want to go camping and canoeing in Alabama, you’re going to be spoilt for choice. Home to one of the longest river trails in the country, your only problem is going to be narrowing down your list of potential overnight canoe trips in Alabama.
Alabama Scenic River Trail
If you want to complete the state’s most significant multi-day paddle, you’re going to need to have a bit of time on your hands. Alabama is home to the Alabama Scenic River Trail (ASRT), which at 631 miles is the longest river trail in a single state. The core route of the trail runs from Cedar Bluff, Alabama down to the Gulf of Mexico, with optional side adventures down the main river’s tributaries.
You’ll need more than time and an adventurous spirit to conquer the whole thing, though—you’ll also need skills. While there are lazy days of flatwater paddling, you can also expect to encounter boulder-strewn corridors with class II and III rapids.
Many of the rivers and creeks in this article (including Bear Creek, Elk Creek, the Cahaba River, the Tallapoosa River and the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta) are part of the ASRT. So even if you don’t have time to do the full thing, you can arrange to do a multi-day trip within one of the ASRT’s 10 districts.
The Tallapoosa River
Winding for 258 miles from Georgia into Alabama at the southern end of the Appalachian Mountains, the Tallapoosa is a key part of the Alabama Scenic River Trail. One of the best ways to experience it is along the 25-mile Harold Banks Canoe Trail, named for the first man to solo paddle the river’s full length. The flatwater paddle goes through a fish trap and includes access to Horseshoe Bend Military Park, the site of the last battle of the Creek War on March 27, 1814. For a bit more excitement, the side chutes offer up small rapids, although the flow and volume of the river is dependent on the dams.
Alternatively, on the Upper Tallapoosa you’ll find the 40-mile Lloyd Owens Canoe Trail, which starts in Georgia and runs to the backwaters of Lake Harris. It’s known for its peaceful and clean water, good fishing and class I rapids.
Hatchet Creek Canoe Trail & Weogufka Creek Canoe Trail
Located in Coosa County, Hatchet Creek and Weogufka Creek are both spur trails that shoot off from the Alabama Scenic River Trail. Running almost parallel to one another, the shorelines of the two creeks are covered in mountain laurel and flowering shrubs, along with rare blooming Cahaba lilies in the springtime. With rock gardens, sandbars and drops, be prepared for a few portages.
For those who want to turn their trip into an overnight, primitive campsites are available on private land—but be aware that access may be seasonal due to water levels. For guided floats and rentals, contact Off the Beaten Path Alabama.
Bartram Canoe Trail
If you hear “Alabama” and immediately think of bayous and swamps, this is the canoe trail for you. Named for naturalist William Bartram—who traveled extensively through the area in the late 18th-century—the Bartram Canoe Trail is located on the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. The country’s second-largest river delta, the swamp environment is home to 50 rare and endangered species, along with alligators. If the idea of camping close to reptiles excites you, then you’ll love the trail’s four floating camping platforms.
For a guided tour of this iconic route, contact the area’s specialists, Sunshine Canoe Rentals.
If you’re after canoe trips in north Alabama, Alabama’s largest lake, Lake Guntersville, stretches for 75 miles from Nickajack Dam to Guntersville Dam. Its length makes it an ideal choice for overnight canoe trips in Alabama, particularly if you plan on fishing—it’s known for year-round bass fishing, while species such as bream, catfish and bluegill can also be caught.
Alabama canoe rides and float trips
When it comes to half-day or full-day canoe trips, you have plenty of options in both northern and southern Alabama, with dozens of established canoe trails to choose from. Here are just a handful of the put-in spots worth paddling out from.
Canoeing in North Alabama
The Flint River
Originating in Tennessee, the Flint River is also part of the ASRT, and is known for its fishing. You have a good chance of catching spotted bass, largemouth bass, catfish and bluegills off the back of your canoe. Don’t worry too much about paddling—the lower section is an easy float with no difficult rapids, making it perfect for solo missions.
North Alabama Canoe and Kayak offers rentals, as well as a shuttle service, with most canoeists taking about 3.5 hours to travel down the river.
Bear Creek & Little Bear Creek
Located in the northwest corner of the state, Bear Creek is a go-to destination for both canoeists and kayakers. The Bear Creek Floatway is a popular spot for teaching beginner paddlers how to navigate rapids and work with the flow of the rapids. Its water levels are controlled by a dam, with regular releases to control flow on weekends and holidays throughout the summer months. It begins below Upper Bear Creek and ends at Bear Creek Reservoir, and is mainly class I (approaching class II). There is also a mandatory portage at Upper and Lower Factory Falls.
It’s not the only trail on the creek, though. Canoeists, in particular, will enjoy the leisurely 34-mile Lower Bear Creek Canoe Trail, which runs from below the dam (starting at the Dixie Youth Park in Red Bay) to Bishop Bridge.
Just outside Hackleberg, you’ll also find Bear Creek Canoe Run, an outfitter that rents canoes and kayaks, alongside offering shuttle runs.
Big Canoe Creek
Located just northeast of Birmingham, Big Canoe Creek is located within a 422-acre nature preserve. It flows freely for over 50 miles and is home to more than 50 species of fish, including the trispot darter—which was thought extinct until it was rediscovered in 2008—and endemic species of mussels.
This tributary of the Coosa River can be explored with Springville outfitter Big Canoe Creek Outfitters.
The Elk River
A tributary of the Tennessee River, this class I stream is known for its towering bluffs, rolling meadows and pristine forest. Along the 21.9-mile Limestone County Canoe and Kayak Trail, you’ll find five easy put-in spots starting from Elkmont. Since the waterways are controlled by the dam’s flow, even in dry summers you’ll find plenty of water here.
Five Mile Creek
A town-owned canoe company is a bit unusual, but once you experience Five Mile Creek, you’ll understand why locals want to capitalize on the area’s greatest asset. Open for paddling from March to November—water levels permitting—the creek is 26 miles of Alabama’s best canoeing just 20 minutes north of downtown Birmingham, Alabama. In addition to rentals, the Five Mile Canoe Company also has a campground on site.
If you’ve been reading this list carefully, you’ve probably already noticed that Alabama’s rivers and lakes tend to be controlled by dams. That’s not the case with the Cahaba River, which is the longest free-flowing river in the state.
Located just outside of Birmingham, it’s an easy urban float—the water is even slow enough in some areas that you can paddle upstream, eliminating the need for a shuttle vehicle. If you visit in the springtime, keep an eye out for the rare white Cahaba River lily, along with rope swings hanging from trees.
Outfitter Canoe the Cahaba offers rentals and shuttles, as well as guided trips.
Sipsey River & the Shark Tooth Creek
Considered one of the last wild swamp streams in Alabama, the Sipsey River had been called one of the “10 Natural Wonders in Alabama,” owing to its unique and diverse ecosystems. On a canoe trip down the Sipsey’s 92 miles, you pass through a canyon in Bankhead National Forest, where you’ll find waterfalls, sheer sandstone bluffs and class I rapids (along with one short section of class II rapids). The only official Wild and Scenic River in the state, the Sipsey has several put-in spots and primitive camping is welcome.
Book a canoe and campsite with the nearby Shark Tooth Creek Outdoor Adventures, and you may also be lucky enough to find a fossilized shark tooth or a million-year-old fossil.
Canoeing in South Alabama
Coastal Alabama Back Bay Blueway
With four trails and 21 access points to pick from, you can choose your own adventure along Alabama’s Gulf Coast with the Coastal Alabama Back Bay Blueway. You can explore historic Fort Morgan, spend the day fishing in the Little Lagoon, watch wildlife from Lake Shelby or Middle Lake, or navigate around islands in Wolf Bay.
The Perdido River Canoe Trail
Straddling the southbound Florida border, the Perdido River Canoe Trail only runs for 19 miles, but once you see the tannin-stained waters and white sandbars, you might just be tempted to stay a while. Six reservable camping shelters are available, but canoeists are also welcomed to pitch their tent directly on one of the sandbars in front of the shelter.
Similar to the Perdido River, the Escatawpa is a meandering blackwater stream, known for its white sandbars. And again, like the Perdido, this waterway follows the state lines—this time between Alabama and Mississippi. One of the most trafficked stretches is the seven miles from Lott Road to Mason Ferry Road, although the trip can be extended into a weekend affair with primitive camping on its sandbars.
For outfitting, contact Escatawpa Hollow Park and Campground. The campground was temporarily closed in 2021 for renovations, but once it reopens, it will feature improved river access points along with a new interpretive center.
Canoe rental Alabama
Looking for canoe rentals in North Alabama or South Alabama? In addition to the tour operators and outfitters listed above, contacting one of these shops is a good place to start:
North Alabama Paddling Adventures
Based in Fort Payne, this outfitter hires out sit atop kayaks and quality canoes, as well as offers paddling classes and guided multi-day paddling trips.
Brown Bear LLC Canoe and Kayak Rentals
Located on the Flint River, this outfitter offers canoe and kayak rentals for a four-hour route from
Brown Bear to Ryland Pike and a six-hour route from Brown Bear Winchester Road to Hwy 72.
Pea River Outdoors
Located in Elba, Pea River Outdoors rents out canoes and kayaks at hourly and daily rates, and also offers a shuttle service.
Fairhope Boat Company
Across the water from Mobile, you’ll find Fairhope—which is home to the Gulf Coast’s only full-service paddlesports store. In addition to rentals, guided trips throughout the county are also available.
Coosa River Adventures
Located on the banks of the Coosa River in Wetumpka, Alabama, this outfitter rents canoes (in addition to standup paddleboards and kayaks) and provides shuttles on the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers.
Alabama canoe laws
Kayaks and canoes are considered recreational, non-motorized vessels in the state of Alabama. However, being aboard a pleasure vessel doesn’t make you immune to the state’s laws and regulations.
First off, all passengers need to carry a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket (PFD). Those under the age of eight are required to wear a PFD at all times, while the rest of us should just do so as a matter of good practice. If you plan on paddling after dark, you’ll need to have the appropriate lighting—and it’s also advised that you carry a whistle as a sounding device. The last non-negotiable is that you’ll need to have a Visual Distress Signaling (VDS) device, such as flares, if you plan on paddling in coastal waters.
Finally, it’s illegal to operate even a recreational boat with a blood alcohol level of 0.08% or above. You can also get a BUI for being under the influence of any other substance that impairs your ability to function mentally or physically on the water.
Kayaking in Alabama
Alabama may offer miles upon miles of calm waterways and small rapids to thrill canoeists—but it has just as much big water to keep kayakers’ adrenaline pumping. From flatwater to class V whitewater, and from half-day to full-day to overnight trips, you’re bound to find the perfect kayaking adventure in this incredible state.
Kayak trips in Alabama
If you’re looking to go kayaking and camping, Alabama is positively the place to go. Considering the best canoe tripping routes take place on the state’s rivers and creeks where portages are few, these same waterways will be suited to a multiday kayak trip. See the section above for ideas.
Whitewater kayaking Alabama
From mellow class I to gnarly class IV runs, Alabama has it all when it comes to whitewater. Take your pick from the favorite rivers below based on your skill level—or sign up for some whitewater instruction to ensure you have a blast on the river.
Entry-level whitewater paddlers looking for a bit of fast-water fun should head to the Sipsey in Bankhead National Forest. On this river you’ll enjoy many unnamed class I rapids, as well as one named class II: the 100 Yard Dash. This area is known as the Land of 1,000 Waterfalls, so you know you’re in for a treat when paddling this route.
Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River
Experienced paddlers will find great fun on the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River, where class II and III rapids can be found in abundance. The recommended run extends from Highway 231 to County Road 160.
Little River Canyon
Highly experienced whitewater paddlers should without a doubt head to the Little River Canyon, located on Lookout Mountain in northeast Alabama. You’ll find class III and IV rapids between Little River Falls and through the canyon (whereas the sections of the Little River above the falls and at the south end hold class I and II rapids). Your run will take you through stunning scenery, as you paddle past sandstone cliffs and over turquoise waters.
Kayaking in North Alabama
North Alabama’s plethora of waterfalls, state parks and, of course, many waterways are not to be missed. Find out 7 Reasons North Alabama Needs To Be On Your Paddling Bucket List. Then read about the 14 Best Places To Kayak In North Alabama to plan your next adventure.
Kayaking in South Alabama
Paddle rivers leading into the Gulf of Mexico or paddle the Gulf itself. The southern portion of Alabama provides access to all the incredible features along the coast, including beaches, islands, inlets and marine life.
Sea kayakers will love paddling Mobile Bay, located on the Gulf of Mexico. Put in at the Scott’s Landing Boat Access and paddle south along the shore. There are multiple beaches and parks you can choose to take out at, depending on your trip length of choice. Many choose to finish at Fairhope, or use this as a turnaround point.
Take the Dauphin Island Bridge and launch your kayak from the island for a paddling experience rich in marine life. Put in at Dauphin Island beach on the southeast side of the island. You can circumvent the island or make a shorter journey along the southern shore, visiting the many beaches along the way and exploring Pelican Cove.
Kayak rental Alabama
No matter what type of kayaking you plan to do, or where you plan to do it, you can find a kayak rental company in Alabama that suits. Many outfitters also provide guided tours and shuttles. Note that many of the outfitters listed in other sections of this article also rent kayaks.
Rent single and tandem sit-in kayaks from WildNative Tours to access Mobile Bay. They’ll deliver anywhere along the Battleship Causeway.
Ken’s Kayak & Paddle Board Rentals
Get out on the waters of the Gulf with Ken’s Kayak & Paddle Board Rentals. They’ll deliver to the location of your choice.
No Worries Kayak Rentals
No Worries Kayak Rentals will provide you with a single or tandem sit-on-top recreational kayak, paddles, life jackets and shuttle so you can enjoy a day of paddling on Terrapin Creek.
North Alabama Canoe & Kayak
Rent a kayak from North Alabama Canoe & Kayak and enjoy a run down the Flint River.
Alabama kayak laws
The canoe laws explained in the section above also apply to kayaks. Do you have to register a kayak in Alabama? Registration is only required if you are using a gas or electric motor.
According to SUPBoardGuide.com, some of the best SUPing spots in the United States are in Alabama. It makes sense. The Tennessee River, for example—most of which is located within Alabama state lines—is one of the best touring rivers in the country thanks to its length, average depth and places to stop along the way. But really, the sweet spot here is along the state’s coastlines, with its calm bays (including Perdido Bay, Oyster Bay, Bon Secour Bay and Mobile Bay) and beaches.
Places to paddleboard
While many of the locations we’ve listed for canoeing above also offer suitable conditions for SUPing, the most popular place to paddleboard in Alabama is along the Gulf Coast. Considered one of the best SUP spots in the state, it has conditions for different skill levels, with miles of canals and countless islands—don’t miss Robinson Island—and coves to explore.
Although the Orange Beach Canoe Trail is considered prime paddling for kayakers, the canals near the Orange Beach Marina make for ideal SUPing conditions, as they’re a no-wake zone with relatively calm water. They also offer plenty to look at, including waterfront restaurants and homes, boats of all shapes and sizes, and dolphin visitors.
In addition to kayaks and canoes, many marinas and lakeside campgrounds throughout the state now offer SUP rentals. However, here are a few places that are keen to get you kitted up and out on the water.
- Fort Hampton Outfitters: Although it specializes in kayak rentals for use on the Elk River, this outfitter also offers SUP rentals.
- Forrest Paddle Boarding: Located in Huntsville, Forrest SUPing offers rentals at $35 for two hours, along with individual guided trips and coaching.
Gulf Shores and Orange Beach
- Perdido Beach Service: This outfitter offers tandem ocean kayaks and SUP boards, starting from $25 per hour.
- iBeachService: Single-person kayaks and SUP boards are available for rent, starting from $225 per week.
- Go Go Kayaks: Starting from $65 per day and $125 per week, this outfitter rents out single kayaks, tandem kayaks and SUPs.
- Paddled By You: Expect to pay $40 for a half-day or $55 for a full-day at this family-owned kayak and SUP rental service.
Rafting in Alabama
Although whitewater kayaking is one of Alabama’s most popular paddlesports, there are very few outfitters that take tourists on guided whitewater rafting in Alabama.
RushSouth Whitewater Park
Running through Columbus, Georgia and Phenix City, the RushSouth Whitewater Park on the Chattahoochee River is the longest urban whitewater rafting course in the world. Yes, the rapids may be man-made, but that doesn’t make the class III, IV and V rapids any less challenging—they’re allegedly the largest south of Canada and east of Colorado.
Whitewater Express offers guided two- to three-hour trips starting from $46.95 per person.
While technically not in Alabama, the Ocoee River is just a short drive from Birmingham and Huntsville, making it the spot to go in North Alabama for whitewater rafting. This Tennessee waterway flows through Cherokee National Forest and is considered one of America’s best whitewater rivers, with over five miles of class III and IV rapids.
Ocoee Inn Rafting runs half-day and full-day trips on the river from March to September, starting from $30 per person.
What to know before you go
While it’s possible to paddle year-round in Alabama, it’s worth noting that many of the rivers and lakes are controlled by a system of dams. Water levels during the height of summer can be notoriously low in some regions, making shoulder season the time to plan your canoe and kayak trips.
However, be aware that many outfitters, tour operators and campgrounds only operate between Memorial Day in May and Labor Day in September.