Kayaking in North Dakota: 10 of the Best Places to Paddle and Canoe

North Dakota is rarely thought of as a fun tourist destination, which is a real shame. The state has some of the best outdoor recreations in the USA. Miles of rivers and acres of lakes give paddlers a huge variety of options for their kayak adventure.

North Dakota has everything from small, man-made lakes that even new kayakers will enjoy to challenging, multi-day kayak adventures that will test even the most experienced paddler.

With options spread out across the state, there is a kayak adventure that will fit your itinerary. In this post, we’ll examine some of the kayak hotspots in North Dakota.

1. Lake Sakakawea, ND

Lake Sakakawea is the largest lake in North Dakota and one of the largest man-made lakes in the nation. Formed in the 1950s by the completion of the Garrison Dam across the Missouri River, Lake Sakakawea has become a hotspot for outdoor recreation and adventure.

Nicknamed the “Big Lake,” Lake Sakakawea has plenty of room for adventures. The lake’s total area is nearly 400,000 acres and famously has more shoreline than the coast of California. There are several facilities for kayakers scattered across the shore of the lake.

A popular destination for all water activities is Fort Stevenson State Park, tucked into the scenic bluffs on the shores of Lake Sakakawea. Fort Stevenson offers kayak rentals and other rental equipment, as well as nearby lodging and campsites for out-of-town visitors. 

You can find another kayak hotspot at Lake Sakakawea State Park. Sakakawea State Park is a sprawling park that offers miles of shoreline access on the coast of Lake Sakakawea. Rentals are not available here, but lodging, camping, and other activities are all available.

2. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND

Theodore Roosevelt National Park features a stunning series of kayak routes along the Little Missouri River, a tributary of the Missouri River. Completing the entire route along the river takes close to five days and spans over 100 miles.

There are several smaller legs of the Little Missouri River which offer a shorter trip. However, this is still some serious kayaking. The Little Missouri snakes through the remote North Dakota Badlands, offering stunning views and scenic vistas. Bison are known to stop alongside the Little Missouri River for a drink, and other wildlife is abundant.

You will need to bring your own kayak and supplies for your adventure. Theodore Roosevelt National Park is dedicated to preserving the remote North Dakota Badlands. There are few facilities in the area.

3. Sheyenne River, Valley City, ND

Sheyenne River, ND by Western Area Power (CC BY 2.0)

Beginning in Valley City, this gentle, scenic Kayak route takes you down the Sheyenne River to the exit point at Fort Ransom State Park. Currents are low on the Sheyenne, making this 2-3 hour route perfect for beginners.

Kayakers end their route at Fort Ransom State Park. Fort Ransom sits across a beautiful, wooded area in the Sheyenne River Valley and features lodging, camping, and other activities if you need to stretch out after your Kayak excursion.

The Valley City to Fort Ransom route on the Sheyenne is known for wildlife spotting. It’s perfect for kayakers who like to watch local flora and fauna on their journey. As you pass into the Grasslands, you’ll notice the rich abundance of trees, flowers, and animals unique to the area.

4. Lake Metigoshe, ND

Lake Metigoshe, ND by Roderick Eime (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Lake Metigoshe, located just a few miles south of the Canadian border, offers one of the best kayaking experiences in North Dakota. The lake is situated entirely inside Lake Metigoshe State Park. It’s not as large as some of the other lakes on this list, but it has the distinction of being in a wooded, rustic area brimming with natural beauty.

Lake Metigoshe State Park offers kayak rentals alongside lodging and camping. Arguably the most attractive feature of this park for a kayaker, despite the name, is the Canoe Trail. The Canoe Trail covers the entirety of Lake Metigoshe and allows kayakers to explore the park from the water.

Some portaging is required on the Canoe Trail, so be prepared to lift your kayak for short distances. The waters on Lake Metigoshe are calm and offer a gentle, easy kayak experience.

5. Red River, Grand Forks, ND

The Red River is located on the east side of North Dakota. It is much smaller than the Missouri River and provides a gentle, scenic ride. You can depart from Grand Forks, ND, to enjoy one of the state’s most popular kayak day trips.

Ground Up Adventures provides kayak rentals and routes in Grand Forks. The Red River is excellent for beginners or anyone looking for a gentle kayak trip through beautiful scenery. If you get sick of the water, there are nearby trails, museums, and other attractions in Grand Forks to give you something to do.

6. Harmon Lake, ND

Have you ever wanted to visit a lake in brand-new condition? Harmon Lake is a man-made reservoir impounded off the Missouri River in 2009. As a result, the lake is relatively small, at only 145 acres. Still, this spot has gained a reputation as a hassle-free destination for water activities among the locals.

The lake features calm water as long as the weather is cooperating. There is a public swimming beach where you can find rental equipment such as kayaks, canoes, and stand-up paddleboards. If you’re looking for a quiet spot for family-friendly water activities near the Missouri River, then Harmon Lake is worth your time.

The facilities at Harmon Lake were designed with day trips in mind, so don’t expect to find a campsite here. Local lodging is available nearby in Mandan, ND, or slightly further in Bismarck, ND.

7. Devils Lake, ND

Devil’s Lake has gained some notoriety due to its unique geological characteristics. The lake exists as a drainage basin collecting water from nearly 4,000 square miles, and the permitter of the lake has changed many times over the years. Devil’s Lake can vary drastically between wet and dry seasons, giving it a reputation for never staying quite the same.

The heavily wooded Grahams Island State Park sits on the shores of Devil’s Lake and serves as the main hub of water activities in the area. Grahams Island features camping and nearby lodging. Kayak rentals are not available through the state park.

When you’re done exploring the unique waters of the lake, you can visit Grahams Island State Park for beautiful, wooded trails. Also, consider stopping in the town of Devil’s Lake, ND, to explore some of the unique history surrounding the lake itself.

8. Pembina River Gorge, ND

The Pembina Gorge is one of the most scenic kayak trips available in North Dakota. This is also the only area in the entire state where kayakers can enjoy Class 1 rapids. It is one of the most popular kayak destinations in North Dakota and combines scenic beauty with a moderately challenging waterway.

The Pembina Gorge State Recreation Area is the best place to set up your kayak adventure base camp. Not only does the State Recreation Area provide kayak rentals, but they also provide a shuttle from two separate pickup spots along the Pembina River.

While the thought of rapids may be too extreme for some, those who are interested in kayaking through whitewater will enjoy the challenging yet manageable rapids of the Pembina River.

9. Missouri River, Bismarck, ND

Missouri River, ND by Richie Diesterheft (CC BY 2.0)

The Missouri River is the largest and longest river passing through North Dakota. The Missouri isn’t a one-and-done experience; the river is remarkably different depending on where you enter.

One of the most popular legs of the Missouri River to kayak is near Bismarck, ND. Several companies offer kayak rentals and tours for routes between Bismark and Mandan. Kayak rental services are available pending weather conditions. If the weather is nice, kayakers will find this leg of the Missouri river to be a gentle, relaxing ride. 

10. Beaver Lake, ND

The scenic Beaver Lake sits nestled in a green, rolling prairie, which provides a relaxing backdrop to your kayak exploration. The lake is just shy of 1,000 acres and offers an excellent family-friendly destination for many water activities.

Beaver Lake State Park is situated on the shores of Beaver Lake and offers cabins and campsites. Numerous trails through beautiful woodland and prairies are scattered around the park if you want to stretch your legs after coming off the water.

Beaver Lake is situated in a remote area 1.5 hours from Bismarck, ND. Rentals are not available through the state park, be ready to bring in your own equipment.

Wrapping Up the Best Places to Kayak in North Dakota

North Dakota captures the essence of wonderful kayak experiences. This state isn’t great for thrill-seekers who desire intense rapids and whitewater challenges. However, North Dakota is a must-visit for anyone who enjoys using their kayak to enjoy the scenery and take in the beauty of nature. 

There are opportunities for everything from long, somewhat grueling adventures to gentle paddling excursions the whole family will enjoy.