National Park Week: 7 Best National Parks to Go Boating
From rivers and lakes to coastal shorelines, National Parks offer some of the most scenic and pristine water in America. The administration of National Parks, National Recreation Areas and National Seashores is intended to both preserve vital resources and provide recreational opportunities. Some National Parks have areas or features that can only be reached by boat.
There are 22 sites administered by the National Park Service that offer motorized boating opportunities. To help get you started, here are seven of our favorites:
- Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (Wisconsin)
- Biscayne Bay National Park (Florida)
- Lake Mead National Recreation Area (Nevada & Arizona)
- Channel Islands National Park (California)
- Voyageurs National Park (Minnesota)
- Isle Royale National Park (Michigan)
- Dry Tortugas National Park (Florida)
Be sure to contact each park directly or check its website for local boating regulations and required permits.
1. Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (Wisconsin)
The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore includes a collection of 21 islands and 12 miles of coastline on Lake Superior off northern Wisconsin near Bayfield. Water activities range from boating to diving to fishing.
- There are more than fifty miles of maintained hiking trails, windswept beaches, and historic lighthouses.
- Be prepared for cold temperatures, fog, and sudden squalls. A swim will certainly be bracing – Lake Superior’s average water temperature rarely exceeds 60°.
- Camping is available on 19 of the 21 islands.
- The National Park Service does not recommend the use of open boats under 16 feet long for travel between the islands.
- Docks provide visitors with access to many of the islands, and boats may anchor overnight.
2. Biscayne Bay National Park (Florida)
Within sight of downtown Miami, Biscayne Bay National Park encompasses 173,000 acres, 95 percent of which is water. Most of the park outside of the visitor center area is accessible only by boat.
- The park offers an opportunity to explore Biscayne Bay, the northernmost Florida Keys, a swath of rich mangrove forest, and portions of the world’s third-largest coral reef.
- Pelicans, manatees, sea turtles, and more than 600 native fish species call the park home.
- The park’s Maritime Heritage Trail, which is accessible via scuba and/or snorkel, offers an opportunity to explore the remains of six shipwrecks.
- The Boating and Angling Guide to Biscayne Bay is an interactive map with information on resources and facilities.
3. Lake Mead National Recreation Area (Nevada & Arizona)
The Lake Mead National Recreation Area encompasses 290 square miles of waterway on Lake Mead and Lake Mohave within a total area of 1.5 million acres at the confluence of the Mojave, the Great Basin, and the Sonoran Deserts.
- Lake Mead, located a short drive from Las Vegas, is formed by the Hoover Dam and extends more than 70 miles to the mouth of the Grand Canyon.
- Below Hoover Dam, the Colorado River flows through canyons for 45 miles before reaching Lake Mohave, created by the Davis Dam near Bullhead City, Ariz. and Laughlin, Nev.
- The area offers many opportunities for camping, houseboating, and exploring.
- The Park Service operates 13 launch sites, ranging from full-service to primitive.
- Venture just a few miles from any launch site and you’ll be in near wilderness, surrounded by stunning cliffs, secluded coves, and the brilliant colors of the desert.
4. Channel Islands National Park (California)
Only accessible by boat, the park includes five of the eight islands (San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, and Santa Barbara) of the Channel Islands archipelago off the coast of Southern California. The park visitor center is located at Ventura Harbor, about 20 miles by boat from Santa Cruz Island.
- Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary encompasses the waters six nautical miles around Channel Islands National Park. The Nature Conservancy owns and manages 76 percent of Santa Cruz Island.
- While the islands are close to a dense urban area, the park receives relatively few visitors.
- Most visitation occurs in the summer but migrating gray whales and spectacular wildflower displays attract visitors in the winter and spring.
- Visitors need to be self-sufficient – there are no services on the islands. Camping is available on each of the islands, although visitors must carry camping gear from landings to the campsites.
- Other activities include kayaking, diving, surfing, and fishing. There are no public moorings or all-weather anchorages around the islands and a permit is required to land in some places.
5. Voyageurs National Park (Minnesota)
Water-based travel is the predominant way to experience Voyageurs National Park, a gem in the Minnesota North Woods on the Canadian border.
- Four large lakes – Rainy, Kabetogama, Namakan, and Sand Point Lakes – and 26 smaller interior lakes provide access to campsites, visitor destinations, hiking trails, and many recreational activities.
- More than 270 campsites within the park include some designated for houseboats, which can be rented in the area.
- Historic Kettle Falls Hotel is the only lodging within Voyageurs and is only accessible by water.
- Public launch ramps are available at the three park visitor centers located at Rainy Lake, Kabetogama Lake, and the Ash River Visitor Center. Numerous resorts and state launches also offer boat access into the park.
6. Isle Royale National Park (Michigan)
Located in the northwest corner of icy Lake Superior, Isle Royal National Park is 45 miles long and 9 miles wide and is only accessible by boat or float plane. With about 26,000 annual visitors, it is the least-visited national park in the contiguous United States.
- The park has two developed areas: Windigo, at the southwest end of the island, is the docking site for ferries from Minnesota and has a dock, camp store, showers, campsites, and rustic camper cabins. Rock Harbor on the northeast end is the docking site for ferries from Michigan and features a camp store, showers, restaurant, lodge, campsites, and a boat dock. Fuel is available in both areas.
- The interior of the island is managed as roadless wilderness, and the boat-accessible campsites around the island are primitive.
- Boats may anchor out almost anywhere around the island.
- The voyage from Copper Harbor, Mich. is about 55 miles; from Grand Portage, Minn. is about 40 miles.
- Very cold water and unpredictable weather require a capable boat and captain.
7. Dry Tortugas National Park (Florida)
Resting just 70 miles west of Key West, Florida, boaters will find Dry Tortugas National Park. Home to the historic Fort Jefferson, pristine, crystal clear water covers the 100-square mile park, which is made up of seven small islands.
- Only 1 percent of the Dry Tortugas National Park is considered dry land, making this park the perfect destination to explore by water.
- The park is only accessible by boat or seaplane, and all vessels are required to get a boat permit before entering the park for any recreational activity.
- Camping is available on Garden Key and is first-come, first-served for all regular sites (up to six people), with large groups of 10-20 requiring an advanced reservation.
- Fort Jefferson, also located on Garden Key, is one of the United States’ largest 19th-century forts.
- The National Park Service recommends that summer visitors should be prepared for sun, heat, thunderstorms, and mosquitoes.
Charles Plueddeman is a self-employed writer and photographer based in Wisconsin. A staff editor and contributor to Boating Magazine since 1986, he is the author of its “Off My Dock” column. In the marine realm he specializes in engine technology and trailerable boats. His editorial work has appeared in many national publications, including Popular Mechanics, Men’s Journal, Playboy, Popular Science, Cycle World, and Harley-Davidson Enthuisast.