Photo Credit: David Mayes

Adventure awaits in the untamed beauty of Kansas' three navigable rivers: the Kansas, Arkansas, and Missouri.  Unveil hidden gems and embark on a journey roads can't reveal. 

Paddlers can soak up boundless beauty on float trips along Kansas’ two National Water Trails, the Kansas and the Arkansas rivers, and the broad Missouri. Flanked by Flint Hills prairie, shady woodlands, herons, eagles and welcoming communities, kayakers and canoeists discover secluded parts of the state that roads don’t reveal.

“You feel like you’re in one of the last wild places in Kansas,” says Libby Albers, director of Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams, about her paddling adventures on the Arkansas River.

The Kansas River, one of the world’s longest prairie rivers, was the second in the nation to be designated a National Water Trail in 2012 by the secretary of the interior. The Arkansas River followed in 2016. The two, along with a borderline stretch of the Missouri River, are Kansas’ only three navigable rivers open to public use.


Photo Credit: David Mayes


Kansas River

The Kansas River Trail begins at the confluence of the Smoky Hill and Republican rivers at Junction City and flows 173 miles east to its mouth in Kansas City, Kansas, where it joins the Missouri River. Known locally as the Kaw, the waterway gets its nickname from the people of the Kaw Nation who lived here.

Streams and rivers in the state are privately owned, but the National Water Trail designation gives the public access to boat ramps, sandbars and islands along the Kansas and Arkansas. “Earning that designation has been incredibly valuable for river recreation,” explains Dawn Buehler, director of Friends of the Kaw. “People who like to fish, kayak and camp have the recreational space to do it.”

Nineteen access points between Junction City and Kansas City are convenient jumping-on-and-off points for paddlers. Most are spaced about 10 miles apart.

“All our access points have boat ramps for canoes, fishing and air boats, and parking lots. Some have restrooms, lighting, trash receptacles and picnic tables,” says Buehler, who grew up on a farm along the Kaw and who holds the appointed advocacy position of Kansas Riverkeeper.

Kiosks at each stop give kayakers helpful information, including a map of the river trail, location of every ramp, and tips about camping, fishing, paddling and the local community. One valuable warning Buehler shares: “Along the river, there’s a line we call the high-water mark on the sides of the banks. The green vegetation above that mark is on private land, and if you go onto that, you’re trespassing. But the muddy bank below the mark and the sand bars belong to the people of Kansas and you can camp and fish there!”           

At several of the accesses, kayakers can pull off and walk into the adjoining town for food, water and supplies. A favorite stop among Friends of the Kaw is “St. George, which has a really nice park and a bar and grill you can walk to and eat,” says Buehler. “Another is Wamego, where you can walk to a deli or coffee shop within five minutes of the river.”

Also, as part of a pilot project, steel lockers to fit 18-foot kayaks are being installed at the Wamego ramp. Completion goal is June 2024. “You’ll be able to lock up your boat and go into Wamego for dinner or to stay the night, while your kayak is secure in the locker,” Buehler says.

It’s smooth sailing from Junction City to Topeka, but from there on to Kansas City, paddlers should plan for river hazards and portages. At Topeka, kayakers can paddle around a dam, a low railroad bridge and power plant using recommended passages. But dams at Lawrence and Kansas City require boaters to take their crafts out of the river and re-enter downstream.

“It’s important that novices go on a section that doesn’t have hazards,” Buehler recommends. “A nice day trip is the five miles from DeSoto to Cedar Creek. It’s a great section to take kids and should only take about two hours.”

The best paddling season runs late May through October, “when the flows are more stable,” she says. And chances are, you’ll discover wildlife along the route. “I’m rarely on the river without seeing beavers, turtles, kingfishers, ducks and bald eagles or deer running on the sandbars,” she adds.

“It’s a very diverse river,” Buehler says. “The scenery is so pretty through the Flint Hills. Then in the urban areas of Topeka and Kansas City, the cool features are the charming old bridges and the architecture and history along the river. It’s so neat to see features you usually see on land from the river. The beauty of it all is astounding.”


ksm-arkansas-riverPhoto Credit: Kansas Tourism

Arkansas River

Farther south and west, the Arkansas River snakes its way across Kansas plains and metros on its 1,469-mile journey from Colorado to Arkansas. For paddlers in Kansas, the 192-mile segment designated as a prestigious National Water Trail is a favorite destination, floating boaters from Great Bend to the Oklahoma border.

“It’s like instantly stepping away from modern society,” says Albers about the leisurely, often remote river she loves to paddle. Locally it’s simply called “the Ark,” but Albers laughs about the common mispronunciation: “We always can tell if someone isn’t a native Kansan when they call it the Arkansas (like the state) River, instead of the Ar-Kansas.”

Starting at Great Bend, the trail flows southeast through the communities of Hutchinson, Wichita, Derby, Oxford and Arkansas City before crossing the state line. “You float mostly through prairies with riparian woods. But then you can float right through a city, and it doesn’t feel like a city at all,” Albers says.

Twenty-two access points get kayakers on the river, and public sandbars make good spots for breaks and camping. Although less-developed than the Kansas River Trail, some of the Ark sites have parking, lighting, ramps and informational kiosks. And, at communities built around the river, such as Hutchinson, Wichita and Great Bend, paddlers can pull off and walk a short way to downtown for supplies.

The variable water flow along the trail provides different paddling experiences. “Down south of Wichita, the river is wide and slow and shallower,” Albers explains. “But farther west, it’s narrower and faster, like a prairie stream.”

In that western prairie stretch, she recommends a favorite Alden to Hutchinson trip. The 30 miles, bordered by woodlands, offer a more rustic float. “You’re nestled down in the river and feel very much like you’re away from civilization,” Albers says. She suggests more experienced kayakers paddle this lengthy Alden route because of its remoteness.

In Hutchinson, boaters float right by Carey Park and its nearby amenities. And next up, Wichita and Derby have a range of riverside access points, resources, rentals and parks, including the pretty Warren Riverview Park in Derby.

Only two dams, both in Wichita, require kayakers to pull out their boats and portage around the dams. To avoid those, Wichita boaters can launch at Lincoln Street beyond the hazards and pull out at Derby for a day outing. Or, for some sight-seeing in the city, Albers suggests starting at Old Cowtown Museum, floating past the Keeper of the Plains sculpture and the heart of Wichita and continuing16 miles on to Derby. (One portage required at the Lincoln Street dam.)

“Even when you’re floating through the communities you see peeks of city life, but that disappears quickly and you soon feel like you’re slipping back out into the wilderness,” Albers says. The great blue herons, egrets, owls and other wildlife along the river add to the peaceful isolation.                 


ksm-missouri-riverPhoto Credit: Kansas Tourism

Missouri River

A very different river, the wide Missouri skirts the northeast corner of the state, flowing along the Kansas-Missouri border 133 miles from White Cloud south to Kansas City. “It’s like a big, open-water highway,” describes Neil Bass, a Fort Leavenworth Natural Resources specialist who has paddled from South Dakota to St. Louis on North America’s longest river.

After entering Kansas near White Cloud, the waterway passes by Atchison and Leavenworth before joining the Kansas River at Kaw Point Park in Kansas City, Kansas, and swinging eastward through Missouri.

In Kansas, four established sites along the border access the river, starting with the farthest north in White Cloud. Downstream, Riverfront Park is located conveniently in downtown Atchison, close to amenities and the park’s river overlook, the Lewis & Clark Pavilion, hiking path and boat ramp. Continuing south, Leavenworth’s own Riverfront Park accommodates paddlers with a campground, picnic shelter and ramp. Finally, Kansas City’s 10-acre Kaw Point Park marks the Missouri and Kansas rivers confluence with a boat ramp, pavilion, amphitheater and hiking trails.

Day trips give a sweeping overview of Kansas’ segment of the 2,300-mile river. One of veteran paddler Bass’s favorites: a 26-mile float from Atchison to Leavenworth. “You have two nice ramp sites and access to both cities, and really pretty scenery,” Bass says. “And when you round the bend at Leavenworth, you see historic Fort Leavenworth that’s surrounded on three sides by the river. You also pass by the fort’s impressive 2,500 acres of riparian forest, the largest remaining on the Missouri River, some which are old-growth forest dating back to the time of Lewis and Clark.”

After Leavenworth, it’s another 30-mile paddle to Kaw Point Park, he adds.

Like the Kaw and Ark rivers, land along the river is privately owned, and the public is allowed on sand bars and designated access points. But, kayakers don’t need to worry about hazards or portages on the Missouri. “Passage is unobstructed. You can see for miles downriver and nothing sneaks up on you,” Bass says.

Occasionally sand or grain barges share the river, but birds and wildlife always do. “I’ve never been on the river when I haven’t seen bald eagles in the big cottonwood trees,” he says. “It’s also a major route for migrating species, and you’ll see tons of warblers in the spring, along with Canada geese and great blue herons. The birding can be amazing.”