9 Best Paddling Day Trips In Minnesota For Families

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A family kayaking on the Mississippi River  / Chelsea and Eric Eul, Courtesy of Clear Waters Outfitting
Canoeing & Kayaking // Article

9 Best Paddling Day Trips In Minnesota For Families

By Paddling Magazine

Minnesota’s license plates boast “Land of 10,000 Lakes” for good reason. In addition to sitting on the edge of Lake Superior — the largest of the five Great Lakes — the state actually contains 11,842 lakes, all over 10 acres in size, according to the Department of Natural Resources. It may seem hard to believe, but consider this: In the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) alone, there are more than 1,000 lakes, rivers and streams.

With 70,214 miles of rivers, streams and lakes to explore across the state, it can be hard to narrow down just where to launch your canoe or kayak. So, we’ve narrowed it down for you. Here are nine of our favorite family-friendly places to paddle in Minnesota — all of which can be accessed and completed in a day.

Madden's on Gull Lake

Aerial View of Madden’s on Gull Lake / Brad Thornberg

Gull Lake

Gull Lake is the biggest of the 465 lakes that can be found within central Minnesota’s Brainerd Lakes region. Only a 45-minute drive southeast of Minneapolis, it’s known for its fishing and family-friendly resorts, making it ideal if you want to stop and stay a while. The paddling here is easy, but be prepared to share the water with jet skis and motorboats; this is a top summer playgrounds for water lovers.

At Madden’s on Gull Lake — a full-service resort and marina, complete with a spa and multiple golf courses — you can rent paddleboards and kayaks for $20 per hour. Guests at Samara Point Resort can also use the complimentary SUPs, kayaks and canoes to explore the lake’s waters.

Paddling near Split Rock Lighthouse on Lake Superior

Paddling near Split Rock Lighthouse on Lake Superior 

Lake Superior

Roughly 150 miles of Lake Superior’s shoreline can be found within Minnesota boundaries. Some of the most popular destinations for paddlers include Duluth Harbor; Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, with chances to view the wreck of Madeira; and Tettegouche State Park, which features sea cliffs and caves. But come prepared. This is the world’s largest freshwater lake, meaning it’s more akin to an ocean environment. Conditions can change quickly — longer unguided adventures are best suited to more experienced kayakers, particularly when the forecast calls for wind.

For less confident paddlers, it’s best to book a North Shore tour. The aptly named Day Tripper of Duluth offers a range of two-to-four-hour tours in the area, including one in a 26-foot voyageur canoe. Odyssey Resorts also offers three-hour guided kayaking tours.

Sunset and a single boat on Lake Mille Lacs

Sunset and a single boat on Lake Mille Lacs / Douglas Anderson

Mille Lacs

This large lake is located in the center of the state, midway between Duluth and Minneapolis. Another popular vacation destination, you can expect to contend with the occasional wake from motorboats passing by. That said, with 132,500 acres to explore, you can also find quiet and calm waters.

Randy’s Rentals in Onamia hires out SUPs, kayaks and canoes starting at $20 per hour.

A statue of a stone mermaid sits atop a rock formation in the middle of Rainy Lake in Voyeugers National Park

Stone Mermaid on Rainy Lake / John Connelly

Voyageurs National Park

A 2.5-hour drive north of Duluth, Voyageurs National Park on the U.S.-Canada border is a landscape of around 2,000 rocky islands. The best way to explore them is via the Park’s four large and 26 smaller lakes, including Rainy Lake and Lake Kabetogama. In fact, most of the Park is only accessible by boat, including its hidden waterfalls and petroglyphs that date back to half a millennia ago.

On Lake Kabetogama, Northern Lights Resort and Outfitting rents out sea kayaks, tandem kayaks, canoes, fishing kayaks and paddleboards, with daily rates available.

Lake Minnetonka

The many smaller lakes and bays that comprise Lake Minnetonka as seen from above / Nasser Pooladian

Lake Minnetonka

Lacking time or looking for an all-ages paddle? You can’t get much closer to Minneapolis than Lake Minnetonka, which can be found on the metro area’s western outskirts. Actually a chain of 16 interconnecting lakes with more than 20 bays and islands, it’s one of the best places in the Twin Cities for recreational paddling.

If you need to hire a boat, head to Bay Rentals, which will sort you out with a paddleboard or double kayak, rented by the hour, half-day or full-day.

Sailboat on Lake Pepin at sunset

Go sailing on Lake Pepin in southern Minnesota / Roy Son

Lake Pepin

Not just another part of the Mississippi River, Lake Pepin is a naturally formed lake that sits in a valley on the Minnesota-Wisconsin state border, about an hour southeast of Minneapolis. This long body of water features towering bluffs, excellent birdwatching and plenty of wildflowers along its shores. You’ll also be sure to see plenty of sailboats and historic paddle boats on the water.

Broken Paddle Guiding offers guided tours of the Bluff Country area — including flooded forest, raptor and brewery tours — but if you want to go it alone, canoe, SUP and kayak rentals are also available at its shop in Wabasha.

Woman in red shirt canoeing in the Boundary Waters, surrounded by dense forests and clear blue skies

Accessible primarily by canoe, the Boundary Waters is one of America's most remote and cherished wilderness areas / Paul Vincent

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

Although it’s still a fair distance (two hours) north of Duluth, no list of Minnesota’s best places to paddle would be complete without a mention of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. With more than 1,000 bodies of water that can only be navigated by watercraft, this is a motor-free zone, where you’ll be sharing the water with other canoeists and kayakers. There are more than 1,200 routes to choose from, provided you’re up for a portage or three.

If you only have a day to spare, there are two go-to lakes. First is Lake One — from which you can explore the inventively named lakes Two and Three. The second is Hegman Lake, where you have the chance to spot the 10,000-year-old Indigenous pictographs on cliffs bordering the waterway.

Given the popularity of canoeing in this area, you’ll find more tour operators and outfitters than you can swing a paddle at. Most are based in Ely, including Canoe Country Outfitters.

Glenwood Lodge on Lake Vermillion

Glenwood Lodge on Lake Vermillion

Lake Vermilion

Looking for an island to (temporarily) call your own? You just might find it on Lake Vermilion, a large body of water about 90 minutes north of Duluth, on the edges of the BWCAW. This wilderness area is largely undeveloped and boasts over 350 treed islands across its waters. Some say it’s Minnesota’s most beautiful lake — which is why you’ll find plenty of resorts located along its shore, with canoes and kayaks available for use.

Rent Kevlar canoes for $50 per day from Moccasin Point Marine.

Kayaking the Chain of Lakes

Kayaking the Chain of Lakes / Sara Lynch

Chain of Lakes

This 13-mile stretch of interconnected lakes located directly in the Twin Cities offers some of the best beginner-friendly paddling in the state. From your canoe or kayak, you’ll have views of downtown’s skyline and be able to paddle under city bridges, but also experience serenity as you paddle through protected wildlife refuges and explore small beaches. It takes about four hours to do the full circuit, but you can choose to do small sections as well, with canoe launches and parking easily found around many of the lakes.

Kayak, canoe and SUP rentals are available from Wheel Fun Rentals at Bde Maka Ska and Lake Harriet.

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