A family kayaking on the Mississippi River
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9 Family-Friendly Places to Paddle in Minnesota

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

9 Family-Friendly Places to Paddle in Minnesota

By Paddling Magazine

Located on the shores of Lake Superior — the largest of five Great Lakes — Minnesota has 11,842 lakes. With so many ways to get out on the water, it can be hard to decide where to launch your canoe or kayak.

Here are our favorite family-friendly places to paddle, 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 about two-and-a-half hours northwest of the Twin Cities. It's known for 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 playground 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. 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 a shipwreck; 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 guided trip. The aptly named Day Tripper of Duluth offers a range of tours. Odyssey Resorts also offers 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

Minnesota’s second largest lake is located in the center of the state. Another popular vacation destination — especially with anglers — 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.

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 two-and-a-half hour drive north of Duluth, Voyageurs National Park is a wild landscape of around 2,000 rocky islands on the Canadian border. 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

The lake made famous by Prince and "Purple Rain" is about 15 minutes west of Minneapolis. 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.

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 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

No list of Minnesota’s best places to paddle would be complete without a mention of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and its 1,000 bodies of water that can only be navigated by non-motorized watercraft. 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 similarly 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 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.

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.

Find more places to paddle in Minnesota and find other ways to get out on the water.

Paddling Magazine

PADDLING Magazine is the ultimate authority on all things paddling, whether you love kayaking, canoeing, paddleboarding, whitewater or kayak fishing. Read more at paddlingmag.com