Down By the River: 10 Cities Where You Can Paddle and Swim Downtown

Vital arteries and critical components of economies and local communitie, rivers have long been channels of discovery. They’re also portals of exploration: Even in the midst of densely populated and industrial urban landscapes, rivers provide a convenient outlet for adventure, solitude, and rejuvenation, as well as an anchor for local culture. So grab a paddle and get ready to explore some of the country’s most beloved metropolitan waterways in these 10 American cities.

Chattanooga, Tennessee

Chattanooga SUP. Jake Wheeler
Chattanooga SUP. Jake Wheeler.
In 1969, Walter Cronkite named this coal and steel hub as the dirtiest city in America, much to locals’ chagrin. These days, it’s a much prettier picture in Chattanooga: The region’s abounding natural wonders, including the revitalized Tennessee River, have helped transformed the city into an outdoor adventure hub. Recognized as a National Scenic River Trail in 2002, the Tennessee River Blueway System ribbons through downtown Chattanooga, winding through the Tennessee River Gorge and continuing for 50 miles past wildlife reserves and rustic riverine campsites. However, urban paddlers need not leave downtown to find wilderness—in the middle of the Tennessee River, the 18.8-acre McClellan Sanctuary on Audubon Island provides an easily accessible riparian retreat.

Asheville, North Carolina

French Broad.
French Broad. anoldent.
A celebrated center of art, beer, and barbeque, this Appalachian city also cherishes the French Broad River, one of the planet’s oldest waterways. Gently snaking through the Blue Ridge town, the river is easily accessible from a string of urban parks, making it one of Asheville’s most vibrant gathering places for locals toting kayaks, SUPs, and tubes. Around the city, the river is lined with breweries, bars, and barbeque joints, but paddlers can also opt to cruise past the 8,000-acre Biltmore Estate, built by George Vanderbilt, on a slow-moving section of water. Ambitious river runners can also use Asheville as a jumping off point for longer trips on the French Broad River Trail, a campsite-flanked paddling trail stretching 140 miles from Rosman, North Carolina to Douglas Lake, Tennessee.

Richmond, Virginia

Richmond Kayaking.
Richmond Kayaking. Tom Woodward.
Virginia’s capital is regularly touted as one of the country’s most livable riverfront cities, but its James River wasn’t always cherished. For almost a century, the waterway was one of the country’s most polluted rivers: so dirty, in fact, that its highly toxic water stripped the paint from boats, and fishing on the James was banned in the mid-1970s. Fast forward 40 years, and the river has been transformed into one of Richmond’s most beloved outdoor spaces, easily accessible by an extensive urban park system. Whitewater seekers head to the churning water of the upper James River, flatwater paddlers make for Huguenot Flatwater, and tubers and sunbathing rock-hoppers linger along the Pony Pasture Rapids, while nature lovers relish the avifauna-rich wetlands.

Chicago, Illinois

Chicago River SUP.
Chicago River SUP. Jaysin Trevino, mods made.
The Windy City is notorious for excessively harsh winters. Fortunately, during warmer months, Chicagoans don’t have to leave the city to soak up the sun. The Chicago River is undoubtedly one of the city’s most iconic features—and the river’s main branch offers seasoned paddlers a unique view of one of the country’s most dramatic skylines. Beginning kayakers can hone their skills in the sluggish current of the North Shore Channel or along the North Fork of the Chicago River. Just north of the city at the Skokie Lagoons, surrounded by an 894-acre forest preserve, paddlers can explore a wildlife-rich wetland that feels anything but urban: In fact, it’s one of the Civilian Conservation Corps’ most successful restoration projects. If the mighty river isn’t enough, take the plunge in Lake Michigan, along the city’s 26 miles of public beaches.

Austin, Texas

Ladybird Lake.
Ladybird Lake. Anne Worner.
America’s live music hub is also among the country’s fittest, most outdoor-loving cities, and with a sun-drenched climate, Austin’s waterways are a prime natural retreat. Locals can take to Barton Springs Pools, the city’s year-round natural swimming area, where the water is always an inviting 70 degrees, or head to Lady Bird Lake, a 470-reservoir in the heart of the Texas capital, serving as an oversized metropolitan swimming hole. If an 11-mile urban loop on the Lady Bird Lake Paddling Trail isn’t enough, head west to Pace Bend Park and float past quintessentially Texan Hill Country vistas on Lake Travis.

Missoula, Montana

Sitting along the converging Blackfoot, Bitterroot, and Clark Fork rivers, Missoula is paddler’s paradise. While the Blackfoot River inspired the bestselling novel-turned-movie A River Runs Through It, the Clark Fork actually sluices through the city; a highlight is Brennan’s Wave, a downtown whitewater park named in memory of internationally renowned local kayaker Brennan Guth. Paddlers and swimmers seeking a less turbulent option need only head five miles west of the city to the calm, spring-fed waters of Frenchtown Pond State Park.

Portland, Oregon

Portland SUP.
Portland SUP. Bill Reynolds.
It is no secret Oregon’s largest city is an outdoor-loving town. Championing bike friendliness, farmers markets, hipsters, and microbrews, the metropolis also offers locals access to two waterways. Thanks to the city’s location at the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette rivers, urban escapes abound in Portland, but this wasn’t always the case. Decades of industrial dumping so contaminated the Willamette it became a Superfund site, but massive efforts to restore the river and reroute the city’s wastewater have made the waterway safe for swimming again. River-loving movements, including the Human Access Project, have catalyzed the creation of places like Poets Beach, a riverfront park decorated with boulders inscribed with poems written by local kids. On the Columbia River, Sauvie Island, the waterway’s largest swath of land, is dotted with beaches of both the family-friendly and clothing-optional kind.

Sacramento, California

Sacramento Paddlefest.
Sacramento Paddlefest. Robert Couse-Baker.
While California’s capital may not boast the state’s iconic Pacific beaches, historic Sacramento still has plenty of alluring waterfront thanks to its geography at the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers. Locals can head to refreshing riverine retreats once haunted by ambitious 19th-century traders and starry-eyed gold prospectors. The Sacramento River offers kayakers the opportunity to paddle past Old Sacramento, one of the state’s most historic locations. On the American River, where the fall migration of the king salmon is the only one in the country to occur in an urban setting, river rats can also hit the water for self-guided urban rafting trips. The American River is also lined by the 23-mile American River Parkway, an extensive recreation area linking waterfront parks from Old Sacramento to the Folsom Reservoir.

Salida, Colorado

A nexus of adventure in peak-blessed central Colorado, Salida is hands-down a premier paddling town. The Arkansas River graces downtown, and the city even has its own urban whitewater park; depending on the water level, conditions are ideal for gutsy beginners looking to hone their skills or thrill-seeking experts wanting to ratchet up the adrenaline. The city is also home to FIBArk, the country’s oldest whitewater festival. Dating to 1949, it celebrates an ambitious 57-mile boat race down the Arkansas River from Salida to Canon City.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Known for its culture, history, and of course, iconic food, the City of Brotherly Love also has plenty of natural assets that the adventurous set takes advantage of. Wedged between the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers, the city’s waterways provide a hassle-free outdoor adventure. Paddlers can take to the Schuylkill in the midst of downtown from Schuylkill Banks Park or Bartram’s Garden and float past urban wonders like the Philadelphia Museum of Art. River riders can also head to historic Boathouse Row, along the eastern edge of Schuylkill, in a segment of the city’s 9,200-acre Fairmont Park, one of the biggest urban parks on earth. North of Philadelphia, the quiet middle section of the Delaware River is prime for lazy float trips. Originally written by RootsRated for Toad&Co. Featured image provided by Johannes Schneemann.