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Top Ten Urban Kayaking Cities – Plus Fireworks Paddles

Kayaking during the Fourth of July celebration in Pittsburgh.  Photo courtesy of Cara Rufenacht, Venture Outdoors.

If you live in a waterfront city or are visiting one this weekend for Independence Day festivities, chances are you’ve seen at least one stranger navigating your metropolis in a kayak and wondered, Could that actually be . . . fun? “People ask me that all the time,” says Ted Choi, owner of San Francisco’s City Kayak. “They basically assume that kayaking in a natural setting is the best thing—but urban kayaking is amazingly beautiful.” And easy. Many U.S. cities have local paddling outfitters (we found three in Manhattan) that offer equipment rentals and tours, DIY or guided. It’s convenient, low cost, and yes, fun. You can even catch a fireworks 4th of July paddle in some cities. Text by Catherine Price, Laura Buckley, Annie Hay, Alyson Sheppard

San Francisco

It’s easy to feel small when you’re out in the big bay. “Even if the waterfront is busy, you only have to paddle out 15 minutes and you’re suddenly in the middle of nowhere,” says City Kayak’s Ted Choi. “There’s so much space out here, kayakers kind of disappear.” And if you really want to get away? Sign up for Choi’s Alcatraz tour, a 3.5-mile out-and-back to the infamous prison site. You’ll pass sailboats, migrating birds, and the occasional sea lion ($75; citykayak.com).

FIREWORKS PADDLE? Sign up for a City Kayak’s one-of-a-kind Frisco Bay firework experience, complete with two hours of easy paddling, four hours of exploration on Fisherman’s Warf, and one of the best views of the fireworks in town ($75; 2-10:30 p.m.).

Chicago

Skip Lake Michigan’s crowded shore in favor of a float down the city’s namesake river. Kayak Chicago leads nighttime paddles past historic industrial buildings into the heart of downtown. “When you get to Kinzie Street Bridge, it’s like a curtain pulls back to reveal the Emerald City—everything’s lit up and twinkling,” says owner Dave Olson. From here it’s 25 minutes to Navy Pier, where kayakers enjoy VIP views of the Wednesday and Saturday night summer fireworks ($50; kayakchicago.com).

FIREWORKS PADDLE? Sign up in advance with Kayak Chicago, put-in is at 8 p.m. ($50).

Washington, D.C.

In under a mile, the Potomac morphs from a silent, tree-tunneled river into a bustling urban waterway. Jack’s Boathouse, by the Key Bridge in Georgetown, is a convenient jumping-off point for forays in either direction. Paddle upstream into what co-owner Paul Simkin calls the “wilds of Virginia” (watch for bald eagles), or ride the current a half hour downstream to take in the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial (kayak rentals, $10 an hour per person; jacksboathouse.com).

FIREWORKS PADDLE? Jack’s Boathouse only has single kayaks left for a fireworks paddle, so reserve early ($65; 6:30-11 p.m.).

Pittsburgh

What better place to kayak than a town built around rivers? Known as the City of Bridges, Pittsburgh is constructed around the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, where the Ohio River forms. Kayak Pittsburgh rents kayaks from several locations throughout the city—downtown, Lake Elizabeth, and North Park—so choose your docking point and explore the urban landscape
(Prices vary depending on dock, kayakpittsburgh.org).

FIREWORKS PADDLE? From 7-10 p.m., kayakers can get a front-row seat to the fireworks with Venture Outdoors’ 4th of July paddle. Paddle leisurely upstream while the sunsets, then head back down to Point State Park to watch the action. Solo and tandem kayaks are available ($75 non-member/$55 member; ventureoutdoors.org).

Portland, Maine

Portland is a bustling adventure town and urban kayaking is no exception. Launching from Peaks Island, Maine Island Kayak Company offers full and half-day trips exploring the waters around Portland. Sights include both mainland and island attractions, such as shipwrecks and a civil war fort. H2Outfitters also offers an urban kayak experience in Portland, including paddling up to restaurants for a quick lobster feast. You can also hit up a local microbrewery and take teatime at a teashop on its “Off the Bus” tour, which takes kayakers off the boat and on to an electric scooter (prices vary depending on trip; maineislandkayak.com; h2outfitters.com).

FIREWORKS PADDLE? No trips planned, but viewing should be beautiful in and around Casco Bay.

Boston

Bostonians are known for their devotion, so it’s no surprise that even in the harshest winters, rowers streak through the Charles River to catch the best views of both Boston and Cambridge. Charles River Canoe & Kayak provides hundreds of canoes and kayaks in every season in and around the city of Boston.

FIREWORKS PADDLE? Thousands of patriots hit the water to watch the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular along the city’s historic Esplanade. You can rent kayaks from Charles River Canoe & Kayak, but get there early because they fill up quickly. Pick up from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. and return by 12:30 a.m. Sunday morning ($89; paddleboston.com).

New York City

Push offshore and you’ll find the Big Apple no less hectic—or thrilling. “You’re out there in a kayak dealing with the wind, the waves, the current, boats going in all different directions—and then you look up and there’s Manhattan,” says Randall Henriksen, owner of New York Kayak Company. Sign up for his “Sushi Run” across the Hudson to Mitsuwa Marketplace on the Jersey shore, where dripping-wet customers are welcome ($150; nykayak.com).

FIREWORKS PADDLE? While we couldn’t find any tours operating on the night of the 4th, you can still watch this year’s fireworks display above the Hudson from vantage points all over the city.

Portland, Oregon

In a city known for its musical fanaticism, culinary diversity, microbrews, and adventurous outdoor spirit, it’s only fitting that Portland’s urban kayaking scene combines them all. Starting July 2nd, the largest blues festival west of the Mississippi moves into Waterfront Park and brings with it some of the most exquisite food offerings, beers, and tunes around. Rent a Kayak at the Portland Kayak Company ($100, 2-day rental; portlandkayak.com) and park it at the River Place Marina. After filling your belly at the festival, avoid the evening crowds by taking to the water.

FIREWORKS PADDLE? Paddle out under the Hawthorne Bridge with Portland Kayak Company to watch a spectacular fireworks show while the New Orleans funk band, Bonerama, serenades you with our country’s birthday song.

Seattle

Tucked between the white slopes of Mount Rainier and jagged Olympic peaks, Seattle is a downright stunning city. As if its natural beauty isn’t enough, it also boasts one of the most architecturally pleasing skylines around. While daytime paddling in the Sound is a joy in itself, Seattle has a secret: It waits for the sun to begin its descent behind the Olympic Peninsula to really flaunt its stuff.
Book a sunset paddle trip with Alki Kayak Tours and catch a glimpse of the city in all of its orange-and-purple-soaked glory ($45, 7-9:20 p.m., kayakalki.com).

FIREWORKS PADDLE? The trip finishes up right after sunset, which should give you plenty of time to head less than a mile up the road to Hamilton Viewpoint Park for a stunning view of the Seattle firework display over Elliot Bay.

Toronto

Toronto, conveniently located on the northern edge of the vast Lake Ontario, wins our urban kayaking, Canadian-style, vote. Hop on an evening “social paddle” with Harbourfront Canoe Kayak Center (paddletoronto.com), and cruise into Toronto Harbor to explore the 13 islands that make up the bay’s outer edges. Just a 20-minute paddle across the bay, the islands have been turned into parks by the city and boast an impressive display of wildlife for an urban center.

FIREWORKS PADDLE? While we can’t expect our northern neighbors to celebrate American Independence Day, Harbourfront Canoe & Kayak Center still has a good time. Upon returning around 8:30 p.m. from the social paddle, expect a BBQ waiting bay side and an evening spent with new-found friends and like-minded adventurers. Bonus: Harbourfront asks for donations at the BBQ to support different environmental funds as well as the World Vision child they adopt every year. Eat well and feel good about your contribution to the world, all at once ($30, 6:30-8:30 p.m., paddletoronto.com).