The great American road trip has experienced a resurgence during the pandemic. But there’s a downside: This summer is projected to feature crowded campsites, expensive gas, and no end to long lines and traffic jams.
Luckily, there is another epic U.S. adventure that few know about—and even fewer undertake each year.
The Great Loop—a year-long, nearly 6,000-mile journey through the eastern United States and Canada’s interconnected water passages—takes boaters counterclockwise from the Gulf and Atlantic Intracoastal Waterways to the Erie Canal, Great Lakes, Canadian Heritage Canals, and the Mississippi and Tennessee Rivers.
It’s hardly as nerve-wracking as most celebrated nautical excursions. “You can cruise to Tahiti, but you’re spending weeks in the middle of the open ocean,” says Kim Russo, director of America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association (AGLCA), a group created in 1999 that prepares boaters for the voyage. “For a lot of people, it’s daunting to be out of sight of land and without resources for that long.”
In contrast, the Great Loop is easier to visualize—and for many, easier to navigate. Most travel by powerboat. Others journey by sailboat, fishing boat, kayak, and even standup paddleboard. The experience itself is most similar to “European canal boats,” Russo says.
Much like the canals, land flanks most of the Great Loop—acting as a guardrail and guidepost. Several open-water stints, including a Gulf of Mexico crossing and portions of the Great Lakes, where shores are but a speck on the horizon, add adrenaline to the route.
Despite its geographical range, the Great Loop remains under the radar. Fewer than 200 “loopers” complete the trip annually, with retirees making up the majority—but things are changing thanks to a growing coterie of family loopers.
“[Families] are realizing that if they can work and learn from home, why not do so aboard a boat?” Russo says. This development harkens back to the loop’s earliest full voyage in 1906, when boat-builder Scott Matthews took his family on the epic journey. His grandson later co-produced a documentary about the voyage.
With thousands of miles of ocean, rivers, and lakes, the Great Loop is a bit more adrenaline-pumping than the typical family trip to the beach. Swells, currents, and storms can make the journey tricky. But as any looper will tell you, that’s all part of the fun.
Great Loop pioneers
The Great Loop was never officially forged or constructed. It follows existing waterways mostly maintained by federal and state governments. In the late 19th century, Ken Ransom, an 18-year-old sailor raised on the shores of Lake Michigan, was the first to see the potential for adventure in America’s nautical maze.
Despite his mother’s pleading, Ransom successfully rallied three high-school friends to join his lofty quest: a full circumnavigation of eastern U.S. In 1898 Ransom and his crew departed on their homemade vessel, a 30-foot white-oak sailboat named Gazelle. The teens faced hair-raising escapades, from navigating the Great Arctic Outbreak of 1899 that brought ice to the Mississippi River, to getting lost in Sanibel Island’s mangrove forest, and later hiring horses to pull their boat up the Erie Canal.
Despite setbacks, Ransom succeeded; his victory opened the door to subsequent expeditions, including the first family to attempt the loop, in 1906. Unlike Ransom’s crew, Ohio boat-builder Matthews and his wife and three young children journeyed in a 70-foot yacht built by Matthews himself. Engine-powered boats like Matthews’ yacht fare on better for the Great Loop expedition. Sailboats, with deep drafts and high masts, can prove challenging with the trail’s amalgam of conditions.
From enhanced boats to upgraded marinas, much has changed on the Great Loop since the early 1900s, including the Tennessee Tombigbee Waterway, a 234-mile passage erected by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1984 to connect the Tennessee and Tombigbee rivers. With this shortcut, loopers shave off the lower Mississippi River, making the trip significantly faster, and more pleasurable, since the lower Mississippi can get bogged down with barges and commercial shipping, Russo says.
Learning on the water
With easier access to technology and the pandemic redefining the traditional workspace, many aspiring loopers took their work and education to the water—a feat families such as the Bowlins, now 5,000 miles into their trip, have mastered.
Sarah and Brent Bowlin, parents of Mary Grace, 13, and Miller, 9, live aboard their yatch, Light and Salty, with their puppy, Captain. The Bowlins spent five years planning the journey, moving Mary Grace and Miller into a hybrid mix of in-school and at-home for preparation. They sold their house and bought their new home right before the pandemic hit in early 2020. Determined, they decided to move forward with their Great Loop plans in May 2020.
As expected, family life on the loop is eventful—and a chance for Sarah and Brent to build memories with their rapidly-growing children. But their routine is not much different from life back in their former home, North Carolina. The Bowlins dock during the week for remote work and school, then cruise for fun and hands-on education each weekend.
Much of the family’s hands-on learning extends to environmental concerns. Over the past several decades, freshwater ecosystems have become the most degraded in the world, from the rampant microplastic pollution in the Tennessee River to the destructive blend of urban and agricultural pollutants affecting the Mississippi River watershed.
“The entire [Mississippi] watershed is one of the largest and most serious challenges facing our rivers today,” says John Rumpler, clean water program director for environmental advocacy group Environment America. Each year, excess, nutrient-dense debris travels down the river into the Gulf of Mexico, where it creates an annual hypoxic “dead zone” strong enough to kill fish and marine life each summer. In 2020, Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone measured 2,116 square miles.
Rumpler notes many of the river system’s worst pollutants, such as microplastics, aren’t visible to the naked eye. Others, such as algal blooms on the Great Lakes and invasive species in the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, are more obvious and present vital firsthand conservation lessons for loopers.
“Reading about environmental threats in a textbook is one thing, seeing them firsthand is another,” says science writer Cynthia Berger, who explored the loop with her husband, Bill Carlsen, professor emeritus of science education at Penn State University. The duo, both trained as aquatic ecologists, tackled the loop in a solar-powered canal boat in 2010 as part of Carlsen’s sabbatical studying environmental sustainability, community development, natural history, and engineering.
Berger and Carlsen witnessed the deterioration of the waterways firsthand. Some perils, such as the invasive Asian carp species threatening the Great Lakes, left a tangible mark. “If Asian carp are startled, the whole school will jump out of the water,” Berger says, recalling when a nearly 20-pound carp leaped “like [a] bowling ball” into the air breaking a boat window. “Here’s this problem we’d heard about in the news, and it was right there in our faces on the river.”
Try a “mini loop”
A year on the water isn’t the only way to appreciate the Great Loop. Aspiring loopers and boating enthusiasts can hit one of the AGLCA’s recommended mini loops to test the waters.
The Triangle Loop: One month
Hit two countries in one trip with the famed Triangle Loop, a 700-mile jaunt from the northeast U.S. into Canada. Embark from the Hudson River, heading up the mountain-fringed Lake Champlain and the Richelieu Canal before landing in Montreal to explore the city’s rich French history.
Meander past the unspoiled Thousand Islands along the southwestward coast, before hitting the Oswego and Erie Canals, which spills back into the Hudson after nearly 350 culture-packed miles. (Note: The U.S.–Canada border is still closed, but loopers can enter by hiring a Canadian captain.)
The Florida Loop: Two weeks
Explore the lower third of Florida on a voyage bursting with flora and fauna. Set sail from the Intracoastal Waterway near Stuart, Florida, gliding through the biodiverse Lake Okeechobee, before reaching Fort Myers. Wind down the gulf toward one of the loop’s main attractions: a cruise along the lush Florida Keys archipelago, where dolphins and sea turtles await. Inch up the Atlantic, from Miami to West Palm Beach, to close this scenic loop. Aspiring sailors can receive hands-on loop guidance from Capable Cruising, a Fort Myers-based outfitter that provides on-boat preparedness lessons.
The Carolina Loop: Three days
A shorter, but no less impressive, trip is the Carolina Loop, a 110-mile trip around eastern North Carolina and Virginia. Snake through wetland forests and cottage-dotted shores on this weekend-long journey. The route flows from Norfolk down to Currituck, along the Albemarle Sound, then up through Elizabeth City. The final leg—the white-cypress-spotted Dismal Swamp Canal, home to river otters and black bears—gives an alluring taste of the full Great Loop adventure.
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted travel. When planning a trip, be sure to research your destination and take safety precautions before, during, and after your journey. Click here for National Geographic reporting on the pandemic.