Kansas City is built where two mighty rivers meet. For thousands of years, people have navigated these waterways for trade, food, and transportation.
But these days, it’s harder to see the connection between waterways and our way of life. The Mighty Mo’ may divide the city in two, but bridges take us there and urban sprawl takes us away.
The best way to get an up-close view of the region’s waterways is to row them. Canoes, kayaks and paddleboards have grown in popularity, borrowed from native traditions and carried on into the modern era.
While some paddle year round, the season is generally considered late April to September which is the best time for a beginner to try it out. It’s also the season for the MR340 water race – an intense endurance race that begins in Kansas City and ends in St. Louis, usually held in July.
Canoeing is a quick skill to acquire and a sustainable lifelong activity. Gliding with the current, the rhythm offers a different perspective and an escape from the city, a way to discover nature and disconnect for about an hour.
Learn to paddle your own canoe with this beginner’s guide to exploring Kansas City’s waterways.
There are many different watercraft to try out when paddling: canoes, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards (SUPs) and pedal boats.
It is best to start paddling with an experienced guide or instructor. Some groups, including the KC Paddle Paddle Club, welcome beginners on trips to various regional waterways, though outings are BYOB (bring your own boat) and open to members only (membership is $20 / year).
Periodically, Johnson County Parks & Recreation District offers beginner classes for groups or families (ages 10 and up with an adult).
If you’re up for a short day trip, Missouri State Parks is offering $5 beginner’s kayaking lessons at Knob Noster State Park, about an hour southeast of Kansas City, July 18, August 15 and September 6. See more locations and register here.
Not sure if a canoe, kayak or pedal boat is right for you? Try out different boats and paddling styles with an hourly rental at one of Kansas City’s local parks.
The Lake Jacomo Marina in Jackson County’s Fleming Park rents canoes, kayaks, and paddle boats. A valid driver’s license is required to rent a boat on a first-come, first-served basis, and the minimum age to rent a boat is 18 years old. (Although nearby Blue Springs Lake does not offer rental services, it does have canoe and kayak launch areas. SUPs are not permitted.)
In Kansas, Shawnee Mission Park Lake rents canoes, kayaks, SUPs and paddle boats. Reservations can be made in person or online up to 7 days in advance (which we recommend if you are going away for the weekend or on vacation). Guests must be 12 or older to rent a boat and children under 12 must be supervised by an adult.
Each year, Shawnee Mission Park celebrates “A Day in the Park” on National Trails Day (the first Saturday in June) with free boat rentals.
The Lake Olathe Marina offers rentals for $5 per 30 minutes, with canoes, kayaks, paddle boards, and pedal boats available. The age limit for equipment rental is 12 and children under 12 must be supervised by an adult.
When heading out on the water, there are a few essentials to consider for a fun and safe experience.
Always carry water with you, as unfiltered water from a lake or river may not be safe to drink and paddling is a thirsty activity. Sunscreen, hats and sunglasses are also recommended. A whistle is recommended, in case of capsizing. Likewise, having some sort of dry bag is essential for items like keys, wallet or phones, although some kayaks have built-in dry cans for storage.
Comfort in the water is essential and swimming skills are important whenever you are considering water sports. Prepare to get wet, as the paddles drip and the waves lap and there is always the possibility of a capsize. As for shoes, you can get an inexpensive pair of quick-drying soft water shoes, but boat shoes or old sneakers will also work.
Kansas and Missouri require the ship to carry enough personal flotation devices for each person, and recommend that passengers wear them while on the water. In Kansas, children under 12 must wear a PFD at all times, while in Missouri it is mandatory for children under seven.
Most places also have permit requirements, whether state, county, or park. Failure to comply with legal requirements may result in a fine.
Pro tip: Weather here and upriver can affect water levels, so check them before you go. Beginners should not paddle in water over 5,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), as higher, faster water is harder to navigate.
Check the weather as well, because you don’t want to be caught out on the water with a storm rolling in on you, beginner or not.
go with the flow
The Missouri River is the longest river in the United States, beginning in the Rocky Mountains of Montana and joining the Mississippi at St. Louis. Both the river and the state are named after the people of Missouria, derived from the Illinois word for “those who have canoes”.
KC Canoe and Kayak runs regular kayak tours on the Missouri River, paddling past town for scenic views of downtown and its many bridges. Although experience is not necessary, participants must be at least 13 years old and under age accompanied by an adult.
The Kansas River – also known as the Kaw – flows 174 miles from Junction City, Kansas, into the Missouri River. In 2012, the Kansas River Trail was designated as part of the National Water Trails System. Trail maps indicated launch points and river hazards.
Friends of the Kaw organize Wednesday paddles for beginners throughout the summer, with the possibility of renting equipment. The organization was founded in 1991 to help conserve and protect the Kansas River, and also organizes river cleanup events and educational paddles.
Although Kansas City Parks and Recreation does not offer lessons or rentals, paddling is permitted on public waterways as long as they are accessible via public property.
Other places to paddle include Wyandotte County Lake, Smithville Lake, Clinton Lake in Lawrence, and Watkins Mill Lake.
Paddling is not just an enjoyable hobby. Many have used it to inspire their art, create awareness, escape their troubles, or test their strength.
This summer, Kansas City Art Institute professor Steve Snell is canoeing along the Missouri River for what he calls “adventure art.” During this three-month trip, he will create paintings of the landscape. He documents the trip on Instagram, and KCUR’s Julie Denesha caught up with Snell while he was preparing for the trip.
Kansas City writer Patrick Dobson traveled from Helena, Montana to Kansas City as a solo paddler, documented in his book Canoeing the Great Plains: A Missouri River Summer. When he left, he had never paddled before.
By the time he reached Kansas City again, he had traveled thousands of miles through harsh weather, river hazards, and challenges both physical and mental. In 2015, Dobson spoke with Gina Kaufmann about the experience.
And for the ultimate Missouri paddling adventure, learn more about the MR340. Every summer, experienced paddlers set out from Kaw Point in Kansas City, Kansas to take part in this endurance race to St. Louis – with only 85 hours to travel the Missouri River unhindered.
KCUR’s “Real Humans with Gina Kaufmann” followed some of the contenders in 2021.