A beginner's guide to paddling Kansas City rivers, lakes and waterways
Whether by kayak or canoe, the best way to get a close-up view of the region’s lakes and rivers is to paddle them.
Kansas City is built where two mighty rivers meet. For thousands of years, people navigated these waterways for trade, food and transport.
But these days, it’s harder to see the connection between the waterways and our way of life. The Mighty Mo' may bisect the city, but bridges carry us over it and urban expansion takes us away from it.
The best way to get a close-up view of the region’s waterways is to paddle them. Canoes, kayaks and paddle boarding have surged in popularity, borrowed from Indigenous traditions and sustained in the modern age.
While some paddle year-round, the season is generally considered late April through September, which is the best time for a beginner to give it a try. It's also the season of the MR340 water race — an intense endurance race that starts in Kansas City and ends in St. Louis, typically held during the month of July.
Paddling is a quick skill to pick up and a sustainable lifelong activity. Gliding along with the current, the pace offers a different perspective and escape from the city, a way to experience nature and unplug for an hour or so.
Learn to paddle your own canoe with this beginner’s guide to exploring the waterways of Kansas City.
There are many different vessels to try when paddling: canoes, kayaks, stand up paddleboards (SUPs) and pedal boats.
It’s best to start paddling with an experienced guide or instructor. Some groups, including Paddle KC paddling club, welcome beginners on excursions to various regional waterways, though the outings are BYOB (bring your own boat) and only open to members (membership is $20/year).
Periodically, Johnson County Parks & Recreation District offers beginners classes for groups or families (ages 10 and older with adult).
If you're up for a short daytrip, Missouri State Parks is offering $5 beginners kayaking lessons at Knob Noster State Park — about an hour southeast of Kansas City — on July 18, Aug. 15 and Sept. 6. See more locations and register here.
Not sure whether a canoe, kayak or pedal boat is right for you? Try out different vessels and styles of paddling with an hourly rental from one of Kansas City's local parks.
Lake Jacomo Marina at Jackson County’s Fleming Park rents canoes, kayaks and pedal boats. A valid driver’s license is required to rent a vessel on a first-come, first-served basis, and the minimum age to rent any boat is 18 years old. (While nearby Blue Springs Lake doesn't 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 pedal boats. Reservations can be made in-person or online up to 7 days in advance (which we recommend if you're going on a busy weekend or holiday). Guests must be 12 years or older to rent a boat and children under 12 require adult supervision.
Each year, Shawnee Mission Park celebrates “A Day in the Park” on National Trails Day (the first Saturday in June) with free boat rentals.
Lake Olathe Marina offers rentals for $5 per 30 minutes, with canoes, kayaks, paddleboards and pedal boats available. The age limit for renting equipment is 12 years old, and children below the age of 12 require adult supervision.
When heading out on the water, there are a few essentials to consider for a fun and safe experience.
Always take water with you, as unfiltered water from a lake or river might not be safe to drink and paddling is a thirsty business. Sunscreen, hats and sunglasses are also advised. A whistle is recommended, in the event of capsize. Likewise, having some sort of waterproof bag is essential for items like keys, wallet or phones, though some kayaks have built-in waterproof canisters for storage.
Comfort in the water is essential, and swimming skills are important anytime you contemplate water sports. Be prepared to get wet, as paddles drip and waves slosh and there’s always the possibility of a capsize. As for footwear, you can pick up an inexpensive pair of quick-drying, soft-style water shoes, but boat shoes or old sneakers will do the trick as well.
Both Kansas and Missouri require the vessel to contain enough personal floatation devices for every person, and they recommend that passengers wear them while on the water. In Kansas, children under 12 are required to wear the PFD the entire time, while in Missouri, it’s required for children under seven.
Most places have permit requirements as well, either state, county or park. Not following legal requirements could result in a ticket.
Pro tip: Weather here and upstream can affect water levels, so check them before you head out. Beginners shouldn't paddle in water over 5,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) as higher, faster water is more difficult to navigate.
Check the weather, too, as you don’t want to get caught on the water with a storm thundering down on you, beginner or not.
Go with the flow
The Missouri River is the longest river in the United States, starting in the Rocky Mountains of Montana and joining with the Mississippi at St. Louis. The river and the state take their name from the Missouria people, derived from the Illinois word for “those who have dugout canoes.”
KC Canoe and Kayak runs regular kayak trips on the Missouri River, paddling past the city for a picturesque view of downtown and its many bridges. While experience isn’t necessary, participants must be at least 13 years old and minors 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 a part of the National Water Trails System. Trail maps indicated launch points and river hazards.
Friends of the Kaw hosts Beginner Wednesday paddles throughout the summer, with the option to rent equipment. The organization was founded in 1991 to help conserve and protect the Kansas River, and also holds river clean-up events and educational paddles.
Although Kansas City Parks and Recreation doesn’t offer classes or rentals, paddling is allowed on public waterways as long as they are accessed via public property.
Additional places to paddle include Wyandotte County Lake, Smithville Lake, Clinton Lake in Lawrence and Watkins Mill Lake.
Paddling is not only a pleasant leisure pursuit. 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 canoes the length of the Missouri River for what he calls “adventure-art.” Along the way during this three month trip, he’ll make paintings of the landscape. He documents the trip on Instagram, and KCUR’s Julie Denesha met up with Snell as he prepared 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 set off, he’d never paddled before.
By the time he reached Kansas City again, he’d traveled thousands of miles through rough 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 off from Kaw Point in Kansas City, Kansas, to compete in this endurance race all the way to St. Louis — with just 85 hours to travel the unimpeded Missouri River.
KCUR’s “Real Humans with Gina Kaufmann” followed some of the contenders in 2021.