Mention the Eastern seaboard and most people think of New York City, where a wilderness outing means a wary walk through Central Park. But just two and a half hours from downtown Manhattan, it's possible to canoe in a place that feels like real wilderness. The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area covers 70,000 acres of forested areas, meadows, and mountains in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, along a 40-mile Wild and Scenic stretch of the Delaware River. To quickly reach one of the more remote sections, put in at Bushkill Access off U.S. 209. An hour or so later you'll come to a big loop in the river called Walpack Bend, where there's a cluster of secluded canoe-access campsites. If these are occupied, drift down to Sambo Island, where there are two more sites. The next day, cruise down to Kittatinny Point, a 16-mile run, or go another four miles to the Portland takeout, where there are a few small rapids to spice things up. Smallmouth bass fishing is excellent here, as are the swimming holes. Bring binoculars to spot whitetail deer, beavers, foxes, black bears, and river otters.
From New York City, follow I-80 west for 75 miles to the park's south end and take Exit 52 in Pennsylvania onto U.S. 209 north to the Bushkill Access. For more information, contact the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area headquarters at 717-588-2451. Pack Shack Adventures, on Broad Street in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, right off I-80 at Exit 53, rents canoes, kayaks, and rafts and leads overnight canoe trips in the area. Call 717-424-8533 for more information.
Winding for 135 miles through the Ozark Mountains of northwestern Arkansas, the Buffalo National River is one of the most beautiful canoe runs in America. It moves through a near-wilderness of hills and sculpted side hollows, forests, and meadows. With kids in tow, your best bet is to paddle the slower-paced middle and lower sections. For a three- to four-day, 51-mile journey, launch at the Woolum Access, about five miles southwest of St. Joe, off U.S. 65; and take out at Rush Landing, 3.5 miles east of Arkansas 14, near Caney, on County Road 26. Designated campgrounds along the riverbanks are also accessible by car. The Tyler Bend area (15.3 miles from Woolum) has a visitor center, museum, warm showers, and flush toilets. Buffalo Point Campground (43.6 miles from Woolum) has modern campsites, walk-in tent camping, campfire programs, and guided nature hikes. In the Buffalo Point area, take the three-mile loop Indian Rockhouse Trail to a bluff shelter once inhabited by Native Americans.
Use U.S. 65 or Arkansas Routes 7, 14, or 21 to get to the park. Little Rock and Fayetteville, Arkansas, and Springfield, Missouri, are between two and three hours away. Rent a canoe (about $30 per day) from the Buffalo Outdoor Center (870-0439-2244) in Silver Hill, about a 15-minute drive south of St. Joe on U.S. 65. Contact the Buffalo National River headquarters at 870-741-5443.
In the Upper Midwest you get used to seeing pancake-flat land and sluggish prairie streams-out here, a 200-foot bump is considered a mountain. Yet tucked away in an isolated corner of northeast Iowa is a cliff-lined gorge that the glaciers forgot to flatten: the Upper Iowa River valley. The Upper Iowa can be paddled for 110.6 miles, from Lime Springs to its outlet into the Mississippi River, but best for families is a series of small-scale canyons between the towns of Kendallville and Decorah, where palisades and chimney rocks tower hundreds of feet above the water. Your put-in for this 31-mile, two-day float is at the Iowa 139 bridge at Kendallville. Fifteen miles from the start, you'll cruise past Bluffton, where there's a small restaurant and a couple of nice private campgrounds ($5-$10 per tent). The 16-mile stretch from Bluffton to Decorah has impressive limestone escarpments with white pines, red cedars, and balsam firs anchored to the cliff faces. At Decorah, you can spend the night at the city-owned riverside campground ($8 per tent).
Look for remnants of centuries-old civilization. On a recent visit, my young niece discovered several arrowheads in a field by the river. The Upper Iowa has some of the best smallmouth bass angling in Iowa; you can also spot whitetail deer, bald eagles, beavers, and wild turkeys.
Put in at the Iowa 139 bridge at Kendallville; take out at Will Baker City Park, right off of U.S. 52 in Decorah. For canoe rentals and shuttles, contact Hruska's Canoe Livery in Kendallville (319-547-4566). For information, call the Decorah Area Chamber of Commerce at 319-382-3990.