Northern New England has a vast number of bodies of water that will satiate your thirst for hydro fun. Some of the most popular:
One of the most popular recreational river destinations in all of the north country, the Saco’s mostly gentle 136 miles of twists and turns draws thousands of people each summer weekend to its banks that stretch from New Hampshire to Maine.
Originating on Mount Washington and Saco Lake in Crawford Notch, N.H., the river flows south-southeast, crossing into Maine and ultimately dumping into the Atlantic Ocean at Saco Bay. Most rafting and canoeing on the river takes place between Swan’s Falls, the former Appalachian Mountain Club area now maintained by the Saco River Recreation Council, to Brownfield, Maine.
Known for its relaxing current, the Saco River has become extremely popular among families for canoeing and kayaking, camping or simply floating for miles upon leisurely miles in tubes, complete with drink holders and head rests.
According to the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, documented settlement of Native Americans in the Saco River valley dates back to 1642. Two sites along the river corridor are listed on the National Register of Historic Places: the Crawford Depot and the Crawford Artists Studio.
Families have been enjoying the Saco for generations, drawn back year after year to all it offers, including majestic views of the White Mountains, its clear water and sandy beaches, wilderness camping within the White Mountain National Forest, various hiking trails and rock climbing sites.
The most popular entry point to the river for recreationalists is at Swan’s Falls in Fryeburg, where the Swan’s Falls Campground offers tent sites perfect as a jumping off point for day trips and multi-day canoe and kayak excursions. Also located here is Saco River Canoe & Kayak, offering rentals as well as pick up and delivery service for canoes, kayaks and tubes.
New Hampshire-based Outdoor Escapes offers custom tours and adventures, many on the water.
In Conway, N.H., Saco Bound offers canoe, kayak, tube and stand-up paddleboard rentals along with private access to the river, no shuttles required.
Following are some popular trips on the Saco:
- Swan’s Falls to Canal Bridge: approximately 4-5 hours
- Weston’s Beach to Swan’s Falls: approximately 6 hours
Day Trips (boats)
- Swan’s Falls to Canal Bridge: approx. 1-2 hours paddling
- Swan’s Falls to Walker’s Bridge: approx. 5-6 hours paddling
- Swan’s Falls to Walker’s Bridge; approx. 1 day paddling
- Swan’s Falls to Lovewell Pond: approx. 1.5 days paddling
- Swan’s Falls to Brownfield Bridge: approx. 2 days paddling
- Swan’s Falls to Hiram: Three days minimum recommended
Campgrounds along the Saco
- Swan’s Falls Campground
- Canal Bridge Family Campground
- Fiddlehead Campground
- Woodland Acres Campground
- On the Saco Family Campground
- River Run Canoe and Camp
The Saco isn’t the only game in town, or river in the state. If you’re seeking faster-flowing waters, Maine’s three other rivers — the Kennebec, Dead and Penobscot — will deliver.
The whitewater rafting season begins May 1 and stretches into mid-October. With daily hydropower dam releases, Maine is unique in New England for being able to guarantee water levels. Trips are scheduled daily.
A 12-mile run begins on Indian Pond and roars through several miles of Class 4 rapids to Kennebec Gorge. The last part of the run offers opportunities to swim and enjoy the scenery, including the Dead stream falls.
A 16-mile run produces the longest stretch of continuous whitewater in the East with Class 4 and 5 rapids, depending on the water level. There are a limited number of big-water releases on the Dead River, so book your spot early as space is limited. September is a popular time for the Dead River Run, as both the water and foliage are in peak form.
The Penobscot River starts with two miles of Class 5 rapids to the “Cribworks.” The next 12 miles of the run offer surprises at every bend with Class 3 and 4 rapids throughout.
In Vermont, both the Winooski and West rivers are popular destinations for recreationalists.
The second-longest river in Vermont, the Winooski is the largest tributary watershed to Lake Champlain, flowing for 90 miles through the heart of the Green Mountains from Cabot to Colchester.
The river is home to the Friends of the Winooski’s annual Onion River Race and Ramble. Popular sections along the river for recreationalists include:
Marshfield to Twinfield Union School (5 miles, intermediate): A highlight of this section is Martin Bridge, the only “Farm Bridge” remaining in Vermont. Paddlers may encounter downed trees blocking the river. There is a Class 2 “rock garden” rapid at the Onion River Campground.
Plainfield to East Montpelier (12 miles, intermediate): This stretch of the river passes by several picturesque Vermont farms and under a covered bridge and features two relatively long rocky sections.
Winooski to Lake Champlain (10 miles, easy): The river meanders through farmlands, wetlands and forests on its last leg to Lake Champlain.
Middlesex to Waterbury (5 miles, intermediate): Highlights include Middlesex Gorge, woodlands and rock escarpements. The Mad River meets up with the Winooski shortly after the put in at the Middlesex Dam.
Waterbury to Bolton (5 miles, easy): Mostly flat, this section offers views of both the Green Mountain Range and the Worcester Range. Camel’s Hump will be visible on the left.
In southern Vermont, the West River flows for 50 miles with sections of both Class 3 and 4 rapids.
The river starts in Mount Holly in Rutland County and eventually dumps into the Connecticut River, flowing through the picturesque towns of Weston, Londonderry, Jamaica, Townshend, Brookline, Newfane, Dummerston and Brattleboro along the way.
Rafting trips typically leave from Ball Mountain Dam in Jamaica, the Army Corps of Engineers dam that creates the Ball Mountain Reservoir and that is released for whitewater rafting trips (call ahead for release schedules).
The Class 3 and 4 rapids are mostly long and continuous, starting in the narrow canyon and opening up at “Landslide” and “Dumplings” rapids. After Dumplings, the river mellows for leisurely sightseeing in the Green Mountains countryside.
Green River Reservoir
With planning, this remote state park in Hyde Park, Vt., will provide hours of secluded recreational fun on the water. All of the park’s 27 campsites are accessible only by paddling to them, between one and two miles from the launch site.
The 653-acre park includes 19 miles of undeveloped shoreline. Designated a “quiet lake,” only boats powered by electric motors (5 mph speed limit) and human-powered watercraft are allowed.