Rivers on Cape Cod and the Islands offer excellent opportunities for boating, especially paddling. From freshwater to saltwater and the brackish in-betweens, there is an abundance of great paddling routes and no shortage of water bodies to explore.
Paddling, whether it’s in a kayak, canoe, or atop a stand-up paddleboard, is a perfect way to explore the region’s waterways.
The peace and tranquility of gliding past swaying marsh grass, the little trail of whirlpools on the water’s surface left by the paddle, and the chance to see shorebirds and other wildlife up close are sure to relax you.
Several large and small freshwater ponds offer paddlers a chance to get comfortable on the water, honing their technique on tranquil flat waters. There’s no shortage of saltwater marshes with winding channels and unique twisting paths rich with flora and fauna.
Harbors and Bays offer a chance to get out on protected and sheltered bits of the ocean, exploring islands, inlets, and tidal rivers. Experienced sea kayakers will find plenty of swells and routes to enjoy as well.
There are plenty of outfitters on Cape Cod and the Islands who rent kayaks, canoes, and stand-up paddleboards for those who didn’t bring a boat with them. Many services will deliver the boats to the launch you have in mind and often have good advice on a spot to explore.
If you’re not ready to head out on your own, consider a guided tour. Many tours are led by knowledgeable naturalists who will answer questions and point out unique features of the natural environment. Some outfits even offer sunset or moonrise trips!
Prepare for your trip in these rivers on Cape Cod
When heading out on a paddling trip, be sure to bring a life jacket, plenty of water, snacks, sunscreen, and bug spray. You’ll also want to be sure to get a chart or map of the area you’re planning to paddle, as sandbars or other obstructions may not be apparent depending on the tides.
When paddling tidal waters, it’s also important to know the tides of the area. The tides in some marshes may not line up with the normal ocean tides, so do your research.
When paddling tidal rivers, you’ll generally want to head in with the advancing tide, lingering a bit during the slack tide, making your way back out as the tide recedes to avoid working against the current or stranding yourself upstream!
Whether you’re fishing, birding, or just enjoying the sights, paddling is a peaceful and fun way to get outside and explore. It’s not a bad arm workout either!
The sheer number of ponds, rivers, marshes, harbors, bays, and creeks makes for an abundance of great paddling options.
Below are some of the highlights:
Red Brook Harbor, Scorton Creek, Mill Creek, Mashpee River, Popponesset Bay, Washburn Island & Waquoit Bay
A trip to Bassetts Island in Pocasset gives paddlers a 3.5-mile nearshore island adventure at the entrances of Pocasset and Red Brook Harbors. It features calm shallow waters and a fun stop at the town beach on the southern arm of Bassetts Island. Paddlers can circumnavigate the uniquely shaped island and head back into the harbor.
Grab your kayak or stand-up paddleboard and enjoy the fascinating tidal fluctuations of three-mile-long Scorton Creek in East Sandwich. The route can be adjusted depending on the time you want to spend out on the water.
Either spend one to three hours on the creek or extend it into a full-day adventure by venturing in the bay and beyond to Mill Creek or Sandy Neck Point. If you’re new to paddling or would rather go with a guide, Ride away Adventures offers guided paddle tours of the area.
Enjoy five miles of paddling along the Mashpee River and Popponesset Bay. Due to conservation efforts, the river is minimally developed.
The houses seen from the launch on Mashpee Neck Road will soon disappear as the Mashpee River narrows and winds through vegetation. The river becomes relatively shallow, making it important to head upriver with the incoming tide to avoid beaching yourself at low tide.
Washburn Island and Waquoit Bay feature warm water and many paddling options. The shallow protected bay between Mashpee and Falmouth feeds tidal rivers that are great for exploring, including the ponds upriver.
Visitors might spot osprey nests or herons. The bay is also home to Washburn Island, a state-owned and rarity as one of the region’s last and most significant (at 300+ acres). The island is three miles from the launch site at Whites Landing and includes camping spots that must be reserved in advance.
Centerville River, Scudder Bay, Dowses Beach, Bumps Rivers, Prince Cove, Hathaway’s Pond & Wequaquet Lake
Centerville River and Scudder Bay in Cotuit offer up to three hours of paddling from Dowses Beach in Osterville to Centerville River or Bumps River leading to Scudder Bay.
Prince Cove in Osterville features osprey towers, good fishing, marshes, and a calm estuary. Paddlers can spend two or three hours paddling the mellow waters from Swan Pond to Parkers River, enjoying the abundant wildlife.
Hathaway’s Pond in Barnstable is the perfect spot for a first-timer to get familiar with paddling. The freshwater is flat and calm, and the pond small, so you won’t need to worry about being swept out to sea while you’re getting the hang of kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding!
Wequaquet Lake offers a larger area (654 acres) to paddle with multiple basins and is a popular spot for large-mouth bass fishing. Visitors can launch boats at either the Wequaquet Lake Car Top Launch on Huckins Neck Road in Centerville or the Boat Ramp on Shootflying Hill Road in Centerville.
Herring River, Little Pleasant Bay, Namequoit River, The River, Pochet Inlet, & Cliff Pond
Paddlers can follow the four miles of Herring River to the fish ladder that helps herring spawn each spring, then make their way back to the launch on Route 28. The river winds through the Bells Neck Conservation Lands in Harwich.
The conservation lands are a hub of recreation, located just off the Cape Cod Rail Trail bike path, with a network of walking trails, in addition to the great paddling. The abundant wildlife in the protected marshlands makes it an excellent spot for birders and an enjoyable paddle.
Little Pleasant Bay in Orleans offers many great paddling options, from Namequoit River to the north, The River, Pochet Inlet to the East, and the numerous islands that dot the bay.
The diversity of marine habitats allows visitors to feel for the area while exploring through the creeks and inlets and experience a taste for an ocean kayaking in a spot that is pretty sheltered from the big swells.
Nickerson State Park Ponds in Brewster included eight freshwater ponds, some of which are stocked with trout. The largest of the eight, Cliff Pond, offers 2.7 miles of paddling around the perimeter. Nearby Little Cliff Pond has 1.4 miles of flat freshwater paddling.
Nauset Marsh, Salt Pond Bay, Gull Pond, Higgins Pond, Williams Pond
Nauset Marsh in Eastham offers four or more miles of paddling through the marsh and Salt Pond Bay. Launching from Hemenway Road, visitors can enjoy sandbars, narrow channels, and bays. You can also find abundant bird species in this unique coastal environment.
Be sure to keep an eye on the tides to avoid finding yourself in mere inches of water or stranded on a sandbar. The marsh’s tides do not line up with the tides of Nauset Beach, so you’ll want to do some careful studying when planning your excursion.
All but the strongest paddlers will want to avoid crossing the strong currents in the inlet between the marsh and Nauset Beach. It can be rough and threaten to sweep paddlers out into the Atlantic.
Nestled in a string of kettle ponds, Wellfleet’s Gull Pond offers boat rentals and gentle water for beginners and advanced paddlers. Gull Pond is connected to Higgins Pond via “the Sluice” and a smaller passage to Williams Pond. The extensive, 109-acre (1.4-mile perimeter) kettle pond also features a lovely beach for relaxing before or after your paddle.
Martha’s Vineyard –
The Edgartown Great Pond is one of the 16 great ponds on Martha’s Vineyard. Great ponds are defined as ponds over 10 acres. At 890 acres, Edgartown Great Pond more than qualifies. Located on the island’s south shore, this brackish, hand-shaped pond with its coves and inlets boasts 15 miles of shoreline.
The pond supports a rich ecosystem, including shorebirds, otters, and more. The great pond offers a great day trip with calm water and lovely views.
Coskata Pond & Head of the Harbor
Nantucket’s Coskata Pond offers a 2.9 perimeter of flatwater great for paddling. The tidal salt pond connects to the Head of the Harbor. It is shallow enough to keep it quiet on boat traffic.
The pond and salt marsh are home to many shorebirds, striped bass, and the muddy and sandy banks are rich with soft shell clams. The pond is also home to a local oyster farm. Oak forests line part of the shore, and a barrier beach and dunes separate the pond from the Atlantic.
Paddle Nantucket offers a trip from Monomoy Beach to First Point. It is recommended for those looking to enjoy a guided excursion. The two-mile paddle brings paddlers on a 75-minute journey to watch the sunset over Nantucket Sound.
The Elizabeth Islands
Buzzards Bay & Vineyard Sound
Around the Elizabeth Islands, strong currents rip where the tides of Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound meet, creating a tricky spot for paddlers. Large swells and large boats can also pose a danger. Experienced sea kayakers make the trip from the mainland to the Elizabeth Islands. However, it is not advisable for novice paddlers.
The Islands themselves, aside from Cuttyhunk on the southern end of the chain, are primarily private and owned by the Forbes family.
Those boating pasts will note the stark, treeless landscapes, evoking feelings of the Scottish Highlands. It is heightened by the red, hairy, and horned Scottish Highland cattle roaming Nashawena Island.