There are plenty of great kayaking destinations for beginners in the US, but planning your own kayaking adventure anywhere requires proper preparation. Today, you’ll find plenty to consider in our complete guide to kayaking on the Charles River.
There are plenty of reasons to visit the Boston area outside of taking in the history of one of the epicenters of the American Revolution. Kayaking on the Charles River is a great addition to any visit to this region.
So let’s talk about everything you need to know about kayaking on the Charles River!
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- Quick Charles River Overview
- How Big is the Charles River?
- What is the Best Time of Year for Kayaking on the Charles River?
- What is the Weather on the Charles River?
Where Can You Launch for Kayaking on the Charles River?
- Kayak Launch Points on the Lower Charles River
- Kayak Launch Points on the Upper Charles River
- What Type of Kayak is Best for the Charles River?
- Are There Guide and Rental Companies for Kayaking on the Charles River?
- Final Thoughts
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The Charles River is largely considered to be the most prominent urban river in New England. It eventually empties into Boston Harbor, but the headwaters begin upstream in Hopkinton, Massachusetts.
The river is actually separated into upper and lower sections. The upper section is from the headwaters to the Watertown Dam and the lower section runs from the dam to the harbor. For visitors of the Greater Boston Area, the Charles River is one of the main natural resources for outdoor recreation.
The majority of the recreation that happens on the Charles River occurs on the lower section. Because it is a significantly smaller section, this makes it very crowded with motorized vessels, tour boats, and, of course, people on recreational kayaks.
Because of its popularity, the river is lined with many buildings and structures, although there are a few green spaces to choose from as well. Boathouses, sports complexes, and even concert venues mean there’s plenty to see while kayaking on the Charles River.
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The Charles River is roughly 80 miles long from the headwaters to where it empties into the harbor. At its widest, the river can be several hundred feet across, which allows plenty of room for boat traffic to navigate safely.
The entire Charles River watershed covers roughly 310 square miles and all the rain and snow that falls over that area eventually drains into the harbor. Of those 310 square miles, 268 square miles drain into the upper Charles River before Watertown Dam, and the remaining 42 square miles drain into the lower Charles River.
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Winter temperatures in the Boston area don’t lend themselves to a comfortable climate for kayaking. So the best times to paddle on the Charles River are from late spring to early fall (roughly May through mid-October).
That said, it is worth mentioning that algal blooms often occur on the river during the late summer months. These blooms are a result of excessive amounts of nutrients and pollutants that flow into the river from neighboring properties or developments.
The good news is that major improvements have improved the water quality in the Charles River in recent years. As of September 2014, the river received an A- grade from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Even so, consider visiting the Charles River for a paddle in June or July before avoiding late August through mid-September. Returning in the fall can be a great way to see the changing leaves in some of the riverfront parks on the Charles.
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The weather on the Charles River varies from season to season, and there truly are four seasons here. That actually happens to be one of the biggest draws of living in the northeast, in general.
From December through February, the average high temperatures range from 37 to 42 degrees Fahrenheit. The low temperatures for these months range from 22 to 28 degrees Fahrenheit.
Moving into the spring, the average highs range from 46 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit for the months of March through May. The low temperatures for the spring vary from 31 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
The most comfortable season for paddling on the Charles River is the summer and the average temps from June through August range from 77 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit. The lows for the summer drop down to somewhere between 59 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
As things begin to shift back towards the cooler season, the average high temperatures for September through November range from 52 to 73 degrees Fahrenheit. The average lows for autumn range from 38 to 58 degrees Fahrenheit.
On average, December is considered to be the wettest month in the Greater Boston Area, but every month averages less than 10 days of rainfall throughout the calendar year.
Before your visit to paddle on the Charles River, you should also research wind speeds and directions. We prefer the WindFinder app for accurate wind forecasts up to 24 hours in advance of your estimated paddle departure time.
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Now that you know about the right time of year and the weather for planning your kayaking trip on the Charles River, it’s time to investigate places to actually get your kayak on the water. Depending on where you plan to explore, we have broken these launch sites down to locations on the upper and lower Charles River, respectively.
For kayaking on the lower Charles River below the Watertown Dam, here are some of the most popular places to launch your kayak:
The kayak launch at North Point Park is a viable starting location for anyone that wants to explore downriver from the Charles River Dam. Heading downstream from here, you’ll pass under the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge, or you can paddle across the river to do some people at Nashua Street Park.
Poor Man’s Landing is located off Memorial Drive just north of the Longfellow Bridge. Launching from here offers you a great chance to explore the river’s unique floating wetland across the river from Lederman Park.
The kayak launch at the end of Broad Canal is also Paddle Boston’s Cambridge, Kendall Square location. So you’ll find rental kayaks here, but you should be able to launch your own to explore the canal and then out into the river as well.
The public boat launch at Front Park (also known as Charles Park) is just off the bike path that runs along this section of the river. Be aware that there’s minimal street parking available here, so you may need to drop kayaks and find parking elsewhere to launch from this location.
The boat launch at Magazine Beach is a great place to start your paddle just upriver from Boston University. The beach is on a wide bend in the river with lots of natural scenery and a short paddle upriver is all that’s required to look at some of the buildings of the Harvard Business School.
Herter Park is one of the larger waterfront greenspaces on the Charles River, so it’s a great place to launch your kayak if you want to imagine what the river’s shoreline may have looked like in the days before urbanization.
The boat launch here is just downriver from the Northeastern University Boathouse. After your paddle, there are plenty of things to enjoy on land in the park too, including a paved bike path, a playground and kiddie pool, and events at the Herter Park Amphitheater.
MDC Boat Ramp
The MDC Boat Ramp is located on the south side of the river between Daly Field and the Henry Parker Boathouse. It is a free launch site that is a great starting point if you want to explore the shoreline of Squibnocket Park downriver or check out some of the boats moored at the Newton Yacht Club upriver.
For those interested in exploring the upper Charles River before the Watertown Dam, check out these popular paddle launches:
The Waltham Boat Ramp is located just off Woerd Road near the headquarters of Olympus Scientific Solutions of the Americas. The location of the cemetery across the river means there are minimal buildings to interfere with the natural landscape and you can head upriver if you want to check out Fox Island.
This kayak launch is located at the Waltham, Moody Street location for Paddle Boston’s kayak rentals and guided tours. It is, however, a public dock, so you should have no trouble launching your own kayak from here even if you’re not renting or taking a tour.
This location is just upriver from the Moody Street Bridge and the dam that has been built just after it. So you’ll have to head upriver from here to check out things like Riverwalk Park across the way.
This boat launch is another part of Paddle Boston’s expansive reach in the area, but it allows public launching and it’s obviously a great place to rent a kayak if you don’t have your own. If you’re not comfortable launching from here, there’s also a public parking area across the river with a small area for launching kayaks and canoes.
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If you’re interested in fishing on the Charles River, you can also take one of the best fishing kayaks out to enjoy some time on the river. Some of the river’s main fish species include largemouth bass, brown trout, and others.
Crossover kayaks will also work in most areas of the Charles River and if you have a reliable paddle partner, a tandem kayak is a great choice as well. On a windless day, there’s no reason you couldn’t paddle an inflatable kayak or a folding kayak on the Charles River either.
PC Paddle Boston
If you don’t have your own kayak to bring for your paddle adventure on the Charles River, the best thing you can do is to find a company to rent a kayak or take you on a guided trip. Paddle Boston seems to have cornered the market on both of those avenues on the lower Charles River.
They offer a number of different guided adventures from sea kayaking to explorations of Boston Harbor. They also offer expeditions further up the Charles River and even give you the option of designing your own custom tour.
Let’s cover a few of their main guided kayaking adventures in more detail:
Paddle Boston’s Charles River Tours last 1.5 hours and are the best choice if you want to enjoy views of Boston’s urban skyline. Their skyline river tours and sunset river tours both start at the company’s Kendall Square location.
The tour includes a quick introduction to paddling before all guests load into double kayaks and shove off. Your tour guides will point out some of Boston’s most iconic buildings along the way, including the Great Dome of MIT, the Hancock and Prudential buildings, and the Citgo sign.
Tours exploring Boston Harbor also leave from their Kendall Square location and they typically last for three hours. The tour takes you through the old locks of the original Charles River Dam and under the Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge before passing through the current dam to enter Boston’s inner harbor.
This tour also includes some of the attractions you’d normally see on the Charles River Tours, including the Esplanade and the State House Dome. Guides will also entertain you with stories of how the Charles River has played such an important role in the history of the city.
Paddle Boston’s ocean kayaking tours give you the opportunity to explore some of Massachusetts’ 1,500 miles of coastal shoreline. Their tours can be catered to specific locations that guests want to visit along that coastline.
Tours include an introduction to the basic skills you’ll need to feel comfortable in a sea kayak and they put an emphasis on increasing those skills throughout. Guides will also emphasize important points on trip planning and route selection to make you more confident executing your own sea kayaking adventures in the future.
Paddle Boston also offers a wide variety of custom tours for small and large groups. Their barbeque tours, for example, include a short paddle followed by a delicious barbeque spread catered by a local company.
Their custom tours include teambuilding initiatives as well and can be held from any of their rental locations, as well as additional locations of your choice. If you don’t see a specific offering on their site, the odds are good they can create one for you if you call them at 617-965-5110 to discuss your group’s particular needs.
In addition to paddling with a dedicated tour guide, you can also rent kayaks from Paddle Boston for your own self-guided adventure on the Charles River. They offer rentals at seven different locations along the river and they offer life vests to fit paddlers of all ages.
Rentals must be reserved in advance and their rates fluctuate by time of day, as well as the type of kayak you are interested in renting. They even offer season passes that run from the first weekend in May through mid-October for locals looking to save a little money on a full season of kayak rentals.
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If the weather is good during your trip to Boston, make sure you take the time to grab a kayak and get out on the Charles River. It is easily one of the best ways to enjoy Boston’s urban skyline and, if you opt for a tour, to learn some interesting tidbits about the city’s history that you won’t find anywhere else.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this complete guide to kayaking the Charles River and you’re excited about your next trip to Boston as a result. As always, we wish you the happiest and healthiest of kayaking adventures in the future!