Tips for Paddling Through the Fall Foliage | Southwestern Michigan Tourist Council

Tips for Paddling Through the Fall Foliage

Fall paddling on the Galien River

While some fair-weather paddlers pack up their kayaks and paddleboards after Labor Day, others know that September and October are the best months of the year to be on the rivers of Southwest Michigan. The bugs are gone, the temperatures are just right, and the fall colors are in full bloom.

Here’s how to plan your fall foliage tour on a kayak and paddleboard:

Timing Is Everything. Schedule your paddle during the peak fall foliage, estimated in Southwest Michigan to be from mid-October to the first week of November. For updates, check the following resources:

Once you’ve set your paddling date, consider the increasingly shorter fall days when deciding your start time. You’ll want to make sure you have plenty of daylight to take in the glory of autumn from a kayak or paddleboard.

Choose Your Route. On the Paw Paw River, you can launch just outside downtown St. Joseph for an easy paddle through the Harbor Shores golf community and the outlying wetlands, all bursting with seasonal color. You can find a list of other great local paddling options from the Southwestern Michigan Tourist Council here. For destinations all over the state, check out this Michigan Water Trails map.

PaddlingWhat Are You Paddling? Whether you rent, buy, or borrow a kayak or paddleboard for your fall color tour, there are options out there to suit all ages and skill levels. For beginners, sit-on-top-style kayaks are especially stable and user-friendly – perfect for taking in the foliage at a relaxing pace. Paddleboarding newbies will want boards that are on the bigger, thicker side; the narrower ones are geared more toward racing. For guidance on equipment size and other specifics, ask for help when you’re ready to buy or rent.

Be Prepared. You’ll need more than just a kayak, paddleboard, and paddle to hit the water in the autumn. Make sure you also have:

  • A properly fitting U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket. (Click here for more information on selecting the right personal flotation device.)
  • A signaling device, such as a whistle. Check your life jacket, as it may already have an attached whistle.
  • A “float plan,” a record of your planned trip. This can be as simple as an email to someone not paddling with you that lists your launch and landing points, how to reach you or other members of your group, and when you plan to return.
  • Water and snacks.
  • A waterproof headlamp or flashlight in case you lose track of time on those shorter fall days.
  • Appropriate clothing for autumn weather. Be aware of the water temperature and dress accordingly with layers you can peel on or off, plus an extra set of clothes in a dry bag. Remember, cotton should be avoided – once it gets wet, it will sap the heat from your body. For especially chilly temperatures, a wet/dry suit preserves body heat in case of sudden immersion.
  • A waterproof container or bag for items such as your phone and extra set of clothes. 

Remember, with all water sports, safety is key. Be sure you have the appropriate safety equipment, are prepared for fall weather conditions, and have proper instruction. Better yet, opt for a guide to make the most of your autumn color tour. Happy paddling!

Resources for Autumn Paddling


Our guest blogger, Erin Gerard, is the group outings coordinator for Third Coast Paddling, a paddle sports retail store in Benton Harbor which offers hourly kayak and stand-up paddleboard rentals throughout Southwest Michigan. For more information, visit

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