Two people kayak with the boston skyline

How To Paddle the Lower Charles River

There’s a reason this storied and scenic urban waterway is so popular. Launch a trip to experience some of the best sights and scenes in Boston.

Flowing 80 miles from Echo Lake in Hopkinton, Mass., northeast to the Atlantic waters of Boston Harbor, the Charles River is a true Boston-area asset. With mild current and a meandering course, it’s a paddling favorite that caters to crafts of every kind, from canoes and touring kayaks to SUPs and rowing shells. Coursing through 23 different communities and 33 lakes, the Charles offers plenty to paddle—notably the Lakes District, a 6-mile stretch above the Moody Street Dam in Waltham that’s a haven for canoeists; or miles of forested, uninterrupted river above the Silk Mill Dam in Newton—before working its way to Boston proper. There, it marks the city’s northern boundary, providing one of the most scenic sections of urban river in the country. And while it might have a history of past pollution, recent remediation efforts have greatly improved its water quality—all just a baseball’s throw away from Fenway Park.

The flip-side of such an incredible escape from the noise and bustle of the city is that the Lower Charles—defined as the section from the dam in Watertown to the brackish waters of Boston Harbor—is one of the world’s busiest recreational river sections. As paddling’s popularity has increased, you might have to dodge (depending on the time and location) everything from sailors and rowers to aquatic “duck boat” tour buses. Still, the company on the water is worth the access and scenery. Many consider the Lower Charles the waterway’s best option for paddling. Here, the river has little current, meaning no shuttle; simply paddle back to where you started.   

Paddling the Lower Charles

Bordering Boston to south and Watertown then Cambridge to the north, the Lower Charles is also flanked by a ribbon of parkland: the Charles River Reservation, administered by the Dept. of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), which includes the Esplanade greenspace that parallels the south bank of the river’s Lower Basin section with hiking and biking paths. (The reservation also extends approx. 10 miles upriver from the Watertown Dam to Riverdale Park in West Roxbury/Dedham.) Lined with boat houses for rowing and sailing, as well as additional riverside parks and paths, outdoor opportunities are packed along the 9.5-mile flatwater stretch of the Lower Charles, defined by four major sections: the quieter and narrower Upper Basin from the Watertown Dam downriver to Herter Park; the Middle Basin from Herter Park to the Boston University Bridge; the Lower Basin from there down to Science Park; and the New Charles River Basin from Science Park to the Charles River (Gridley) Locks.

Launch Spots

Canoeists, kayakers, and standup paddlers with their own equipment can launch from several locations, including Magazine Beach, a 17-acre park complete with a pool and outdoor gym; Herter Park, which also has lush gardens to stroll and playgrounds for the kids; and the DCR boat ramp, near the Watertown Yacht Club and Community Rowing Center. Another popular spot on the Lower Charles is the public dock at Kendall Square, where you can set off on a lively out-and-back. There’s parkland on both shores and plenty to take in, between the crew teams from the adjacent campuses of Harvard, M.I.T., Boston University, to the Boston skyline downstream. Hint: Winds tend to kick up in the afternoon, meaning harder paddling if you’re heading into it as well as having to dodge sailboats.

Safety and Etiquette

Power boaters use the river’s center channel and certain bridge arches. So don’t stop under bridges, and stay right if you’re a slower paddler, allowing faster boats—including sailboats, motorboats and rowing sculls—to pass toward the center. If paddling the busy lower basin where rowing and sailing races are held, also review the traffic pattern map.  

Guide Services

Charles River Canoe & Kayak offers guided tours, from moonlight canoe cruises to a “barbecue” kayak tour, as well as boat storage ($100/month) and kayak, SUP and canoe rentals throughout the Boston area, including five outposts on the Charles.  

Dragon Boating

Want to paddle with a team? Consider hopping on a dragon boat, a colorful craft originating in Hong Kong—they’ve been in the area since 1979 and regularly compete on a 500-meter course. Several clubs offer introductory paddles and memberships, with the Boston Dragon Boat Festival occurring annually every spring with as many as 50 teams.  


Paddle right up to Commonwealth Cambridge in Kendall Square, located directly next to the dock with outdoor seating complete with Belgium school chairs. Hint: Try the Once in a Blue Mule cocktail to celebrate your paddle outing, and replenish those carbs with a Crispy RI Calamari appetizer and CW Burger with bacon, cheddar, caramelized onions and coveted “secret” sauce.  

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.