Why Water Trails are Better Than Land Trails

A totally unbiased analysis by a kayaker with a disability.

by Mike Passo, Executive Director, American Trails

I’m starting a movement... Land-lubbers have dominated the trails discussion for too long. No more, I say! Did Lewis and Clark choose to follow game trails to connect to the Pacific Ocean? NO! What was the most miserable and disheartening part of their epic journey? It was walking over the Continental Divide! Americans knew the score back then. Why walk when we can paddle?

Since those heady days, we Americans have lost our way. We have turned to the land as our primary means of travel and recreation. We need to return to the right path... the wet path... and, coincidentally, an extremely accessible path!

photo credit: Doug Alderson
Kayak on Big Pine Island Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail, by Doug Alderson

Kayak on Big Pine Island Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail, by Doug Alderson

I am a person with a disability, and I used to own a sea kayak tour company that operated in the Pacific Northwest. I have conducted extensive, pain-staking research on the subject and have discovered the following absolute truisms:

  1. Kayaking is more fun than walking.
  2. A water trail is already there. You just need to provide the means to utilize it.
  3. Canoeing is more fun than walking.
  4. Water trails are cheaper to build (refer to #2 above).
  5. Rafting is more fun than walking.
  6. Water trails are cheaper to maintain (refer to #2 above).
  7. Sailing is more fun than walking.
  8. Your trail is one continuous overlook. Forget building a long winding trail up to the highest point in the park so you can see an expansive view of the ocean. Just float out on that ocean and it’s one big overlook experience.
  9. Floating on an inner-tube is more fun than walking.
  10. Water trails are more accessible: for the most part, water seeks to be flat. You can't say that of your local river bluff.

Now let’s talk finances. Let’s use a completely unbiased case study. Let’s say we wanted to run a trail the entire length of the Mississippi River. By land, this trail would cost approximately $138 Septillion,
and would take 248 years to complete. By contrast, a water trail already exists the entire length. We would need to construct around 176 launches at $20,000 each, and about 400 campsites at $2,500 each, for a total cost of $4,520,000. I’ve known three miles of boardwalk to cost about that much money.

So, if you are having trouble getting your family up and down the steep trail down to Phantom Ranch in the heart of the Grand Canyon, or up and down the bluffs in Winona, MN, consider giving them a boat and personal flotation device, find a nice gentle access point to the water, and let them follow nature’s best, most accessible, readymade trail to where they want to go... the water trail!


The Cascadia Marine National Recreation Trail is a beautiful water trail off the northwest coast of Washington State. Located in Mike’s back yard, it provides him and thousands of other visitors a uniquely accessible and beautiful boating experience. The Marine Trail consists of over 50 designated campsites, as well as hundreds of public and private launch areas— many of which provide excellent levels of accessibility.

About the Author

Mike Passo is the Executive Director of American Trails. Mike has also served as the Executive Director of the Professional Trailbuilders Association and the owner and operator of a sea kayak outfitter called Elakah Expeditions. Mike has led groups of all backgrounds, ages and abilities on sea kayak expeditions in the San Juan Islands of Washington, Vancouver Island in British Columbia, and in Glacier Bay, Alaska. Mike has conducted an extensive study of outdoor developed areas nationwide to determine the cost implications of construction according to proposed Americans with Disabilities Act standards, and a Congressional study on improving access to outdoor recreational activities on federal land. He has a B.S. in Recreation Resource Management from the University of Wisconsin—Madison, including three years’ coursework in Landscape Architecture and Civil Engineering. He has presented on Universal Design and Programming at several national conferences and served on the Board of Directors of American Trails since 2000. His love of the outdoors and his own paraplegia has given him a great interest in the creation of an accessible outdoor environment that does not ruin the characteristics and value of that environment.

Contact: [email protected]

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