Whatever floats your boat: 13 ways to have family fun on Pittsburgh-area rivers and lakes

Above photo courtesy of Coal Tubin’ Adventures.

There’s nothing quite as relaxing on a hot summer day than plopping into an inner tube and floating lazily down a river — or as exhilarating as splashing through a white-water run. Pittsburgh-area rivers and lakes will take you to both extremes, plus offer cool experiences in between with kayaking, canoeing and even pontoon boat rentals.

Here are some of the best ways to take advantage of our waterways:

Photo courtesy of Kayak Pittsburgh.

1. Kayak Pittsburgh

We love watching those bright yellow kayaks bobbing in the Allegheny River. Find them through Kayak Pittsburgh at North Park Boat House, James Sharp Landing in Sharpsburg and also the pop-up location on the North Shore Trail below Acrisure Stadium. A 15-minute lesson is all you need to get started on the water. Kids as young as 3 can paddle in a tandem kayak at North Park and Sharpsburg. Once kids reach age 13, they can navigate a solo kayak. The North Park location also offers canoe and pedal-boat rentals, along with stand-up paddleboarding. (If you haven’t tried paddleboarding, it’s worth exploring. It’s a whole other experience to stand tall and glide across the water.) Venture Outdoors also offers special river tours and classes. Be sure to reserve your spots in advance to prevent disappointment.

Photo courtesy of Pale Whale Canoe Fleet.

2. Pale Whale Canoe Fleet, Cook Forest State Park

The Pale Whale Canoe Fleet offers options of tubes, kayaks or canoes on the Clarion River. The shuttle transfers you and your choice of vessel upriver, then points you downstream for an easy one-way float or paddle. Kids as young as 2 can join in the family fun. (Even your well-behaved dog can come along!) Bring a waterproof container with juice boxes and snacks, then stop on the shore halfway down for a mini picnic under the towering trees that line the river. Water shoes will help you on the slippery river rocks. Those who love fishing can bring equipment to entice smallmouth bass, trout and walleye. This 10-mile part of the Clarion River averages just two to three feet deep and is classified as “flat water to class 1,” making it a terrific option for families just beginning to canoe. Check Pale Whale’s Facebook page for current river conditions before heading out.

3. Coal Tubin’ Adventures, Johnstown

This outfitter brings adventure to every level of adrenaline junkie in water that promises to be “plus- or minus- 1 degree from refreshing.” The shuttle transports your family to the drop-off point where you’ll head downriver. Kids from 5 years can go River Tubin’ with 1:1 adult supervision. Pack a cooler and rent a “cooler tube” to allow your lunch and drinks to float alongside you. Life jackets are required for those 12 and younger. Bring your own or rent them. Other escapades at Coal Tubin’ Adventures include Whitewater Tubin’ that’s described as “tubing on steroids.” People 12 and older can paddle on an inflatable kayaking guided tour, where you can expect to get drenched while navigating through big rapids. Or go as a group on a white water rafting tour accompanied by a guide who will instruct rafters on how to paddle properly through the rapids. It’s a breathtaking voyage! Coal Tubin’s Facebook page offers schedule updates and river conditions.

4. Crescent Bay Boat Rentals, Moraine State Park

Those who prefer calmer waters and staying dry can head to Lake Arthur Moraine State Park. Crescent Bay Boat Rentals offers everything from single kayaks to 14-person pontoon boats. The flotilla includes rowboats, canoes and stand-up paddleboards. The pontoon boats can accommodate group with sizes starting at five people. Each includes cushioned seating, a table and a sunshade. The 15-foot tillers are perfect for a day of fishing, while the kayaks offer more of a workout.

5. Beachfront swim, Moraine State Park

Combine your boating excursion with a picnic and swim. Head to Pleasant Valley Beach on the South Shore or Lakeview Beach on the North Shore for a quick cool down. You’ll find plenty of picnic tables under shady trees. Spread a tablecloth and unpack your family’s favorite goodies for lunch. Then, relax the day away.

6. Meadow Run Natural Waterslides Area, Ohiopyle

The Meadow Run Natural Waterslides Area in Ohiopyle State Park is a favorite stop for frequent visitors. The price is right – free – and the fun factor is high. You want to be cautious, of course, and check with the local experts about water depth and speed, which can vary following heavy rains. It would be best if smaller children slide through the chute within the arms of Mom or Dad. The 300-million-year-old Homewood Sandstone creek bed has been smoothed down over centuries to provide a geology lesson for kids along with the two waterslides. While you’re in the area, hike the three-mile Meadow Run Trail, then cool off again in the river slide. Nearby Cucumber Falls is worth a stop to fully appreciate the natural beauty of Pennsylvania.

Photo courtesy of Moraine Preservation Fund.

7. Preston’s Pearl, Moraine State Park

Chill out and let the professionals do the driving on a cruise on Preston’s Pearl, operated by the Moraine Preservation Fund. Learn about Lake Arthur’s natural history and beautiful scenery. The enclosed pontoon boat boasts a second-floor open-air deck for viewing wildlife along the way. Weekend cruises operate at 1 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Reserve your spot for dinner cruises, brunch and pizza cruises, which book up quickly. Watch the organization’s Facebook page for specialty cruises and events.

Photo courtesy of White Water Adventures.

8. Whitewater Rafting, Ohiopyle State Park

The Youghiogheny River, winding through the Laurel Highlands, provides the backdrop for adventures. The Yough is divided into three parts, each with its own personality, from class I calm to Class V excitement. The Lower Yough is famous as the busiest section of whitewater east of the Mississippi River. These outfitters offer excursions for all three levels:

Laurel Highlands River Tours organizes family-friendly class 1 whitewater tours on the Middle Yough with kids as young as 4 years. The outfitter regularly hosts Scout and school groups, too. Those who feel a little wary can opt for having a guide in their raft to ease anxiety. There are enough bumpy patches to keep the excitement level up. All family tours include a guide escort, plus a riverside snack. Adrenaline junkies 16 and older can plan for the dam release dates when the Upper Yough ramps up to class IV and V rapids. Other fun includes outings on inflatable duckies and PaddleCats for ages 12 and older.

Ohiopyle Trading Post and River Tours provides family whitewater rafting along the relatively calm Middle Yough where rafters ages 4 and older can relax and take a break to swim along the nine miles of moving water. The Lower Yough is a great place for beginning whitewater rafters from age 12 and older. These guided tours include rafting instructions, plus background on the area’s natural history.

At White Water Adventures, the most popular tour is the Lower Yough Classic Rafting Tour. Ages 10 and older traverse the Class III-IV rapids for 3-4 hours along the 7 ½-mile stretch. Never fear, there’s a guide in each raft to help participants navigate through the white water and around the boulders. The Family-Friendly Middle Yough Whitewater Rafting Tour is a guided activity for ages 5 and older, who will be exhilarated by the teasing rapids along the mostly lazy river.

Along with the usual rafting outings, Wilderness Voyageurs offers a Middle Yough Pedal and Paddle option. Pedal along a portion of the Allegheny Passage on a trail that leads directly to the launch area. Then, hop aboard a raft or inflatable duckie for the downstream float. The minimum age is 8 years. Other outings include stand-up paddleboarding, plus fly fishing lessons and four levels of kayaking instructions.

Photo courtesy of Steel City Rowing.

9. Steel City Rowing Club

Kids from ages 11 to 18 can participate in Steel City Rowing Club’s year-round programs for middle school and high school students. Beyond learning teamwork and discipline, Steel City provides training that can lead to college scholarships. In just the past few years, more than 40 kids won scholarships to top universities. The Steel City Juniors Team has traveled around the world to represent the USA in countries including Germany, Spain and China.

Steel City Rowing offers summer camps that run through Aug. 4. Campers explore the wildlife along the Allegheny River between the Highland Park and Turnpike bridges. Campers kayak and canoe to Sycamore Island, looking for crayfish and mussels for signs of a healthy ecosystem. There’s also time set aside for swimming.

Photo courtesy of Raccoon Creek Boat Rentals.

10. Raccoon Creek Boat Rental, Raccoon Creek State Park

Boat rentals here include the usual kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards — but how about a hydrobike? These pedal-powered water bikes resemble two kayaks held together and topped with a cross between an elliptical exercise machine and a stationary bike. Raccoon Creek Boat Rental offers them as singles or doubles to add to the fun workout. Mini pontoon boats are available for small parties. And rowboats with trolling motors work for those in search of that secret fishing spot.

Photo courtesy of Gateway Clipper Fleet.

11. Gateway Clipper Fleet, Station Square                                                   

The whole family will enjoy the one-hour sightseeing tour aboard the Gateway Clipper Fleet. The narration includes a bit of history with a fun narrative that points out places of interest along all three rivers.

Little ones will love the kid-centered voyages that star some of their favorite characters. The youngest are likely to choose the Trolls and Pup Patrol cruise. Kids who can’t get enough of Spiderman, the Hulk or Superman will have a blast on the Superhero Cruise. Fairytale princesses have their time on the river, too. The kid cruises include interactive play, face painting, DJ dance party, games and balloons. Check the calendar here.

Photo courtesy of Venture Outdoors

12. Free fishing, North Shore Riverwalk

From 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Wednesdays through the end of September, kids can try their hand at fishing with free sessions with the TriAnglers lunchtime group. Venture Outdoors provides the gear and bait, along with instructors who will help newbies with their equipment. The sessions are free but registration is required to save your space. Lines are cast on the North Shore Riverwalk near the Water Steps.

13. Rivers of Steel Explorer Riverboat, North Shore

Add a bit of education to an outing on the Rivers of Steel Explorer Riverboat. The Uniquely Pittsburgh Sightseeing Tour hits all three rivers, offering a 90-minute excursion that answers the question of what makes Pittsburgh someplace special. All proceeds from sightseeing tours help to underwrite Rivers of Steel’s STEM-based education programs for students throughout the area. (Note: Ticket sales are currently suspended while a system issue is being addressed. Watch for the return of the Explorer Riverboat tours coming soon.)

Want more outdoor fun? Don’t miss our guides to local outdoor swimming pools and super-cool indoor swimming pools, and also our big summer events guide. Get the scoop on free movies in the parks and the local farms where you can pick your own berries.

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