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Spotlight: The “Great Loop” — Where Boaters can Circumnavigate Eastern North America

Spotlight: The “Great Loop” — Where Boaters can Circumnavigate Eastern North America

“Loopers” travel 5,000 to 7,500 miles (8,047 to 12,070 km) depending on the route

Erie Canal Boating along the Erie Canal, part of the Great Loop. (Gladys Buzzell)

What You’ll Find

The Great Loop is a continuous waterway you can traverse which includes the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, the Great Lakes, Canadian Heritage Canals and inland rivers of America's heartland. Complete the journey and you will become an official “Looper.”

Getting There

Starting from Chicago, it's best to go south in a counter-clockwise direction so you can take advantage of the river currents that run into the Mississippi River. While a few people stay on the Mississippi all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, most choose to exit at the Tennessee River to avoid heavy barge traffic on the larger waterway. This route leads to the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, which also flows to the Gulf.

Regardless of which southbound route you choose, just relax and float downstream until you get to the warm waters of the Gulf. From there, cruise east on the Gulf's Intracoastal Waterway. Next, head northbound on the Intracoastal Waterway to New York City. From the Big Apple, it's a straight shot up the Hudson River to the fabled Erie Canal. Finally, head west across to the Great Lakes back to Chicago!

Make Sure You

When planning your trip, search Recreation.gov to identify and discover national parks, forests, national marine sanctuaries, national estuarine research reserves and even campgrounds, along the Great Loop.

Try This

Along the way, take the tram to the top of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri.

Go bird watching at Delta National Wildlife Refuge in New Orleans or Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Florida. Dive or snorkel at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in southern Florida; bike or hike in the Frances Marion National Forest near Charleston, South Carolina.

Swim, observe wild horses and make a camping reservation at Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland or check out the Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve in New Jersey; or the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. Find out more about the region’s history at the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center in the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary as you head through Lake Huron.

Don’t Forget

To do the Loop you’ll need a great amount of time, a boat with less than a five foot (1.52m) draft to get you down those inland waterways and, of course, NOAA nautical charts and a NOAA radio to stay tuned to local weather conditions. Read our article about Boating Safety to help you stay safe on the water.

Get Started

Many “Loopers” have written books and created videos documenting their experiences on the Great Loop, many of which can be found online. Stop by your local library to get started researching and mapping this adventure of a lifetime!