Case Studies of Water Trail Impacts on Rural Communities

Benefits studied:
Uses studied:
Region: ,
Place: Lake County (MN), Vernon County (WI), Martin County (NC)


This study found that across three communities in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Carolina, water trails have created a destination for non-local paddlers interested in multi-day trips. Communities are able to capture this economic opportunity only if businesses are immediately on the water or easily accessed via trail or shuttle, and if there are businesses that cater to paddlers, such as restaurants, lodging and camping, and shuttle and rental services.


This study is useful for communities interested in an overview of the factors that contribute to water trails that are appealing destinations for users and productive economic engines for locals. Readers should keep in mind that the economic impact figures are drawn from previous studies and should be interpreted as very approximate.


This study analyzes the impact of water trails in three rural communities: Lake County, Minnesota; Vernon County, Wisconsin; and Martin County, North Carolina.

Trail Type

This study included Lake Superior Water Trail (MN), the Kickapoo River Water Trail (WI), and the Roanoke River Paddle Trail and Camping System (NC).

A water trail is similar to a land-based trail, comprised of a route with access points. A destination water trail maintains designated access points as well as campsites or other overnight lodging opportunities strategically located along the trail. Water trails are intended for human-powered craft such as canoes and kayaks, although other users are not prohibited. The water trails studied here can encompass whitewater or flat water, saltwater or freshwater, including lakes, rivers, streams, intertidal sounds, bays, or the ocean shoreline.


This study’s purpose is to evaluate whether non-motorized aquatic recreation can be used as a strategy for rural development.  This report is a resource for the National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance program staff; community leaders; partnering agencies; and project coordinators interested in water trail development. This was an unpublished Master’s thesis.


Water trails can be beneficial components of rural communities, contributing to a sense of stewardship and community pride as well as economic benefits. The number and success of retail and service businesses increase as the community builds a reputation as a paddling destination. This can be bolstered through events, regional and state-level coordination along the length of the trail, and engaged local volunteer organizations.

A water trail can become crowded during peak use times, and land values may increase, becoming too expensive for locals. Adjacent landowners are also often concerned about trespassing, but in the three trails studied, trespassing has not become an issue because legal access points and public land are designated and clearly signed.

The communities studied have benefitted from paddle trails:

  • Lake Superior Water Trail (MN, no year reported): Trip spending totals $106,191 annually with an estimated 3,078 outings a year. The typical LSWT kayaker spends $34.53 per day.
  • Kickapoo River Water Trail (WI, 1999): Expenditures from the 16,000 canoeists increased by almost 300 percent from 1995, and non-local canoeists generated about $1,2 million of new spending in the Kickapoo area during 1999 and contributed to a total of 45 local jobs.
  • Roanoke River Paddle Trail (NC, no year reported): There are approximately 2,220 outings per year on this trail, with an annual direct economic impact of $193,695. The average paddler on the Roanoke River spends $87.25 per trip (not per day).


This paper presents findings from interviews and summarizes the information from existing studies, reports, and surveys done by local, state, and federal agencies, universities, business trade groups, recreational and environmental advocacy groups.


Johnson, L. 2002. Case Studies of Water Trail Impacts on Rural Communities (Unpublished Master’s Thesis). University of Oregon.