By Bruce Claflin, Scuttlebutt Magazine

For many who enjoy our area waters, a day on the boat is just that, a day on the boat. We may take several outings on the boat in one day. We may go out to lunch, back to the dock, and then back out for dinner or a sunset cruise. For many others, boating has a different call. Boating calls us to travel, far and sometimes wide, as we would when taking a cross country road trip. This is what sets the spark to the soul for many of us, to find what lies around the next bend. Boaters in general, and certainly boaters in our area love the thought of making the Great Loop.

The Great Loop is a system of waterways that encompasses the eastern portion of the United States and part of Canada. It is made up of both natural and man-made waterways, including the Atlantic and Gulf Intracoastal Waterways, the Great Lakes, the Rideau Canal, and the Mississippi and Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway (Tenn-Tom).

The entire loop is approximately 6,000 miles. It’s not a trip for the timid, nor one to make without a great deal of advance planning. It’s a trip that depending on your traveling speed, can be done in as little as a couple of months. Ideally, most boaters take the better part of a year to complete the loop, allowing for downtime due to weather and time spent exploring the areas you are traveling through. While there is no prescribed route or single itinerary used in making the Loop, most boaters in the Midwest choose a traditional path. Boaters generally traverse the Great Lakes and Canadian waterways in summer, travel down the Mississippi or the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway in fall, cross the Gulf of Mexico and Florida in the winter, and travel up the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway in the spring.

The route from the Twin Cities area is a very well known route and one that has been used for many years. Just take the St. Croix river into the Mississippi River and go with the flow south. While a few people stay on the Mississippi all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, most folks on the Loop choose to exit at the Tennessee River to avoid heavy barge traffic on the lower Mississippi. This path leads to the Tennessee-Tombigbee(Tenn-Tom) Waterway, which also flows to the Gulf. They follow this path to Mobile Bay, and then on to the Florida Keys. Boaters then are able to utilize Gulf intracoastal waterways and the Atlantic Intracoastal waterway on their way back up north. The Atlantic Intracoastal will take you to the Chesapeake Bay then briefly back into the Atlantic to the Hudson River. The next leg takes you through the Erie Canal and onto the Great Lakes.

For those dreaming of making the loop, there is quite a list of resources out there to assist in the planning of your itinerary, including the website of the American Great Loop Cruisers Association at By visiting this site and others, you can plan a route that will be efficient and also provide any resources you may need to utilize along the way.

There are a couple of things one must know before heading out on any great adventure such as this one. You’ll want to spend some time doing research and also becoming familiar with the exercises you will face along the way. Knowledge of the locking through process will be extremely helpful to you should you decide to undertake the Great Loop. My advice, which I received from others, would be to practice this process close to home. Plan a trip from the Twn Cities area down to Lake Pepin and back. A few short trips should alleviate any trepidation about going through the locks and help you feel confident in the process moving forward. This will go a long way towards helping you complete the dream journey.

The first thing you will need before accepting the challenge of making the Great Loop is time. Even traveling 50 miles a day, it will still take at least 120 days to complete the loop and most probably more, depending on the weather and your own comfortable pace. I’ve talked with several people who have gone three quarters of the way around in one season and found storage along the Atlantic Coast. They then returned and completed the loop the following summer. You’ll also need a boat whose draft is less than 5 feet, or you’ll encounter dificulties in some of the Intracoastal Waterways.

Along the route you may also encounter bridges that will require clearance of 19 feet or less. This makes taking the route in a sailboat difficult, but not impossible. Since there are long uninhabited stretches along the route, your boat should have a cruising range of 500 miles between fill ups. While this is not even close to an exhaustive list of items to be aware of, it should begin to shape your thoughts around the types of things you need to consider. The best preparation you can do will be to arm yourself with the information you will need to complete a voyage such as this.

For those who want to plan this dream getaway, we offer a few of the many resources that are available to help you plan your voyage. The following websites will offer you assistance in planning your route and your trip:

You’ll find these websites very helpful in determining your Great Loop route, but I’d also suggest reading some of the many blogs that are also available about this trip. In these you can gain insights on the expected, the unexpected, and also the experiences of others. I find the blogs of others who have travelled the route are rich with cautionary tales and also ideas of what to see and do along the way. It’s said to be the trip of a lifetime, so I’d encourage folks to start by making a plan. There is a very vibrant community of ‘Loopers’ out there and like most boaters, they are always happy to share their knowledge to help others become more accomplished.

Remember that you are not alone out there. At any one time there are many boats on this route trying to accomplish the same end, and many service providers along the way to make sure that you can do it safely and trouble free. To those who have been thinking about making the Great Loop, we say you only live once. For others who have made a plan and are setting it in motion, we say Bon Voyage– and don’t forget to pick up your copy of Scuttlebutt.