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America’s Most Scenic Small-Ship and River Cruises

Updated: Mar. 15, 2024

Looking for a cruise a bit closer to home? These American river cruises offer opportunities on tributaries, bays, lakes, and other waterways to explore a part of the country you might otherwise miss.

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Columbia and Snake Rivers
Courtesy American Queen Steamboat Company

Columbia and Snake Rivers

These nine-day American river cruises on the American Queen Steamboat Company’s American Empress sail from Vancouver, Washinton to Portland, Oregon and show you a glimpse at some of the most gorgeous scenery in the Pacific Northwest. From the paddle wheeler, you’ll get to see the dramatic waterfalls at the Columbia River Gorge, the pioneer town The Dalles, and sea lions and filming sites from the hit 1980s film, The Goonies in Astoria.

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SS Legacy
Courtesy UnCruise Adventures

Rivers of Wine Theme Cruise on the Columbia and Snake Rivers

These seven-night American river cruises on the UnCruise Adventure’s S.S. Legacy sail round trip out of Portland, Oregon cruising a similar route to American Empress but focusing on wine. A sommelier and guest wine expert sail with passengers for the week, serving as an onboard resource and hosting tastings. There are also wine tastings, vineyard tours, and wine cave tours in Columbia Gorge, Walla Walla, Red Mountain, Columbia Valley, and the Willamette Valley and guests get to taste old-vine varietals and wines from eco-cultivated vineyards. River cruises are also popular across the pond.

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Adventure Theme
Courtesy UnCruise Adventures

Adventure Theme Cruise on the Olympic Peninsula

Sailing round-trip out of Seattle through Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands on an elegant little yacht, this seven-night cruise on UnCruise Adventure’s Safari Quest includes kayaking, paddle boarding, and plenty of hikes. There are also opportunities to spot bald eagles, sea lions, and whales and to enjoy local seafood, including oysters and clams.

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American Duchess
Courtesy American Queen Steamboat Company

Upper Mississippi American Heartland Theme Cruise

This river cruise from Chicago to St. Louis is on American Queen Steamboat Company’s newest ship, the American Duchess, a paddle wheeler as majestic as her older sisters, with the same iconic red paddlewheel. You’ll see the towering skyscrapers of Chicago and get the perfect photo op of St. Louis’s famed arch. The focus of this cruise is American history, and you can see towns that were settled as trading posts by French explorers, visit the site of the first Lincoln-Douglas debate in Ottowa, Illinois, and check out places from Mark Twain’s writings in his hometown of Hannibal, Missouri. Want to learn even more of America’s backstory? Start with these 16 best cities for American history buffs.

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Queen of the Mississippi
Courtesy American Cruise Lines

Ohio River Cruise

These 11-day cruise tours on American Cruise Line’s Queen of the Mississippi travel from St. Louis to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania visiting Louisville, Kentucky and Cincinnati (among other towns) along the way. You’ll get a behind-the-scenes tour of Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, and tour the Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. In Cape Girardeau, you’ll see everything from Trail of Tears sites to Civil War battlefields. Best of all, expect plenty of bluegrass music and mint juleps along the way.

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Courtesy American Cruise Lines

Music Cruise on the Cumberland River

These seven-night American river cruises from Nashville to St. Louis also on American Cruise Line’s Queen of the Mississippi will take you to the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Grand Ole Opry, and the Johnny Cash Museum and then heads on to St. Louis for a celebration of blues music.

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Courtesy American Queen Steamboat Company

Mississippi River Bourbon Theme Cruise

Cruise up the Mississippi River from Memphis to Louisville on the American Queen Steamboat Company’s American Queen, with private tastings and cooking demos along the way, as well as lectures by historians. This special sailing, offered annually in July, also includes the opportunity to sample rare and vintage bourbons as well.

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Courtesy Blount Small Ship Adventures

Lake Michigan

On this eight-day cruise roundtrip out of Chicago on Blount Small Ship Adventures’s Grande Mariner, you’ll visit Mackinac Island, Michigan, home to historic homes and plenty of rocking chairs as well as Sturgeon Bay in Wisconsin’s Door County, where you’ll see lighthouses and plenty of yachts.

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Courtesy American Cruise Lines

Lower Mississippi from New Orleans to New Orleans

See—and eat—the highlights of New Orleans—from beignets to po’ boys—before setting sail on American Cruise Line’s America Song. You’ll head to Natchez and Vicksburg in Missouri for Civil War sites and St. Francisville and Houmas House, Louisiana for historic plantations with a stop in the middle in Baton Rouge to see the Louisiana State Museum and the capital buildings. Occasionally, the line also offers a food-themed cruise out of New Orleans, too.

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maine Windjammer
Courtesy Fred Leblanc/Maine Windjammer Association

Maine Coastal Cruises

Maine Windjammer Association’s Lewis R. French is a dramatic 21-passenger schooner that offers two- to six-night cruises in the summer and through the month of September out of the town of Camden, Maine. The schooner, which dates back to 1871 and is a National Historic Landmark, has no engine, and powers through Penobscot Bay just with the wind in its sails. You can help out with the sails, and watch for porpoises and eagles.

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MARTHA'S VINEYARD, MA, USA - JULY. 3, 2015: Carpenter Gothic Cottages with Victorian style, gingerbread trim in Wesleyan Grove, town of Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, USA.

Newport, Nantucket, and Martha’s Vineyard Cruise

This sailing yacht, the Arabella, may winter in the Caribbean, but it summers in the northeast, home of lobster rolls, lighthouses, and clambakes. The five-night sailings in July, August, and September let you travel to the area’s loveliest beaches under billowing white sails.

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Courtesy American Cruise Lines

Chesapeake Bay Cruise

This seven-night cruise on American Cruise Line’s Independence sails round-trip out of Baltimore to Oxford, St. Michael’s, and Annapolis, Maryland as well as Yorktown and Williamsburg, Virginia. You’ll visit coastal fishing villages and eat plenty of hard-shell blue crabs, and get to visit Baltimore’s famed aquarium.

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Courtesy American Cruise Lines

Hudson River Valley Fall Foliage Theme Cruise

This eight-day American river cruise on American Cruise Line’s American Constitution sails round-trip out of New York City before taking you to Hyde Park, the Catskills, and West Point as well as Sleepy Hollow, all in upstate New York. But in addition to the history in the region, the highlight of the cruise is easily the changing colors of the autumnal leaves.

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Lake Michigan
Courtesy Blount Small Ship Adventures

Savannah to Baltimore

Cruise one of our favorite 12-day American river cruises in the Southeast on Blount Small Ship Adventures’s Grand Mariner and you’ll spend your days exploring Beaufort by horse-drawn carriage and wander the cobblestone streets of Charleston, South Carolina as the port town of Annapolis. Read on to discover the best cruise to take every month of the year.