American Oceans

The Great Loop: Everything You Need to Know

Have you ever heard of the Great Loop and wondered what it was referring to?

The Great Loop makes for an excellent boating adventure, but it is going to require a lot of time and energy in order to make it through it.

The only thing that is really essential to take part in the Great Loop for yourself is a boat, other than this, you are pretty much good to go.

Small Yacht sailing on the great loop

However, it is a lengthy journey that will require lots of supplies, and you will need to be prepared to be on the water for a long time.

In this article, we are going to answer all of the questions that you might have about the Great Loop, so you can decide for yourself if this could be your next great adventure.

It might not be for everyone, which is why it is so important to know exactly what it entails before you head out.

What is the Great Loop?

The Great Loop is a continuous waterway that recreational mariners are able to travel. Along the journey, you will pass through parts of the Atlantic, Gulf Intracoastal Waterways, the Great Lakes, Canadian Heritage Canals, and the inland rivers of America’s heartland.

Anyone that manages to complete this journey is then labelled a ‘Looper’.

The Great Loop is a year-long and almost 6000-mile journey through the eastern United States and Canada’s interconnected water passages.

The journey will take boaters counterclockwise from the Gulf and Atlantic Intracoastal Waterways to the Erie Canal, Great Lakes, Canadian Heritage Canals, and the Mississippi and Tennessee Rivers.

aerial view of the mississippi river
The Mississippi River

Along the way, you will pass through 15 states and two Canadian provinces.

Where is the Great Loop?

The Great Loop is a 6,000 mile system of waterways that encompasses the eastern portion of the United States and part of Canada.

Map of the Great Loop

It is made up of natural and man-made waterways, and you will be taken through beautiful scenery from many parts of America. 

If you were to start in Chicago, you can then continue south in a counter-clockwise direction to take advantage of the river currents that run into the Mississippi River.

Some people will choose to stay on the Mississippi all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, but the majority of people tend to exit at the Tennessee River to avoid heavy barge traffic on the larger waterway.

This path will take you to the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, which also flows to the Gulf.

It doesn’t really matter too much which Southern route you decide to take, as either way, you will be able to float downstream to the warmer waters of the Gulf and explore the National Marine Sanctuary.

You will then be able to head east on the Gulf’s Intracoastal Waterway. The next stop on your trip will be the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Once you have made it there, you can travel north along the Intracoastal Waterway and head to the Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary, before continuing north on the Intracoastal to New York City.

From there, you will continue to head north on the Hudson to the Erie Canal, and then head west to the Great Lakes. The final length of the trip is back to where you started in Chicago.

When it is put like this, it doesn’t sound like a time-consuming adventure, but you should know that this is a lengthy journey.

What is the Lowest Bridge On the Great Loop?

Everyone should be aware of the fact that no matter what route you take to cruise the Great Loop, the lowest bridge that you will encounter is 19’ 6”.

This bridge is officially charted at 19.7-feet at MLW, in order to cruise the great loop, you will need to be able to pass under this normally 19’6’’ fixed bridge.  

There are many lower bridges along the way, but this is the lowest fixed bridge that every boater must pass under. The other bridges can be avoided with careful planning, but this one canot.

All of the possible routes will lead you to this bridge at some point or another, and there is no other way to go around it.

This bridge is located at Mile 300.6 on the Chicago Sanitary Ship Canal, and it is the only waterway link from the Great Lakes to the Illinois, Mississippi. If you are unable to clear this bridge, your only option is to turn around and go back.

If you are able to clear this bridge, you are pretty much good to go anywhere on the Great Loop’s most popular routes apart from 2 of them.

If you are able to clear 17’, then you will be able to cruise through downtown Chicago, and if you are able to clear a 15’6’’ fixed bridge, then you can cruise the full-length of the Erie Canal.

If you cannot clear one or both of these, then you will need to find an alternative route.

How Many Boats Do the Great Loop Each Year?

Even though this is an exciting adventure to take part in, not many people know about it. This is why less than 200 people complete the Great Loop every year.

Most of the people that take on this journey are those that are retired, but this is slowly changing due to more families taking up the challenge.

How Many Locks Are on the Great Loop?

There are just over 150 locks on the great loop, but the amount that you encounter will depend on which route that you take.

If this is your first time encountering a lock, you should inform the lock master, as they will be able to talk you through the process and make sure that you don’t get into trouble.

You should make sure to keep your lines free and untangled, and you should also never cleat a line on board while locking.

The boat will need to be able to rise and fall with the water level in the lock. You will need to hold the lines with your hands, which is why you should wear gloves to keep them protected.

You will also need to shut down your engine once you have managed to secure your boat in the lock. You will usually follow the first in, first out approach, unless you are told otherwise by the lock master.

How Long Does it Take to Complete the Great Loop?

It can take varying lengths of time to complete the Great Loop, but it will generally take about a year to complete the journey from start to finish.

This route is typically seasonal, as it is wise to be on the Great Lakes when it is warmer, and in Florida through the winter. 

Lots of loopers will choose to spend the spring going up the east coast, the summer in the Great Lakes, the fall on the inland rivers, and the winter in Florida.

Some people will even take multiple years to complete the trip if they want to stop in the places that they are passing through and make the most out of their visit.

What is the Largest Boat You Can Take on the Great Loop?

The largest boat that you can take on the Great Loop is around 90 feet in length. You will need to use your common sense when it comes to the length of the boat, especially when it comes to safety.

However, physical length restrictions will include 90 feet on the Trent-Severn Canal and Canada’s Heritage canals, and 300 feet in the US.

The average boat size that is taken on this journey is around 36 feet in length, but most people will avoid taking a boat that is longer than 46 feet.

You will need to consider the entire route of the Great Loop when it comes to choosing the size of boat that you want to take.

You should also know that many Marinas along the Great Loop cannot accommodate a vessel that is over 42-feet in length.

As well as this, not every Marina will provide slips for vessels that are over 36-feet. It is also worth considering the fact that boats over 42 feet are going to cost more throughout the journey.

Ultimately, it is up to you to decide what size vessel you are going to take for the trip, but you will need to consider all of the potential deciding factors before you come to making your decision.


  • Hi I am from the UK a very inspiring video, very informative. Ok you have me, I am very interested . Is it possible to charter a suitable boat for the whole trip or a leg of the loop, starting at one destination and leaving the boat at another? I am an experienced sail boat owner in the UK, I have been looking for this type of adventure for a long time it sounds fantastic.I can’t see me doing it this year but poss next year when hopefully things get back to normal.

    • It was a great journey. We did it twice on a 50′ Carver. Read “Reflections on Two Loop” on WhatYachtToDo under About Us.

  • This guide looks like it will provide valuable information and insights for anyone interested in exploring the Great Loop on the American oceans. It’s great that you are sharing this with your readers!