Can You Take A Boat From Pittsburgh To New Orleans?

Blue and white pleasure boat on the Ohio River

It’s hard to imagine two places more different than Pittsburgh and New Orleans. But are these two cities connected? Can you take a boat from Pittsburgh to New Orleans?

You can take a boat from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. There are several commercial cruise operators who operate on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. You can even sail from Pittsburgh to New Orleans on your own boat, as long as you’re willing and able to make the 1,981-mile trip.

So what route would you take to go from Pittsburgh to New Orleans? Do you need a big boat? How big of a boat could you bring? Do you need licenses or permits to pass through different states? Read on to learn more about making this unique voyage.

Voyaging from Steel City to the Big Easy

Pittsburgh and New Orleans seem like they’re a world apart. Pittsburgh is an industrial city known for grit, determination, and steel. New Orleans is known for Jazz, Cajun food, Mardi Gras, and a colorful way of life. Both Pittsburgh and New Orleans were born on the water and are connected by the Ohio River and Mississippi River.

The Ohio River begins in Pittsburgh and flows roughly southwest for 981 miles to Cairo, Illinois, where it connects to the lower Mississippi River, which then flows for another 1,000 miles or so to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. So as long as you’re able to endure a long voyage, you can absolutely launch a boat in Pittsburgh and make your way to New Orleans.

Commercial River Cruises

One of the most popular ways to cruise from Pittsburgh to New Orleans is via riverboat. While the heyday of the riverboat has gone, a new market has opened up for luxury riverboat cruises. The MS Louisiane, for example, offers passengers a luxurious 14-day river cruise between Pittsburgh and New Orleans. 

Replica paddleboat on river with skyscrapers in background

However, apart from the Louisiane, very few operators directly connect Pittsburgh and New Orleans. It is conceivably possible to find passage to a city like Memphis and connect to New Orleans from there, but the logistics may get a little dicey. With all that in mind, it might be easier just to bring your own boat!

Bring Your Own Boat

While the Ohio and Mississippi are both formidable waterways, it is entirely possible to successfully navigate these rivers in something as small as a canoe or kayak. In addition, mariners with access to cabin cruisers, sailboats, or even pontoon boats could make the journey relatively easy.

If you do decide to bring your own vessel, be aware that both the Ohio and Mississippi rivers are used by large commercial vessels. Barges are an especially pernicious threat: while they may look slow and small, they are actually quite huge and can throw up a massive wake. So be prepared to deal with the presence of large vessels.

Locks on the Ohio River raise and lower boats

Another thing to plan for as you transit the river is the lock system. There are 19 locks between Pittsburgh and Cairo, Illinois, where the Ohio River meets the Mississippi. Be sure to familiarize yourself with the process for passing through the locks ahead of time.  

The locks along the Ohio River are 110 feet wide and 600 feet long. Therefore, unless your vessel is longer than 600 feet or wider than 110 feet, it will fit through the locks and can sail the river. This includes everything from canoes to powerboats, pontoon boats, sailboats, tugs, and yachts. Once you join the Mississippi River, there are no more locks.

State Boating Laws

While the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers are both federally controlled waterways, there is a legal concept called concurrent jurisdiction which means that some portions of federally regulated waterways are under the legal jurisdiction of states, counties, or cities.

One complication of navigating from Pittsburgh to New Orleans is that every state along the route has its own requirements for whether or not boaters can operate in their waters.

In general, you will need a boating safety certificate from a reputable operator, a state ID card, and any ownership or insurance documents you may need for your vessel. In addition, you’ll want to be sure you are very familiar with your vessel and experienced in both navigation and basic seamanship before attempting a long river voyage.

For the “rules of the road,” mariners should follow the U.S. Coast Guard’s guidelines.

Keystone Answers Fun Fact: The biggest vessel ever to sail the Mississippi River is the American Queen, a 213-stateroom, 420-foot-long paddle boat that cruises the lower Mississippi.

Pittsburgh to New Orleans: The River Route

The voyage from Pittsburgh to New Orleans takes you through an underappreciated but beautiful part of the United States. From Pittsburgh, the Ohio River bears northwest to Ohio, then turns south and defines the border between Ohio and West Virginia.

One of the best hidden gems along the Ohio River can be found in Marietta, Ohio. One of the nice things about Marietta is that it’s very walkable, so once you’re docked, you can easily explore downtown on foot.

Downtown Marietta is very friendly and is lined with plenty of fun local shops and restaurants. History buffs will love the town’s ancient ambiance and bounty of historical sites. You can even see an ancient Indian mound at the Mound Cemetery.

Paddle wheel boats at Smale Riverfront Park in Cincinnati, Ohio

After Marietta, the next major city along the Ohio River is Cincinnati. After you dock at the marina, you could head into town to check out some of Ohio’s best dining. Cincinnati is also home to a fabulous art museum, an Underground Railroad museum, and of course, a zoo.

If you prefer to be outdoors, there are a ton of wonderful parks in the city, including the beautiful 45-acre Smale Riverfront Park and the Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum.

The next major city along the Ohio River is Louisville, Kentucky. Louisville is home to about 783,000 people and has plenty of fun things to do. Bourbon enthusiasts will enjoy taking a Bourbon Tour or visiting one of the famous local distilleries. And who could forget about famous landmarks like Churchill Downs or the Louisville Slugger factory?

After Louisville, the river winds along the southern borders of Indiana and Illinois. One notable location is Cave-In-Rock, a tiny historical town in southern Illinois. Cave-In-Rock is home to a beautiful state park and is where the notorious river pirate Samuel Mason based his fleet of ne’er-do-wells. Don’t worry, though; there are no (known) pirates operating on the river today!

The sunsets on the Mississippi River, silhouetting a boater and a vehicular bridge

Soon enough, the Ohio River merges with the mighty Mississippi River at the city of Cairo, Illinois. From Cairo, the Mississippi rushes south, defining the borders of Tennessee, Missouri, and Arkansas.

The first stop on the Mississippi River is Memphis, Tennessee. After sailing the Ohio River and making your way along the oxbows and twists of the Mississippi, you’ll surely have a sailor’s appetite.

Memphis is home to some of the best barbecue in the world, often featuring complex and delectable dry rubs crafted over generations by local families. After you address your appetite, take a few hours (or even a few days) to explore this remarkable city.

From Memphis, the Mississippi River continues south. The next notable stop on your river journey will be Natchez, Mississippi. While it is a small town, Natchez is known for its beautiful architecture and resplendent southern scenery. It’s worth stopping in to check out the art galleries or get some real-life southern soul food.

The penultimate stop on the route from Pittsburgh to New Orleans is the city of Baton Rouge, the capital of Louisiana. Baton Rouge has a unique local culture that blends the Cajun and Creole traditions with diehard loyalty to the local colleges and their football teams. And as with any other exciting city, travelers will want to explore some of the excellent restaurants in the area.

Ornate iron railing and hanging baskets decorate a house in the French Quarter

After Baton Rouge, the Mississippi becomes broader and deeper and can accommodate large cargo vessels. From here on, mariners should be confident dealing with the wake from big ships. It is a short trip down the Mississippi to one of America’s best cities – New Orleans, Louisiana.

New Orleans is one of America’s most eccentric cities, and it is known for its fantastic music scene, delicious Creole food, and festivals – especially Mardi Gras! We could probably write an entire book on what to do in New Orleans, but we’d bet that thirsty mariners would like to enjoy a fine cocktail or some world-class food before heading out and exploring some of the cultural and entertainment options in the city.

Big Steel to the Big Easy

Boating from Pittsburgh to New Orleans is quite an adventure. Whether you save your pennies and take a luxurious river cruise or pack your camping gear and paddle downriver, you’re sure to see some amazing sights and learn a lot about middle America along the way. So pack some pierogies and get ready to celebrate with some Vieux Carre cocktails once you get to New Orleans – you’ll have earned it!

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I was born and raised in Pennsylvania; I love to travel, visit new destinations, explore unique locations, and meet great new people. However, sometimes, you don't need to travel far from home to find new adventures, so I decided now was the time to learn more about this great state I call home.