6 Overnight Paddling Adventures in Virginia

New River. Photo Billy Bowling

Virginia sits right smack in the middle of the U.S. East Coast. It is an expansive state hosting diverse paddling opportunities including everything from mountainous valleys surrounding the New or Shenandoah rivers to the far-reaching fingers of the Chesapeake Bay’s snaking tidal estuaries. The sheer length of these waterways — not to mention the added benefit of communities bent on recreation continually increasing public access — makes for an extensive list of worthy overnight destinations. Here are six of the Old Dominion state’s top trips to get you started.

New River Water Trail
McCoy – Glen Lyon, VA

Older than the mountains themselves, the New River courses northwest through the Appalachians of southwestern Virginia on a journey toward the Mississippi. Thirty-seven of these miles cut across Giles County, which has established them as the New River Water Trail. Paddlers can find access to a number of different options thanks to eight public launches. On the river you’ll find everything from flatwater float stretches to ledge-drop rapids ranging Class I-III, as well as heralded smallmouth bass fishing. Private campgrounds offer riverside camp options, but many paddlers on the New just pull up on one of the islands dotting the ancient watercourse.

James River. Photo courtesy Botetourt County Tourism.

Upper James River Water Trail
Craig Creek – Horseshoe Bend, VA

The James River travels east 340 miles across the entire state of Virginia, collecting some 15,000 miles of tributaries en route to the Chesapeake Bay. In the early state of the river, flowing from the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Upper James River Water Trail provides 64 miles of waterway to explore, surrounded by forested mountainsides and rolling farmlands. The 13 miles between Craig Creek and Horseshoe Bend offer a remote, high-quality Class I stretch designated as a Virginia Scenic River, and can be combined with reaches up- or downstream to cover more of the James. Primitive dispersed camping is available along the shores of bordering national forest.

South Fork of the Shenandoah River
Bixler Bridge – Bentonville, VA

The South Fork of the Shenandoah makes an appearance on almost any bucket list of eastern paddling destinations. The 28-mile stretch of clear, clean river between Bixler Bridge and Bentonville sandwiches paddlers in a river valley between Shenandoah National Park to the east and Massanutten Mountain to the west. Public land abounds along the Shenandoah’s western shore, providing primitive, dispersed camping in the George Washington National Forest.

Great Dismal Swamp Virginia Paddling Kayak Primordial
The Great Dismal Swamp. Photo: Flickr user U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region

Great Dismal Swamp
Great Dismal Swamp Canal – Lake Drummond, VA

A vast 112,000 acres of desolate woods and wetlands make up the near-coastal enclave of the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. The main attraction for paddlers is Lake Drummond, 3,000 acres of dark tannic water filled with the haunting silhouettes of cypress trees. From the boat launch on the Great Dismal Swamp Canal it’s a four-mile paddle against slow-moving water up a feeder canal to reach the outlet of Lake Drummond. Here you will also find lavish first-come, first-serve camping courtesy of the US Army Corps of Engineers. It’s best to visit the Great Dismal in the cooler months, absent the insects that equally enjoy this swampy biome.

Rappahannock River
Kelly’s Ford – Mott’s Run, VA

The 25 miles of undisturbed river corridor between Kelly’s Ford and Mott’s Run offer paddlers a popular overnight trip just an hour from Washington, D.C. This section of the Rappahannock is largely a Class I float through woodlands of the Virginia Piedmont, ending just a few miles upstream of the tidal mark in Fredricksburg. The city of Fredricksburg owns much of the land on this stretch, and welcomes river users to set up camp just about anywhere without signage to the contrary.

Back Bay
Little Island Park – False Cape State Park, VA

False Cape State Park is an undeveloped barrier island at the northern terminus of the Outer Banks chain. It is accessible only by foot or by boat. A public launch is available on the bay side at Little Island Park. From here it is a 10-mile paddle of your choosing through the channels, coves, and open water of Back Bay in order to reach campsites in the state park, which require a reservation. Once you are off the water there are 15 miles of trails through uninhabited terrain to see afoot, not to mention the miles of empty Atlantic coastline.

More from CanoeKayak.com:
Featured Destination: Roanoke, Virginia
North Carolina’s 6 Best Paddle-Camping Platforms
Paddle The National Parks: Great Falls Park

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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