The state of Virginia has an amazing array and variety of places to paddle, from the shores and coves of the Atlantic Ocean to the rolling rivers of the Piedmont to the splashing mountain streams of the Appalachian highlands. Many of these canoeing and kayaking opportunities within Virginia have been cataloged, resulting in a series of named water trails and blueways. The water trails and blueways help paddlers like us find our way to the best paddling places.
Check out the following Virginia water trails and blueways. Learn about the destinations, where to paddle and what to expect. Note that one particular blueway or water trail may have several different paddling destinations and bodies of water to paddle under its name. Under each of the listed eight water trails and blueways a total of 26 suggested paddles will help get you out of the office and onto a Virginia blueway, enjoying the paddling paradise that is Virginia.
–UPPER JAMES RIVER WATER TRAIL–
Water Trail Overview: The Upper James River Water Trail covers the uppermost 64 miles of the James and 10 miles of the Maury River. The blueway winds through the Appalachians between the towns of Clifton Forge and Alpine. Though in mountainous terrain, the vast majority of rapids on the river are Class I-II, making it doable by most paddlers. However, there are a few Class III segments. The Maury River segment of the water trail presents more rugged paddling.
Outfitters Operating on Water Trail: Yes, in Buchanan
James River, Springwood to Buchanan – Take a 5-mile trip through mountain scenery in a section with just a few light rapids, Class I, making it doable by novices and those who just want to float or perhaps fish.
James River, Buchanan to Alpine – This 10 mile segment of the water trail takes in the mountain scenery and also has some fun shoals and rapids, all Class I-II. This trip can be cut in half by taking out at Arcadia. Outfitters operate here, making shuttles and rentals a breeze.
–NEW RIVER WATER TRAIL–
Water Trail Overview: The New River Water Trail traverses 37 miles of the mighty New River as it flows through Giles County, in western Virginia. In these parts everything about the New is big – the river is big, the mountains are big, even the fish are big! Cutting a gorgeous valley through the heart of the Appalachians, the New River presents first-rate scenery no matter what portion of the water trail you paddle. The water trail can be broken into several segments to fit your experience level and desired challenge.
Outfitters Operating on Water Trail: Yes, Tangent Outfitters, New River Outdoor Company
New River, Eggleston Springs to Pembroke – The 6-mile segment from is suitable for beginners, with only one strong Class II rapid. Other stretches have riffles and Class I’s to keep the action going, though extended pools provides breathers. Good for smallmouth fishing and just floating on a summer day.
New River, Ripplemead to Bluff City – Those looking for a longer parcel to paddle will love this 8.5-mile river run. Paddle by riverside cliffs and some named rapids like Class II Horseshoe Falls, and Class II-plus Clendenin Shoals, where at higher water levels high wave trains are created. Slower sections between rapids allow you to enjoy the montane scenery and soak in the sights.
New River, McCoy to Eggleston Springs – This 4-mile paddle begins at Big Falls, aka McCoy Falls, a borderline Class III rapid that becomes a solid Class III when the New River is charging fast. Big Falls forms where the New River cuts between Walker Mountain and Sinking Creek Mountain. However, Big Falls is easily portaged around by road. The rest of the trip presents Class I-II rapids underneath a highland mantle.
–SOUTHERN VIRGINIA WILD BLUEWAY–
Water Trail Overview: The Southern Virginia Wild Blueway is an ambitious paddling mantle, covering over 3 river rivers and two big lakes. Free flowing segments of the middle Roanoke River, Dan River and the Banister River, along with 2 impounded segments of the Roanoke River – huge Buggs Island Lake (Lake Kerr) and upper Lake Gaston — are the platforms through which the aspiring Southern Virginia Wild Blueway travels. These rivers are mostly Class I, mild waterways with a few Class II rapids. The scenery is quite rewarding, consider over 80 of the 100 river miles are designated Virginia Scenic Rivers. Buggs Island Lake (Lake Kerr) and upper Lake Gaston are both seemingly boundless big Piedmont lakes with plenty of water to paddle.
Outfitters Operating on Water Trail: Yes, Tri Rivers Outfitter, River Traders, Clarksville Water Sports
Banister River, Cowford Bridge to Wolf Trap – This segment of the Banister River, near Scottsburg, stretches for 6 miles through several wildlife management areas, keeping the river banks wild. Class I with a few light shoals, relaxing paddle. Look for old wing dams and sluices from the days when Virginians used the Banister for shipping and transportation.
Dan River, South Boston to Staunton River State Park – Take the Dan (Class I shoals and moving water) from South Boston, meeting the Banister River, then entering a series of islands where you pick your own route. The water slows upon entering Buggs Island Lake. It is a full 13-mile day from South Boston to Staunton River State Park.
Staunton River, Long Island to Brookneal – This 11 mile run is a favorite of locals. Class I rapids and pleasant scenery. Leave the put-in then wind your way among the Hale Islands. Keep easterly, passing Hale Mountain. Two more series of islands are wound through before reaching Brookneal access below the US 501 bridge.
Buggs Island Lake (Lake Kerr) – This stillwater paddle starts at Staunton River State Park. Paddle up the Staunton River arm of the lake. Circle Jeffress Island and Harris Island. Wildlife management areas and the state park keep the shoreline wild.
Lake Gaston – Start your paddle at Steel Bridge Landing off US 1 then paddle to Whiteoak Flats, a prime waterfowl observation destination. Take a side trip up Flat Creek embayment to Bear Swamp. You can loop back up to Steel Bridge Landing through Whiteoak Flats.
–MIDDLE JAMES RIVER BLUEWAY–
Water Trail Overview: This blueway covers the Piedmont portion of the mighty James River, as it flows from Lynchburg amid eye pleasing lands to the city of Richmond, directly through the heart of Virginia. A host of put-ins and takeout and detailed river maps from the James River Association help paddlers execute vast sections of river for a day trip or an extended adventure on “America’s Founding River”. Other paddling tributaries on the James River Blueway include the Chickahominy River and Appomattox River.
Outfitters Operating on Water Trail: Yes, James River Runners at Hatton’s Ferry
James River, Lynchburg to Joshua Falls – Start at the city of Lynchburg James River canoe ramp on 7th Street. Stay left, passing Percivals Island. Shallow riffles. The trail runs over rocks and mild shoals. Pass more islands ahead. The Joshua Falls takeout is above Joshua Falls, a Class II rapid, making for a 10-mile river run.
James River, Howardsville to Scottsville – Make a 9.8-mile paddle down the James River on mostly shallow waters, punctuated by lots of riffles. Stay right when approaching Goosby Island – the left side has much rougher rapids than the Class I rapids to the right of the island. Pass around Rock Island then come to Hatton’s Ferry, one of the few mainland ferries remaining in the Old Dominion. Pass one last set of shoals below Hatton’s Ferry before reaching Scottsville.
Chickahominy River, Chickahominy Park upriver – Start at Chickahominy Park, near its confluence with the James River, then head upstream. Explore Morris Creek, or head up the tidal Chickahominy, where the waterway narrows considerably. More side channels beckon, as places like Wrights Island. Backtrack.
–VIRGINIA SEASIDE WATER TRAIL–
Water Trail Overview: The Atlantic side of the Eastern Shore is the setting for this 100-mile paddling paradise of a path, broken into a series of adventures that can be paddled one day at a time. Starts at the southern tip of the Eastern Shore and heads north to Chincoteague, at the Maryland line. The trail winds its way through some of Virginia’s most stunning seaside scenery – coastal marshes, wildlife refuges and beaches. Multiple launch sites offer beginner, intermediate and advanced routes. If you haven’t paddled in saltwater before it is a good idea to go on a guided tour for starters, then strike out on your own. Guided tours are available during the warm season throughout the Eastern Shore.
Outfitters Operating on Water Trail: Yes, SouthEast Expeditions, Chincoteague Kayak Tours, Assateague Explorer, among others
Assateague Island from Chincoteague: Leave Chincoteague Island and paddle the ocean and adjacent bays to Assateague Island National Seashore, seeking out the wild ponies that call Assateague home. Land on the shore and walk along the Atlantic before returning to your base on Chincoteague.
Willis Wharf Harbor – Start at Willis Wharf (near Exmore) and you have two routes from which to choose, experience depending. Head up Parting Creek, a narrowing tidal waterway good for bird watching, with lesser tidal current. If you are comfortable in salt water, head out Great Machipongo River. Channel markers help you distinguish the deeper water from shallower areas. Curve north to stay up the river, being mindful of tides and currents as the river narrows. Backtrack.
Gargatha Landing – Starting at the ramp at Gargatha Landing presents two paddles. One, you can head upstream on Gargatha Creek for a simple tidal stream exploration, or go down Gargatha Creek then open onto Kegotank Bay then into the Northam Narrows or paddle into the Atlantic if you dare.
–ROANOKE RIVER BLUEWAY–
Water Trail Overview: The Roanoke River Blueway covers a stretch of the Roanoke River from the confluence of the North Fork and South Fork Roanoke River west of Salem through the city of Roanoke and onward to the backwaters of Smith Mountain Lake. The 45-mile water trail presents not only lots of paddling put-ins and takeouts, but paddlers can also use adjacent riverside greenways for self-shuttles. However, boat rental and pay shuttles are available. The water is primarily Class I shoals with a few Class II rapids.
Outfitters Operating on Water Trail: Roanoke Mountain Adventures
Roanoke River, Rotary Park in Salem to Roanoke Mountain Adventures in Roanoke – This quick and easy 5-mile trip starts at Salem’s Rotary Park and ends at the outfitter’s base, where your vehicle awaits. Paddle through the town of Salem, bordered by small parks, and along the Roanoke River Greenway, which offers bicycling and walking opportunities. Float into the shadow of Mill Mountain on fun Class I riffles punctuated by meandering pools.
Roanoke River, Explore Park to Hardy Bridge – Explore Park is a great destination of its own, with trails and historic interpretation. However, the blueway offers fine paddling from the Rutrough Road 7 miles down to Hardy Bridge and the uppermost still waters of Smith Mountain Lake. A more rural float.
–CAPTAIN JOHN SMITH WATER TRAILS–
Water Trail Overview: Paddling the Captain John Smith Water Trails is one facet of the greater Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historical Trail, an agglomeration of auto trails, foot trails, paddling trails and specific destinations, covering a huge swath of the Chesapeake Bay of Virginia and Maryland. Many of the Virginia water trails are on rivers feeding Chesapeake Bay, from the Rappahannock to the Pamunkey and Mattaponi Rivers. It also includes saltwater paddling destinations such as Lynnhaven River.
Outfitters Operating on Water Trail: Yes, depends upon particular waterway
Powhatan Creek, Powhatan Creek Blueway near Jamestown – Start at Powhatan Creek Park and wind your way 3 miles down to the James City County Marina, or continue another mile to the big James River. Another paddle encircles historic Jamestown Island, an 8-mile endeavor, starting at James City County Marina.
Mattaponi River, Mattaponi River through Zoar State Forest – Enjoy a transitional paddle as the Mattaponi evolves from freshwater river to tidal waterway during the trip. The natural banks of Zoar State Forest keep the paddling scenic. The five-mile paddle ends in Aylett.
Bull Run, Occoquan Water Trail – A great run in the urban D. C. area, is the float down Bull Run from the Virginia 28 bridge put-in to float 8.5 miles down to Bull Run Marina at Yates Ford Road. The upper part flows fast in places, primarily Class I paddling. The current ceases when you get to Lake Occoquan. Enjoy the last leisurely bit before reaching Bull Run Marina.
Rappahannock River, Rappahannock River Water Trail – This blueway covers the Rappahannock above Fredericksburg and also a portion of the Rapidan River. Make a 6-mile trip on the Rappahannock from the Hole in the Wall to Motts Landing. The rapids are all Class I for a beginner excursion. You must go through the Virginia Outdoor Center in Fredericksburg to do this trip, since the put-in is on private land. Other river segments have historic canals, mills and relics of the past.
Water Trail Overview: Enjoy a set of 5 specific paddling routes covering over 90 miles of paddling pleasure throughout Mathews County, overlooking Chesapeake Bay, due east of Richmond and north of Hampton. Mathews County covers but 87 square miles of land yet has over 200 miles of shoreline! Talk about paddling potential…
Outfitters Operating on Water Trail: Yes, Chesapeake Bay Paddling Company near East River
Roses Creek Landing to Chapel Creek – Part of the greater 19-mile Piankatank River Trail. This paddle starts at protected Roses Creek Landing where you can head upstream for a simple small bay exploration, or paddle into the big Piankatank River to intimate Chapel Creek for an 8 mile there and back adventure.
Bethel Beach & Winter Harbor – Paddle part of the 22-mile Bethel & Winter Harbor Trail. Start at Bethel Beach and paddle past sandy shores in the Atlantic, heading south into Winter Harbor, a wildlife rich estuary with many arms and creeks to explore.
New Point Comfort Trail – Paddle big water at the mouth of Mobjack Bay on the New Point Comfort Trail, located in southernmost Mathews County. Start the paddle at Davis Creek Landing, open to Mobjack Bay (Watch the wind, especially in the afternoon) and head southeast along an undulating shoreline. Reach Chesapeake Bay and the New Point Comfort Lighthouse, a sight to behold. Makes an 8-mile there-and-back trip.
East River Trail – Want smaller waters a little more inland? Take the East River Trail. Start near the town of Mathews and begin your paddle at Town Point Landing. Head up the East River for a 6-7 mile there and back paddle. Alternatively, you can head downstream, passing Williams Wharf, another landing where meal was ground for Washington’s troops before the Battle of Yorktown. Its 3.5 miles down to Mobjack Bay, not counting if you explore seemingly endless small inlets, making a minimal 7-mile trip.
Where can one rent a kayak in Loudoun County? Will they allow you to car-top it to another location? Rent you a rack? Sell you a pool noodle?
Thanks, Alf Cooley – Canoe Cruisers Association
I love to paddle the Patuxent River (trib of Chesapeake Bay), near Jug Bag in Upper Marlboro, MD. 40 minutes from DC, lots of wildlife and slow moving tidal river. No rapids. Perfect for beginners and families with lots of places to put in and rest for lunch (including historic points).
My husband & I are mature individuals. Due to our age, our bodies will not allow us to paddle our own paddle equipment, but love the outdoors and water. Is there anything for us?
Nancy, Many Virginia state parks have lakes and have rental canoes and kayaks that you can use on those Lakes. The water is gentle and you don’t even need to haul your own boat or try to get it to the paddling destination. All you do is simply go to the park and then rent your boat on site. I would always call ahead and make sure that boat rentals are available as they are seasonal.
The Staunton River float actually includes one Class 3 rapid and a couple of Class 2 rapids. Just a note for safety sake. It is a beautiful float with lots of wildlife including Bald Eagles, Muskrats, Etc.
I love being on the water, and taking in these sights at the same time is something I can’t miss out on!