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Walk on Water: 6 Paddleboarding Spots

These six river paddleboarding trips pair awesome mountain scenery and family fun

Don’t get me wrong. Floating a tranquil, secluded river is great, but I’m a high-energy person and there are times when hours of canoeing with the fam leaves me feeling more anxious than relaxed. I cherish the quiet, wildlife-rich scenery of a backwoods waterway. But I also jones for the immersive physicality of surfing and wakeboarding. 

Luckily, a few years back a friend turned me on to river paddleboarding and everything changed. I bought a Hala Gear Radito inflatable SUP and fell in love with the way it thoroughly transformed my experience of mountain waterways. It lets me get my adrenaline fix shredding riffles and rapids, then I can relax and focus on scenery during gentler sections. And the Blue Ridge has plenty of great spots to bring my board. From surfing low-key rapids to coasting on breezy spans of flatwater, here are six of my favorite family-friendly river paddleboarding trips around the region.  


South Fork Shenandoah River, Front Royal

Put-in: Five miles south of town at the Simpson’s Landing boat ramp off state route 623. Takeout in Front Royal at the ramp in Eastham Park. 6 miles, 3-4 hours.

Paddle: This clear section of the Shenandoah South Fork is relatively shallow with beautiful rock bottoms, little to no flatwater, and loads of riffles punctuated by peppy Class IIs. The 100-yard-wide run meanders through bucolic Page Valley forests and pastureland and, sandwiched by the Massanutten Mountain range to the west and Shenandoah National Park to the east, offers staggeringly gorgeous views. Want a bigger day? Add about six miles to the journey by putting in at the public ramp in Shenandoah River State Park. 

Go Guided: Front Royal Outdoors offers shuttles and canoe, kayak, raft, or tube rentals.

Upper James River, Buchanan

Put-in: At the Horseshoe Bend boat landing and takeout at the Buchanan Town Park ramp just before U.S. 11 bridge. 9 miles, 3-4 hours.  

Paddle: The run begins about 20 miles from the confluence that forms the James River and brings swift but manageable current and a steady parade of riffles and Class II rapids. Densely forested banks or high cliffs that tower above the river alternate with stints of open farmland that bring panoramic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Expect plenty of gravel bar beaches, crystal clear water, rocky bottoms, and a number of large islands with cool side channels to explore. Sparse development means abundant opportunities to see wildlife like blue heron, green heron, dark-black minks, bald eagles, waterfowl, turtles, turkey, deer, beaver, and river otters. 

Go Guided: Book a shuttle, canoe, kayak, raft, or tube rental with Twin River Outfitters.

Clinch River, St. Paul

Put-in: In downtown St. Paul at the ramp in A.R. Matthews Memorial Park. Takeout at the informal Burton’s Ford landing off state route 611 (find details below). 6.1 miles, 3-4 hours.

Paddle: Pass through the tiny, 850-person far southwest Virginia town of St. Paul into Clinch River State Park and remote territory that offers few marks of civilization beyond occasional railroad tracks and rural homesteads. Banks surrounded by national forest lands bring fantastic bird-watching — including colorful rarities like yellow-throated warbler, black-throated green warbler, and cedar waxwing. 

The current chugs steadily along with lulls and riffles giving way to nifty runs of Class II rapids and a couple of borderline Class IIIs. The first of the latter comes 3 miles downriver in the form of a 3-5-foot drop situated in the middle of a hard bank turn. A similar drop comes about a mile later, but has the courtesy to announce itself well in advance. Greenhorns can forgo the rapids via quick and well established river-left portages. Find the marked dirt takeout at Burton’s Ford on river-left at the dead end of state route 611. 

Go Guided: Clinch Life Outfitters provides guide services and shuttles, as well as kayak and tube rentals.

Paddleboarders on the New River.


New River, Oak Hill

 Put-in: Near the historic village of Thurmond at the Stone Cliff Beach Campground. Takeout at the Cunard River Access. 8.5 miles, 5 hours. 

Paddle: The New is well known for its rugged class IV-V whitewater stretches, but this trip offers intermediate-level paddling and stunning scenery in the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. Enjoy spans of breezy current that release into class I and II rapids topped off by a long class III run called “Surprise.” Here the river stretches between 400-600 feet wide and flows through an almost wholly uninterrupted landscape of lush green hillsides peppered with the remains of long-abandoned mining outposts and 19th century stone coke ovens. Look for riparian birds like geese, mallard, wood ducks, green-winged teals, herons, kingfishers, and great egrets, along with elusive mink, river otter, and beaver.  

Go Guided: You could also join River Expeditions on a two-hour New River Gorge Bridge Tour.


Tuckasegee River, Dillsboro

 Put-in: A mile south of downtown at the New Tuckasegee Put-In off North River Road. Takeout at the landing at Smoky Mountain River Adventures. 5.2 miles, 3.5 hours.

Paddle: Find this fast and fun stretch of Tuckasegee deep in the scenic Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina. Abundant riffles and Class II chutes interspersed with brief spans of smooth but quick-flowing current make the “Tuck” a great spot to hone skills. Find some tricky class III action early on at the site of a dismantled dam known as the “Dillsboro Drop,” which offers a couple foot drop into fast, wavy chutes that give way to a quarter mile span of riffles. 

Catch a breather just outside of town, then pass under the Great
Smoky Mountain Railroad overpass into increasingly wild Nantahala National Forest lands and a span of high cliffs known as the Tuck Gorge. A near nonstop deluge of riffles and low-grade rapids kicks in after the bridge and lasts throughout the trip. But don’t worry, there are plenty of pebbly beaches to pause and take a break from the action to look for wildlife like roosting bald eagles or great blue herons. 

Go Guided: Smoky Mountain River Adventures offers shuttles and inflatable kayak or raft rentals. 


Red River, Red River Gorge

Put-in: At the Coppers Creek Canoe Launch off state route 715. Takeout at the access at Red River Adventure outfitters. 8 miles, 4 hours.

Paddle: Tucked away in the remote hill country of northeastern Kentucky, this float carries you deep into the Daniel Boone National Forest and a 29,000-acre designated national archaeological and geological district. Paddling the pristine and wildly scenic upper Red River offers a hit parade of riffles and class II rapids, along with views of the canyon’s 100-plus natural limestone arches and towering 200- to 600-foot cliffs. Be sure to take in the scenery from one of many beachy sandbars or leap into swimming holes from a riverside boulder. The best of the latter, Red River Jump Rock, is found on river-left about 6.5 miles into the float.  

Go Guided: Book shuttle or canoe and kayak rental with Red River Adventure outfitters. 

Cover photo: All photos courtesy of River Expeditions.

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