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Paddling Guide 2020

As we continue to social distance and stay safe this summer, here are five paddling experiences across the region to inspire your next adventure. Use this guide to plan for future trips in the Blue Ridge when we can all be together again. Please check with locations prior to travel to make sure river access is open.

alleghany highlands
Photo courtesy of Alleghany Highlands.

Alleghany Highlands, Virginia

Get lost in the mountains and enjoy the waters in the Alleghany Highlands of Virginia. 

Grab your kayak or paddleboard and float the many lakes, rivers, and streams that make up the Alleghany Highlands Blueway. Explore the Jackson River as it flows through the two downtowns, Covington and Clifton Forge, and the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest. Follow the river on foot or bike as the Jackson River Scenic Trail runs for 14 miles along its banks. Paddle the Cowpasture River, with a few smaller rapids, as it converges with the Jackson River to form the headwaters of the James River. 

Visit Douthat Lake at one of Virginia’s oldest parks, Douthat State Park. Swim, boat, or fish on the 50-acre lake. Or explore more than 40 miles of top-notch biking and hiking trails, offering breathtaking views of the mountains. At the other end of the Alleghany Highlands, you’ll find even more paddling opportunities at Lake Moomaw. Located at the base of the Gathright Dam, the 2,530-acre man-made lake is perfect for boating all year. Camp in the national forest and sleep among the stars. 

Head to Alleghany Outdoors, located beside the Jackson River and Scenic Trail, for all of your gear needs while in town. They provide kayaks, rafts, tubes, and mountain bikes for a variety of adventures. They also operate a shuttle service, so you don’t have to worry about getting back. 

The Eastern National Children’s Forest is the perfect place to get your young one outside and exploring the natural world around them with easy hikes and towering trees. A trip to the Alleghany Highlands wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Falling Spring Falls. View the 80-foot waterfall from the overlook on Route 220. While you’re in your car, head over to Humpback Bridge. Picnic beside the bridge, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as you listen to the sound of the stream flowing past. 

Spend the night in the area known for its deep railroad history. Stop into the Alleghany Arts and Crafts Center or the Clifton Forge School of the Arts to enjoy a number of classes or unique exhibits. See a show at the newly restored Historic Masonic Theater. Keep an eye out for several events in the area, including the Jackson River Scenic Trail Marathon, Alleghany Gran Fondo, and Lake Moomaw Open Water Swim.

All of this, and more, is what makes this part of Virginia Uniquely Alleghany.

new river outdoor adventures
Photo courtesy of New River Outdoor Adventures

New River Outdoor Adventures, Virginia

New River Outdoor Adventures in Galax, Va. is your one stop shop for all things fun on the New River. With their location right by the river and New River Trail State Park, you’ll have access to any number of adventures in Southwest Virginia.

Rent a kayak, canoe, or tube to experience the cool and refreshing waters of the river. Choose from a variety of trips lengths, ranging from a two-mile scenic float to a 14.5-mile paddle with a Class II rapid. Pack a lunch and go for a swim while you’re out there.

Experience the river from the 57-mile New River Trail with a half day or full day bike rental. With both boat and bike shuttles offered along the trail, you can soak up the sun for miles. While you’re there, don’t miss out on fishing for bass, musky, walleye, and more. This outfitter is stocked with all the necessities you’ll need for a day on the water, including river shoes, hats, and live bait.

Take advantage of New River’s private riverfront camping options to extend your stay in the area. Explore the Blue Ridge Mountains with New River Outdoor Adventures. 

gilbert run park
Gilbert Run Park, photo courtesy Explore Charles County

Charles County, Maryland

Bordered by the Potomac and Patuxent rivers, Charles County, Md. provides paddlers of all abilities the chance to discover the area’s history and natural wonders by boat. Just 30 miles from Washington, D.C., it is the perfect escape to the water and easily accessible. 

Explore more than 100 abandoned ships dating back to the Revolutionary War and World War I at Mallows Bay Park. You can also see bald eagles, river otters, turtles, and more when you paddle this national marine sanctuary on the Potomac River. Take a virtual tour of this “Ghost Fleet” online through the Chesapeake Conservancy. Hop on Nanjemoy Creek from Friendship Farm Park. You can customize your trip length as the creek flows into the Potomac four miles from the park. 

Paddle tributaries of the Potomac from two state parks in the county. Access the Port Tobacco River from the sandy soft launch during low tide at Chapel Point State Park. Explore Mattawoman Creek from the boat ramp at Smallwood State Park. Both parks provide easy access to more miles for paddling when you reach the tidal Potomac. Families will enjoy paddling Wheatly Lake at Gilbert Run Park. Rent a pedal boat, rowboat, canoe, or kayak for the afternoon. 

If you need a boat for the day, check out Atlantic Kayak Company for single and double kayak rentals on Mattawoman Creek. They also offer guided trips, including a sunset or ship graveyard tour, if you want to dive deeper into the area’s history. 

When you are done on the water, check out the multi-use Indian Head Rail Trail. Discover 13.1 miles of paved trails through forests, natural wetlands, and farmland as well as other parks and wildlife along the way. Head to Bike Doctor for all your cycling needs and stop by Beacon

Surplus to select your kayak, canoe, and water safety accessories. View the Port Tobacco River Park’s resident eagles, Chandler and Hope, from the wildlife observation decks. Take the time to check out the other museums, antique stores, and parks in the area, including Piscataway National Park.

Refuel at one of the many unique restaurants in Charles County, from farm-to-table cuisine and local seafood to barbecue and homemade ice cream. Finish up with a drink at Blue Dyer Distilling Co. before settling in for a night at your bed & breakfast, campground, or hotel. Wake up ready to explore more of the adventures that await when you visit Charles County, Md.

Photo by Meghan Marchetti/DGIF.

Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries

Whether it’s getting your pulse racing with a little whitewater on the New and Shenandoah rivers or enjoying a serene day on the flatwater of the Mathews County Blueways Water Trails, nothing quite matches a day on the water in Virginia with a paddle in your hand. Keep in mind that when you’re on the water, you’re safest while wearing a life jacket. If you’re going out alone, make sure to inform someone of your route.

The Clinch River, the most biodiverse river in the Northern Hemisphere, flows 135 miles from its start in Tazewell, Va. to the Tennessee state line and is definitely worth a paddle. Daniel Boone once explored its shores and waters. Supporting a wide variety of rare and endangered freshwater fauna, the Clinch is home to almost 50 species of freshwater mussels, more than any other river in the world. Stop by the DGIF’s Aquatic Wildlife Conservation Center in Marion, Va. to learn more about these freshwater mussels. 

If fishing is your thing, the Clinch offers largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, walleye, sauger, and redbreast, bluegill, and longear sunfish. Rock bass, black crappie, and catfish can all also be caught in the Clinch.

new river
New River, photo by Lynn Willis

Boone, North Carolina

Whether you’re looking to paddle a challenging section of whitewater or a float down the river to admire the scenery, head to Boone, N.C. for a summer getaway. 

Spend a few hours, or a few days, exploring area rivers and paddle trails. Follow the New River between several access points from Boone to Todd to West Jefferson and beyond. Take on the Watauga River’s Class I-V rapids. Maps posted at river access parking areas will give you full details of the routes. 

Take a trip to Watauga Gorge Park, where you can embark on the beginning of a Class II-V section of the river, great for experienced paddlers. From here, check out the swimming hole at the nearby Laurel Creek Falls above the creek’s confluence with the Watauga. There’s also a difficult Class V rapid through Watauga boulder gardens nicknamed the Clog (at swimming hole “The Snake Pit”) suited for more skilled paddlers. 

Located at the Guy Ford Road crossing on the Watauga River, Guy Ford Road Access is a popular swimming and tubing area just upstream of this junction. Immediately downstream of Guy Ford Road are the beginnings of five miles of Class IV-V rapids great for experienced kayakers who are bound for the nearby Tennessee state line and the Watson Island takeout beyond. 

Bring the whole family to Valle Crucis Community Park to walk the paved trail and enjoy the playground. The park borders the Class I-II section of the Watauga River, making it a great spot for beginners to practice paddling. Or, put in at the New River Heights Dr. ramp for a section of the South Fork of the New River adjacent to the greenway and ball fields at Brookshire Park. 

Take a five-and-a-quarter-mile float down the South Fork of the New River through picturesque Todd, N.C. The section between the river access at Green Valley Community Park on Big Hill Road to the river access at Todd Island Park downstream on Railroad Grade Road is a leisurely and slow journey by canoe, kayak, or river tubes. Stop in at the Todd General Store for snacks and souvenirs, or at the RiverGirl Outfitters for fishing needs and bicycle rentals for the whole family. 

Kayaking, photo by Lynn Willis

Check out the wide variety of outfitters and gear shops in the area for all of your outdoor recreation needs. Mast Store Annex stocks all of the gear you’ll need for your outing. The new Waypoint Outfitters are purveyors of equipment, paddle maps, and more. 

Stay Awhile 

Go for a ride at Tweetsie Railroad, a family fun park featuring train rides and entertainment. Plan a summer hike through the backcountry of Grandfather Mountain. Get a different perspective of the mountains from a zipline tour with Hawksnest Zip Line or a guided climbing trip with Rock Dimensions. 

When you’re done playing outside, explore the more than 30 restaurants in and around downtown. Hit up the Booneshine Brewing Company’s new brewery and tasting room just inside the town limits. Relax and unwind with a craft brew at Appalachian Mountain Brewery or Lost Province Brewing Company. Explore downtown shops in both Blowing Rock and Boone.

Spend the night at one of several lodging options in the Boone area. The Horton Hotel and Rooftop Bar is a new boutique hotel in downtown Boone, featuring 15 unique guest rooms. Walk to the Courtyard by Marriott or Holiday Inn University from downtown or Appalachian State University. Check out more lodging in the area online, including tiny houses and cabins. 

Explore all of this, and more, when you visit Boone and the mountains of North Carolina.

Cover photo courtesy Getty Images

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