Newbie - Kayaking and Camping on Potomac


I am planning a Kayaking trip for Memorial Day weekend (May 28-30) on the Potomac River. We’d essentially have three full days and were hoping to go from Harpers Ferry, WV to Algonkian or Riverbend in VA.

I guess my questions are:

  • My boyfriend is experienced and I am kind of a newbie (only been out a few times on day trips) - Is this stretch okay for someone new?
  • Is this stretch do-able in the amount of time we have? If not any recommendations on alternatives?
  • We’ve had a lot of rain recently and I believe we’re expected to have more next week so is it still safe with faster water even though there aren’t that many rapids?
  • Any other information on best places to drop in, come out, safety, camping spots and well, ANYTHING would be great.

    Thanks so much!

been watching your post …
… I’m guessing it’s you and slopyjoe , is that right ?? Your plan at this particular time has me worried . It’s too dangerous now and will not fall below the danger levels for quite some time to come .

You and slopyjoe email me and we can talk , ok …

I’ve been kayaking and canoeing for
35 years, and I wouldn’t do it now. This is the time to look at smaller rivers with multiple night camping opportunities.

yeah g2d , I hope they contact me …

– Last Updated: May-22-11 12:49 AM EST –

...... the Potomac is one of our local rivers that I've spent quite a bit of time on in many different ways during my whole life here in MD .

This river has blown up 3 times this year already in less than a month and a half to well over flood stage . It has yet to ever be below red-line (dangerous stage) since the beginning of the year , and it won't even get close to that in the near future . The ground is saturated , a light rain in the hills and it will rise 3' now ... a day of heavy rain and it rises 10'-15' ... the plan they mentioned has some class lll sections under normal flows and the distance they mentioned is too much for her each day I think .

Big wood and trees everywhere in the river floating all over now . In my life here I've never seen it blow up 3 times in row during spring high waters !!

So far it's been a way to dangerous river for paddling this spring is my opinion , and I won't go on it yet . And if that's not enough , the river is solid mud brown and refuses to clear up until it's ready to settle down again into it's beautiful clear blues ...

There's a couple other p.netters here like Chip , Big D and Sapien who could kick in some useful info. and advice for these folks ... from lots of experience on the Potomac also . I think all you paddle "much" more than me , I just know the river well .

what they said
Wait till summer. There is nothing safe about it right now, and the river has been dangerously high most of this Spring. I cancelled my Spring Break trip on the Potomac because of the conditions. Don’t let us hear about your trip on the news.

You will want to become familiar with the USGS gauges at various points on the river, and wait for the Hancock gauge (upstream) and Little Falls gauge (downstream), which bookend your desired trip, to both come down to about 3’ with no rain in the forecast. A page you can view these and others in between is here:

Do not be misled by the green dots – those simply mean the river is not at flood stage, but are not indicative of safe paddling levels.

Depending where you put in around Harpers Ferry you may have to run the Needles and then Whitehorse rapids, Class II & II+. I’ve heard that the safer route is to stay to the right bank/VA side. 2 miles downstream are the Weverton ledges, another Class II. If you want to avoid these rapids then start at Brunswick MD instead. Also, if you continue past Algonkian Park then you will have to run the Seneca Breaks, another Class II and potentially tricky for a newbie, but fun to do at low water if you’re with someone who’s familiar with what lines to run.

Harpers Ferry to Algonkian is somewhere around 36 miles and River Bend is another 8. Doable in 3 days even for a beginner I think, but it depends how much you want to lilydip and fish and explore along the way.

that’s funny , I didn’t remember …

– Last Updated: May-22-11 10:17 PM EST –

...... I was thinking 4.9 Pawpaw was Danger stage (red) , but really it's beginning of Caution (yellow) stage .

Anyway , 5 and over at PawPaw in a canoe feels a bit dangerous to me knowing everything in the next 20 miles is going to feel the same way .

So there ya go ... because sapien is a much more regular paddler than I , what sapien feels is ll-ll+ just below Harpers to Brunswick) , I'm more likely to feel is a lll (and he even knows the names of those rapids , I just know them as , they are there) ... what sapien feels is a doable daily distance for a beginner (w/o much messing around) , I'm going to feel is stretching it for a more casual paddler .

Anyway , if these guys with more time , experience and confidence paddling on the rivers are telling you it's a NO and Wait ... then it's a NO , wait or go someplace else this coming weekend that's safe .

Other than that , I "think" I'm getting a little bit older now and don't challenge the beast like I did when I was younger and invinsible ... call me chicken , call me a timid paddler , call me over cautious , call me anything you want (except late for diner , lol) ... but nowadays a little birdie keeps whispering in my ear saying - "you know you've used up all your extra chances don't you ??" .

Completed This Trip
My brother and I (beginner kayakers) did this trip Harper’s Ferry - Algonkian last year in September. We loved it! Just camped out on the banks of the rivers at night. I do not remember what the water gauge level was.

My questions to the community:

  • Are the water level gauges on the NOAA website feet above normal level, or just feet in depth at the gauge?
  • What would you say are the “safe” water levels for the Harper’s ferry and Point of Rocks Gauges for beginner to intermediate kayakers?
  • Last year we took a few spills in our touring kayaks in Harper’s Ferry. We ran the left side, and spilled in about 3/4 before the route 340 bridge. This year we are starting at the Harper’s Ferry Campground a mile or so up stream on the Potomac, then kayaking past the islands north of Harper’s Ferry, the Needles and Whitehorse rapids. Does anyone have a map, drawing, KML, shapefile, etc. anything to show the safest path for kayaking through Harper’s Ferry area with an open, touring kayak loaded with camp gear?


Potomac last Sept… …
… was about as low as it ever gets , near record low levels .

From Dam #3 just above Harpers to the 340 bridge is considered hazardous , class lll WW section under normal flows (not sure but I think it’s governed by MD. WW rules (??) on the Potomac , helmet , special WW gear and experience) .

I’ve seen it at practically all stages . I’ve waded across it , but have never run a canoe down that section , and frankly have no intention of doing so . The flats right above Dam #3 is where I personally would get out .

I’ll post these same links on you’re other post about gage levels and camp on Potomac .

Dickerson to White’s Ferry
I had planned on doing the Harper’s Ferry to Point of Rocks run this Memorial day weekend(have done it in the Summer)until reading your comments about the current water level. I have not paddled Dickerson to Whites Ferry, according to the maps, it’s suppose to be an easy run. Is this leg moderate at this time, or is also dangerous at the current water levels?

The other option would be Antietam Creek. Is this run also too high?