Potomac River Trip

Hi all - looking for some intel on a 3-day 3-night paddle down the Potomac this summer. Ideally, looking to do between 40 and 50 river miles total with a end point in downtown DC near the monuments - pending takeout location.

Anyone ever run this section before? I know we will be portaging around Great Falls - we are all touring kayakers with a comfort level of class II and smaller class III rapids.

Looking for primitive camping along the way if available. 12 to 20 miles per day. thanks!

Brunswick to Great Falls

– Last Updated: Dec-31-15 1:26 PM EST –

Ending in DC will be challenging in touring kayaks, which I presume will be loaded with gear. Certainly, Great Falls is out of the question, but there are a number of other rapids which will minimally be challenging, and perhaps be daunting, in touring kayaks. I have paddled the Little Falls section many times, and I would not try to take my sea kayak through there. The canal is watered through there, but last time I was there it looked like it was very tree clogged just below the Little Falls Dam (which you also probably don't want to run). It's a tough lift to get from the river to the canal above the LF Dam, but something you could manage with a team of paddlers.

I suggest you end your trip at Great Falls. You could paddle through on the canal, but there are a number of locks you'd need to carry around. It's doable, but you'd be slowed and labored by the locks, and then you get down to Little Falls where whitewater boaters divert down "the Z-channel" to the river, and beyond which I *think* the canal is blocked. Do not take your boats in Z-channel since it gets its name from a a required Z move that your touring boats will not make, at least not in one piece.

You could start near Harpers Ferry, but I suggest Brunswick. There are some class II ledges at Weaverton, a few miles below Harpers Ferry. I think most of the ledges have slots where you can make a straight shot through with a touring kayak, but access and parking are much better a few miles further downstream at Brunswick. Brunswick to Great Falls will give you about 40 miles.

For camping, there are options. There are hiker-biker sites along the canal. Paths lead from the sites down to the river. You can probably find GPS info for the sites somewhere on-line, or get a C&O guidebook such as the one published by the Boy Scouts. There are also uninhabited and unregulated islands in the river that make nice campsites. Some of the islands are wildlife refuges, so obviously you'd avoid those. You'll need a map to know them, since it is not obvious. And some islands are privately owned. But mostly it is a no man's land of islands that are often part of the river bottom. The hiker-biker sites have water and privies. There are no facilities on the islands.

Guidebooks: Roger Corbett's Virginia Whitewater does a good job describing this section, including maps that show hiker-biker site locations.

Paddle Prattle: the Monocacy Canoe Club operates a web forum called Paddle Prattle. It's open to anyone and is frequented by lots of paddlers who well know this section of river. You should probably post over there for info if you think you want to paddle through to DC. The Park Service often drains sections of the canal to do maintenance, so you will want current information before you try to paddle through. Those boaters may also know how feasible it is to paddle the canal around Little Falls.

If you must paddle the DC area, which *is* pretty scenic, I suggest taking out at Great Falls, emptying your boats, and driving down to Fletchers Boathouse to relaunch for a few hours of DC-area paddling.


Also …

– Last Updated: Jan-01-16 10:08 PM EST –

Chip gave a very good summary. Another place to look is cpakayaker.com, where I think there are several similar threads posted.

Depending on what you call a "touring kayak", your comfort level with "easy class 2 and 3" rapids, and your willingness to scratch your boats, you may or may not be safe and able to enjoy parts of the river that are very scenic.

The section from below Great Falls down to just above Little Falls is really Beautiful. I've paddled most of it in a 15.5 foot kayak (WS Zephyr and P&H Delphin) and some of it in 18' Nordkapp and even in 20' Epic V10 Sport surfski and a home-built skin on frame greenland kayak at various river levels. Some segments can be challenging in terms of strong currents and hazards, while others might be taxing in terms of rocks that will scratch or break some boats. A water level of between 2.6' to about 3.5' on the Little Falls gauge is probably most enjoyable in a long boat going down, and not too challenging overall for a good paddler. There is one low dam on that section that is best portaged (though I think there is a section on river right that is more safely passable). Up near and just below Great falls there are a couple of short but exciting rapids in close succession that can be bumpy and swirly at higher water levels, the last one being the "S turn". Then there are a few ledges and other small rapids. The good news is that almost all rapids are short and usually followed by easy slow section where one can swim out should something happen. But there are definitely hazards that a long boat, especially if loaded, will make more dangerous.

As mentioned, Little Falls is best portaged at any water level when in a sea kayak. Rather than carry to the canal, if you are OK with bumping and scraping rocks, I think it would be quicker to use a rope and guide the boats down through the rapid while you walk alongside it over the rocks on the Maryland side. If you are indeed comfortable with a solid class 3 rapid and have a sturdy short touring kayak, and the water level is below 3', you could try to paddle it down on the MD side - it is a pretty straight line with only one fairly easy to avoid small pour-over hole on river left, but with several rocks to potentially scrape over and maybe flip you. Flat section right after that, so if you have a safety person there to collect your things if you swim, a swim there won't be terrible, usually. But often there (and elsewhere) are underwater hazards, like submerged trees and branches that can make that and other sections really dangerous, should you come out of your boat or take them upside-down before you can roll-up!

I strongly suggest that you have a helmet on for many sections of the river - lots of shallows and chances to hit your head on rocks underwater.

Then it is a nice easy paddle under and past Chain Bridge down to the DC area.

Potomac R
I learned to paddle moving water on the Potomac between Seneca and Great Falls. There are some great runs in there and now the water quality is much improved. There must be some guide books by now. We used to rent canoes on the Virginia side and paddle up the C&O Canal to Seneca and then paddle down the Potomac back to the livery.

consider a trip further upriver

– Last Updated: Jan-03-16 7:47 PM EST –

You could put in at Spring Gap on the North Branch below Cumberland, where there is a campsite and ramp, and paddle to Little Orleans MD for a 40-mile trip; or on to Great Cacapon WV or Hancock MD for a longer trip. This would take you past the confluence with the South Branch Potomac and through the scenic Paw Paw Bends, where the river winds its way through the Appalachians and alongside the Green Ridge State Forest. There are occasional ledges but no dams or portages on this stretch (except perhaps the low bridge at Oldtown), and no significant rapids. This would also save you the trouble of having to carry from the river to the canal. The shorter trip option would allow you time to visit the Paw Paw Tunnel of the C&O Canal, not far from the Paw Paw campsite.

This website has a clickable map to locate the hiker-biker campsites and other points of interest:

If you opt for the trip further downriver, I'd agree Brunswick is the better option to put in with a loaded boat. There is no (public) place to put in at Harpers Ferry, you either have to go further upriver to Dargan Bend or Antietam Creek, or have someone drop you off at Lock 34. Just above Harpers Ferry, the "Needles" section is over a mile of lively Class I-II starting with the remnants of Dam #3, which can look intimidating as you approach it from the deep flatwater below Dargan Bend; worth stopping there to scout before you run it. Below Harpers Ferry, the Whitehorse section is swift Class II-III depending on water level with the river-left route being more challenging. Below Point of Rocks there is a long slow flatwater section until you reach the Seneca Breaks / Violette's Lock. The breaks in the middle of the river are usually shallow, very scrapey and somewhat technical in spots, with a few surprising drops hidden between the rocks. The Patowmack channel on the VA side (entered river right above the remnants of Dam #2) is easier to navigate, with some fun but easy rapids and good swimming spots.

After that you have a choice of routes as the river braids around a series of islands all the way to Great Falls. I have not noticed an obvious place to take out just above Great Falls -- I think you'd want to do it just below Swains Lock, then paddle the canal to Lock 20 at the falls. At that point you might as well wheel it on the towpath to Lock 17. Near Lock 17 there is a path down to the "beach" put-in if you want to make your way back to the river and run the gorge below the falls. Or, continue on the canal through the Widewater section to the Angler's put-in. Alternatively, you could take out at Riverbend Park on the VA side above the falls and call it a day.

Potomac R
Nice post by sapien.

I haven’t heard the name Swain’s Lock in almost 50 years.

Potomac River camping
Hi, I’ve done a 3 day trip from Harper’s Ferry to WDC. It was great. I can talk to you at length if you wish about my trip, where to camp, etc. My e-mail is Johnrbour@msn.com

What routing Great to Little Falls?
On your trip, how’d you route yourself through Great Falls to flatwater beyond Little Falls? What was the river level? What kind of kayak?

Will we ever hear from the OP again?


Great information, all…
Thank you all for responding…I will attempt to address some of the questions posted…

Regarding our skill level and willingness to add a few dings and scratches, that’s where all the fun is anyway. My boat is still new but I am not averse to running through the muck in order to gain access to good paddling sites. As for rapids, 2 years ago we did the upper Delaware river in elevated conditions when Skinner’s Falls was a solid class II+. Granted, there is video evidence of me bailing halfway through BUT it was my first attempt at rapids like that AND I HAD NO SPRAY SKIRT! The video (which was grudgingly posted on FB) ends with me floating downriver on my back, hand firmly attached to the stern tether and the person holding the camera stating “crap, we said we’d help if you dumped, gotta go”. There were some more solid class II’s further downriver, closer to Port Jervis and I managed them without issue (also without a spray skirt, which I have since remedied).

As for route planning, I still have no clue, hence my original post. I know there is a great falls and that it will not be navigable by any of us so portaging options, canal, etc are all in play at this point. I simply want to gather as much intel as possible and sit down with the group to plan the itinerary over frosty adult beverages.


Potomac River camping , Great Falls
You need to check with the Park Service and ensure that the canal is re-watered. If so, you can enter the canal and just portage around the locks. I entered on the third day of my trip after camping overnight at Swain’s Lock. I ducked back out onto the Potomac at Fletcher’s Boat House. I know that sometimes the entire canal is not re-watered and that would make the trip unpleasant. Good Luck !!

Ending in DC
You can end your trip by landing at Gravelly Point, just above Reagan National. I did this a few years back when I paddled from just above Harpers Ferry to DC. You need to plan portage in some areas (or use the C&O canal if it is re-watered like I did) I ended at Gravelly Point and had my wife pick me up there. Plenty of boats launch from the ramp there and there is usually ample parking.

Potomac River camping
if you have not visited this site, please do. It tells you the location of all the campsites along the C and O Canal. Please note that the mileages are for Hiker/Bikers. I took my GPS and rode the trail one day and stopped at each spot and then walked to the water and marked it with my GPS.