Canoe Paddle?

With a rental and a quick lesson, you can canoe. And kayak, too!

Photo by Sam Dean

Whether you’re looking to try kayaking, canoeing, rafting, or tubing for the first time or already consider yourself a seasoned river rat, there are plenty of great paddles to enjoy in Virginia!


Located halfway between Luray and Front Royal, in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, Bentonville is the perfect launching point for a peaceful summer paddle on one of Virginia’s most scenic rivers. Canoe, kayak, raft, or tube down the South Fork of the Shenandoah as it carries you past open meadows, national forest shorelines, unique rock formations, and impressive cliffs.Downriver Canoe Company has everything you need for a river adventure—kayak and canoe rentals, shuttle services, and friendly folks with years of experience to help get you started.

Details: Shenandoah River State Park offers camping, cabins, three yurts, and a lodge. This section of the river also hosts many great campsites for overnight canoeists and kayakers. For a hearty meal after a day on the water, check out Front Royal’s Thunwa Thaior some of the valley’s best barbecue at Triple Crown BBQ in Luray.

New Castle

Put your whitewater paddling skills to the test at Johns Creek in New Castle. What has long been considered a rite of passage for serious whitewater kayakers and canoeists in Virginia, Johns Creek (class III–V) will test any paddler’s ability to pick a clean line amid the chaos. After a private landowner dispute that lasted nearly 15 years, Johns Creek has only recently been deemed a navigable river for public use. Only use designated launch sites, and do not plan to explore the river banks or eat lunch on shore along this section of the river.

Details: For clean yet rustic camping, try The Pines Camp-ground, with seven sites and no fees. If you prefer a shower and a bed, consider the New Castle Inn or a luxury stay at The Big Pine Trout Farmhouse, both available via Airbnb. For a delicious dinner, try Bibos Pizzeria for its house-made doughs and sauces or Hutch on Main for post-paddle comfort food.


Once designated as one of America’s top 10 coolest small towns by Budget Travel, Onancock is a rare destination where vast history merges with breathtaking scenery. Guidebook authors and expedition kayak guides Bill and Mary Burnham ( call the historic Onancock Wharf home for eight months each year. You won’t find a better couple from whom to rent gear or more knowledgeable guides with which to set out on a memorable eco-tour adventure, perhaps the best way to appreciate a community known for its connection to the water.

Details: The small town charm found here couples nicely with a stay at one of Onancock’s bed and breakfasts. Consider The Inn at Onancock, Charlotte Hotel & Restaurant, or Spinning Wheel. Janet’s General Store and Cafe is a perfect stop for breakfast or lunch. We also love Da Vinci’s Italian Kitchen for a hearty meal and Mallard’s at the Wharf for its historical waterfront setting.

Great Falls

Looking upon the great falls of the Potomac River as its waters crash mightily over rocky cliff formations and into the scenic, mile-long Mather Gorge is a powerful reminder of the strength and beauty of moving water. Whether you’re looking for a fun rafting trip with family or guided tours and instruction (flat or white-water), there is something for everyone here. Consider combining your time on the water with some exploration of the nearby nation’s capital for a weekend you won’t soon forget! Build your rafting skills with professionals who know the river well. Potomac Paddlesports and Calleva Liquid Adventures both offer beginner friendly programs and instruction in a variety of watersports. 

Details: There’s no shortage of hotel options in Northern Virginia, but for a quieter and more affordable experience, check out Lake Fairfax Park and Campground. It’s less than 6 miles from the entrance to Great Falls Park and even offers its own water recreation options. Mookie’s BBQ and Founding Farmer’s Reston are two great dining options, both less than 15 minutes from frequently used Potomac River launch sites.

This article originally appeared in our WaterLife 2019 issue.

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