The Northern Neck of Virginia is packed with beautiful country roads, scenic drives, historic sites, and some lovely water trails. Paddling the Potomac River can be an wonderful experience, but conditions have to be just right to have a safe experience. Wind, waves, and boat traffic can quickly turn a paddling trip into a dangerous situation. But we’re not here to scare you! We’ve created a road trip itinerary that includes some awesome paddling locations, but also some land-based adventures for when the mighty Potomac gets a little dicey for paddling.
We’ll start our road trip in the town of Colonial Beach. Voted the best beach in Virginia in 2018 by USA Today, this funky town has a fun vibe that’s a bit more lively than the rest of our planned road trip! The town has a brewery, a winery, retro 1950s-era hotels, and an expansive beach, said to be the second longest public beach in the state. If you want to get the true Colonial Beach experience, park your car for the day and rent a golf cart to get around town!
Launching kayaks and paddleboards is permitted from the beach, but if the Potomac River is choppy, you can find a more protected paddling option on the west side of town, on the Monroe Creek Water Trail. And to add a little fun to your paddling adventure, be sure to stop at the Dockside Restaurant & Tiki Bar for a bite to eat – they have a sandy beach that’s perfect for temporarily landing kayaks!
George Washington Birthplace
Once you’ve had your fill of Colonial Beach, head down the road into the more rural parts of the Northern Neck. Our next stop is of national significance – the George Washington Birthplace National Monument. This site is packed with American history, but even if you’re not a history buff, the surrounding scenery of the Potomac River, Pope’s Creek, and forested lands really help you imagine what life was like here in the early 18th century. You may also get a taste of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as much of the site was impacted by the Colonial Revival Movement, a time in which organizations and individuals worked to restore the colonial era.
While it’s not permissible to launch or land kayaks from the main site, you can take in beautiful views of the creek as you make your way around the grounds on foot. There are several walking trails that meander through grassy, forested, and marshy areas, providing ample opportunities for wildlife viewing and picnicking.
If you DO want to paddle nearby, check out the Potomac River Beach. It is managed by the National Park Service, and is just a stone’s throw from the national monument.
Westmoreland State Park
The next stop down the coastline is Westmoreland State Park. Known for its towering cliffs and the famous “fossil beach”, this park can also be a great place to paddle. Before going out on the water, be sure to check local weather forecasts and wind conditions. Westmoreland is directly on the Potomac and is very susceptible to wind and waves. However, when the winds are calm and the boat traffic is light, the park offers kayak and paddleboard rentals. Please keep in mind that rentals are not permitted to paddle beyond Horsehead Cliffs, so if you want to head to Fossil Beach (beyond the cliffs), you must have your own vessel. Once you’re on the water, you can’t help but admire the beautiful sandstone cliffs, but please keep your distance, as erosion of the cliffs can make them dangerous.
If you don’t have your own kayak, or the river conditions aren’t ideal, you can still access Fossil Beach! Go Hike Virginia has a great post with tips for visiting Fossil Beach here. The park allows visitors to keep any shark teeth they find, but leave the shovels at home, as digging is prohibited.
Heading further down the coast, your next stop should definitely be Stratford Hall. This National Historic Landmark is a 2,000-acre site that centers around the 18th-century Great House and the story of four generations of the Lee family, as well as the enslaved and indentured laborers, dating back to 1717.
While launching and landing kayaks on the property is not permitted, you can still explore the grounds on the three miles of trails and the beach, which is suitable for beachcombing and taking in the views of the massive cliffs.
After you’ve gotten your fill of historic sites, you might be ready for another paddling trip. Heading further down the river, you’ll reach the Currioman Bay Water Trail, starting at Currioman Landing. This loop is best for experienced paddlers, but the nearby Hollis Island, (a.k.a. Shark Tooth Island) does provide a bit of protection to Currioman Bay, particularly if the winds are out of the northeast. Information on visiting Shark Tooth Island can be found here.
Our road trip concludes at Bonum Creek. While the unofficial theme of this article has been about the potentially harsh or dangerous conditions of the Potomac River, this creek has a water trail that offers protected paddling, suitable for beginners (just avoid winds out of the north, which can make this creek a little wavy). Bonum Creek Landing is located right next to a working waterfront, so as soon as you launch, you get a feel for that true Chesapeake watermen’s culture. If you head up the creek, there are some long stretches of undeveloped shorelines that are perfect for some wildlife viewing. Osprey, bald eagles, and great blue herons are frequent sightings.
If you head down the creek, you’ll quickly enter the Potomac River. There are jetties on either side of the little inlet that do provide some protection from the open waters of the river. There is also a small sandy area at the mouth of the creek that is suitable for stopping at; just stay below the high tide line as it is private property.
For more paddling inspiration on the Northern Neck, be sure to check out the following articles:
Paddle the Creeks of Warsaw, VA and Immerse Yourself in History
A Perfect Day to Paddle in Warsaw
A Weekend Paddle-cation Getaway in Lancaster County
Community, Aquaculture, and Ecotourism: Paddle to this Forward-Thinking Oyster Far
Paddling Horn Harbor Creek in Burgess, VA
Happy Water Trails!