Region: Middle Peninsula
Length: 5 miles, one-way
Experience Level: Intermediate
Highlights: Wooded banks, winding trail, woodland wildlife
Ideal Conditions: Paddling downstream, not after heavy rains or a long dry spell
When people think of paddling in coastal Virginia, many images come to mind – salt air, shorebirds, sandy beaches, and expansive salt marshes. But just up from the coast on the Middle Peninsula, is the wooded and scenic Mattaponi River, a vast and refreshing change from the sights of the coast.
When it comes to the Mattaponi, we’ve listed ideal paddling conditions to be when the river levels are average. Not too dry, and no recent heavy rains. There is a mild downstream current that can be paddled against, but it is a bit more relaxing to allow the river’s flow to assist you downstream.
This trip is most enjoyable when you can complete a one-way paddling trip, so be sure to bring a friend and leave a car at the Aylett boat ramp before driving up to the launch. The Aylett boat ramp is managed by the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources. For information on access fees at boat ramps, visit their website here.
Once you’ve left a car at the boat ramp, head on up to the Zoar State Forest kayak & canoe launch, located here. Parking is free, but can be quite crowded on a beautiful weekend, so arrive early to secure a parking spot. There is another parking lot just up the hill from the launch, so if you end up leaving your car there, drop your boats off at the launch before parking.
The launch itself can be a bit tricky to navigate. It is located about 75 yards from the parking lot, and it has a bit of steep drop into the creek. The bank is reinforced with wooden steps and a plank to slide your kayak down into the water, but it still adds a bit of challenge and adventure to the trip!
Once you’ve successfully launched, the creek almost immediately empties out into the river, into which you’ll turn right to head downstream to Aylett. The river remains pretty narrow for the first two miles of this trip, and winds around multiple twists and turns. There is some shade provided by the nearby trees, but that’s no excuse to skip the sunblock because there are plenty of areas where the sun beats down, and in the last two miles, the river widens and there is less and less shade as you approach Aylett.
As you float down the river, take a moment and absorb the peace and tranquility. From about the 2-mile mark to the 4-mile mark, the creek meanders away from the road and all you can hear is the woodland wildlife, full of belted kingfishers, prothonotary warblers, tree frogs, and other woodland wildlife. Keep your eyes on the riverbanks too. At times there will be silty beaches, downed trees you’ll need to carefully maneuver around, and tall clay banks that almost look like rock! Some of the banks have tiny waterfalls trickling into the river, adding a soothing sound to the peaceful ambiance.
About 3 miles down the river, the current becomes much less noticeable and you may even notice that the river starts to become tidal. You could also start to encounter small boats, as many anglers will launch at the Aylett boat ramp and head upstream, so stay alert.
As you come around the last bend in the river before the boat ramp, you’ll likely start to hear the traffic from US-360. As you paddle under the highway, be sure to look up – barn swallows seem to love nesting underneath the bridge!
Finally, just after the bridge, you’ll be pulling right up to the Aylett boat ramp. Although not nearly as steep and challenging as the launch at Zoar, the ramp is concrete, so just approach slowly as not to scrape up the bottom of your boats. When you climb out onto land, give yourself a pat on the back, as you just paddled a full 5 miles! Happy water trails!