As stay-at-home rules begin to expire, even people who would not call themselves “outdoorsy” are suddenly scrambling to experience a day or a weekend outside. A float trip on one of the Shenandoah Valley’s scenic rivers is an ideal solution. And June is arguably the best month of the year to settle into a canoe or kayak and dip a paddle into the water.
Here we provide thumbnails and a suggested outfitter or two for five Virginia rivers where your urge to get outside and breathe can be satisfied. Even more outfitters can be found here.
If you happen to be in the extreme northern end of the Shenandoah Valley, it’s easy to get on the historic Potomac River in or around Harpers Ferry. The view of the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers is about as dramatic a photo op as you’ll find on the East Coast.
River and Trail Outfitters is a 45-year-old full service outdoor adventure operation. With them you can do whitewater rafting and white-knuckle kayaking, plus they’ll help you with tubing, canoeing, hiking, biking and ziplining. They’ve even got float trips to wineries and breweries. Their main check-in office is in Knoxville, MD, but they have three satellite launch sites, so make sure you understand that when booking. Trips can be half-day, full-day or multi-day. Their website spells out all the social distance measures they are taking to ensure the safety of staff and customers. Call them at 301-834-9950.
River Riders in Harpers Ferry opened May 21st, and is following social distancing rules such as online reservations, contactless payments, smaller group sizes and limiting capacity of activities, and several other measures. Guided or self-guided whitewater rafting trips, kayaking, paddle boarding, canoeing, tubing and even ziplining at the Aerial Adventure Park are all on the slate with this longstanding operation. Call them at 304-535-2663. (Camping and lodging option are also available through both these companies.)
Shenandoah River Outfitters in Luray is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Probably no outfitter knows the Shenandoah River better. They will shuttle you a designated distance upriver, and all you do is float back at your own pace. Choose from canoes, kayaks, rafts, or tubes. Besides the float trips, SRO offers accommodations in 10 riverfront cabins and staff are taking a number of steps to ensure the safety of guests. Enhanced cleaning procedures, 24 hours between guests, and other measures are in place.
While they are open, they are handling a reduced number of paddlers. Reservations must be made online and all are encouraged to book early. These and other caveats related to COVID-19 are explained here. (The popular Lunch and Steak Dinner option is suspended for this season.)
Waynesboro’s motto—“Where Good Nature Comes Naturally—is easy to justify. It’s less than four miles from the Appalachian Trail, the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive, and outdoors-people flock to its expanded Greenway, Fly Fishing Festival and Waynesboro Water Trail.
The Water Trail is a four-mile stretch of the South River with easy put-in points; start at Ridgeview Park and paddle down to Basic Park. Exit points in between allow for shorter trips should you desire. Expect Class I and II rapids, and see the city from an unusual perspective. Under normal conditions, one can rent kayaks from Parks and Recreation, but Jennifer Callison, Waynesboro’s Tourism and Marketing Manager, did tell us that, “Parks and Rec has suspended kayak rentals for now. But kayaks, paddle boards and canoes can be rented from Rockfish Gap Outfitters for use on the Waynesboro Water Trail. You just have to be able to safely transport whatever you rent to and from the location you use them. People can launch their own kayaks, too,” Callison continued, “but I would encourage them to check the water levels before they go (as people should for all kayaking adventures!)”
The James and the Maury
Both rivers are easily accessible from Lexington or Buena Vista in Rockbridge County; either makes an excellent base for a trip.
Of all the rivers in the Shenandoah Valley, the Maury may well be the most—let’s say thrilling. Goshen Pass on the Maury is particularly exhilarating– a six mile stretch with class II to class IV rapids. You need some serious experience to navigate this section of river.
On the James, Twin River Outfitters in Buchanan has been in business since 1978. They offer numerous trip options on the Upper James—excursions can be four hours (about nine miles) or two to five days complete with “glamping sites.” Twin Rivers re-started all its trips May 15th on a limited basis, and a number of sanitation measures, social distancing rules, capacity limits, etc. are in place. Book your trip right on their website or call them at 540-254-8012.
Another outfitter on the James is the Wilderness Canoe Company in Natural Bridge Station. They operate six primitive campsites on the river for those who want an extended trip. Shuttles, canoe/kayak rentals and other services are normally provided. But owner Charlie Pickle told us, “Right now we are only offering camping. As Virginia moves into phase 2 and restrictions loosen we may be able to start our river trips again.” Contact them at 540-291-2295.
A breakdown of popular trips, public access points and difficulty ratings on the James and the Maury may be found here.
There are numerous outdoor businesses in the Valley to give you advice, help you select gear, and assist with planning trips. Rockfish Gap Outfitters — 540-943-1461 in Waynesboro; Wilderness Adventures at Eagle Landing—540-864-6792 in New Castle; and Walkabout Outfitters in Harrisonburg—540-434-9900 and Lexington – 540- 464-4453 are just a few to query, and well as any of the businesses listed here.
Banner photo courtesy Virginia Tourism Corporation