Canoe or kayak camping is a great way to enhance your Virginia paddling experience, to spend more time in the watery landscape you like to explore.
For many of us, the lure of canoeing and kayaking in Virginia is not paddling the waters, but admiring the places through which the water flows. It is finding places where we can camp also, places like the powerful and majestic New River Valley cutting its wide ribbon west through the Appalachians; or the James River charging east into the Piedmont. Alternatively, it might be the brackish, tidal waters of Back Bay bordered by maritime forests and marshes near False Cape State Park, or the regal Shenandoah River winding through Shenandoah Valley. Perhaps you might prefer isolated and mountainous Lake Moomaw, or even the historic and mussel-rich Clinch River.
Photo Credit: Sam Dean, @sdeanphotos
Camping by kayak or canoe separates you from the crowds, from those paddlers literally unwilling to take the extra time and preparation to load their gear and take it to their favorite Virginia river, lake or bay. Then you can paddle with satisfaction, knowing that you don’t have to turn around before dark, that you will enjoy overnighting on the alluring shoreline, where enticing waters reflect the starlight from above.
Overnight paddle camping is yet another reason for heading into the Virginia’s wild waters from Virginia Beach in the east to Clinchport in the west and everywhere in between, to enjoy Virginia on nature’s terms, to get past the daily grind to a natural world where we can recharge our batteries … to paddling overnight in Virginia.
Check out these overnight paddling trips in Virginia and see which ones may work for you. A piece of advice: If listed, review the outfitter website then call with additional questions. That way everyone can be on the same page when you strike out on your adventure.
The New River
The Overnight Float: Between Radford and Glen Lyn and the West Virginia state line
Distance/Time: up to 50 miles, 2-4 days
Everything about this section of the New River is big – big wide waterway, big mountains rising above, and big smallmouth bass for anglers. Some of the rapids are big, too; solid Class II with a couple of Class III, but paddlers can usually work around them, or line their boat through. It is important to confer with local outfitters to figure out the exact segment of this part of the New River that works for you. Campers most often overnight on river islands. Put-ins and takeout are well spaced along the entire segment of river.
Upper New River
Photo Credit: Cameron Davidson
Where: New River Trail State Park near Austinville
The Overnight Float: New River Trail State Park to Baker Island
Distance/Time: less than a mile
Outfitter: New River Trail State Park
This is but a short paddle to a cool island in the middle of the New River. Part of New River Trail State Park, you reserve a site on Baker Island, then paddle your own kayak or canoe from the state park boat ramp then pitch your tent on primitive Baker Island. Swim, fish or just listen to the river flow. Land based activities can be found near the launch ramp. Visit historic Foster Falls village, bicycle the New River Trail, a converted rail line, or paddle a gentle segment of the New River from Austinville to Foster Falls.
- New River Trail
- Historic Shot Tower
- Comers Rock
- Raven Cliff Furnace
Photo Credit: Preethi B. Harbuck
Where: Clifton Forge
The Overnight Float: Along shores of Lake Moomaw
Distance/Time: up to 43 miles to circle the linear impoundment
Encircled by the public lands of the George Washington National Forest, 2,530 acre Lake Moomaw boasts over 43 miles of shoreline. Three developed campgrounds and 4 boat launches offer ideal starting points. Adventurous canoers and kayakers will strike out along the mountain-rimmed impoundment — known as Kincaid Gorge before the Jackson River was impounded – and find undesignated shoreline campsites as well as designated primitive Greenwood Point Campground, accessible by only boat or foot.
- Douthat State Park
- The Omni Homestead Resort
- Roaring Run Recreation Area
- Craig Creek Recreation Area
Upper James River
The Overnight Float: From Eagle Rock to Snowden Dam
Distance/Days: 22-61 miles, 2-5 days
Start at the headwaters of the James River, floating through mostly Class I rapids with a few easy Class IIs thrown in, while the mountains rise proudly above. Most of the float is a relaxing trip through rich mountain scenery and rural farm country. However, a few places require scouting; including Balcony Falls, which does have a sneak route. The lowermost part of the adventure is the slow water above Snowden Dam, where out and back paddling is a possibility. Trips of differing lengths and difficulties can be arranged.
The Camping: The majority of the riverbank is privately owned, therefore it is best to go through an outfitter and use their campsites, although there are private pay campgrounds in places.
Where: St. Paul
The Overnight Float: Cleveland to Clinchport
Distance/Time: up to 60 miles
Outfitter: Clinch River Adventures
Southwest Virginia’s scenic Clinch River is being developed into a blueway, with accesses aplenty for paddlers to float the scenic Clinch. The state game commission has developed a series of accesses over 80 miles. Overnight floaters best avoid the first 20 miles due to potentially rough rapids and instead start at Cleveland. Parallel ridges escort the Clinch downstream through primarily class I rapids and around scenic islands, near bucolic farmlands and majestic cliffs. Do work around the man-altered rapid at St. Paul, where an outfitter is located. Other paddlers will mostly be anglers vying for smallmouth bass. A good place to end your trip is Camp Clinch, a private campground near the Virginia-Tennessee state line where overnight parking is available for a fee.
South Fork Shenandoah River
Photo Credit: Jonathan Kozowyk
Where: Front Royal
The Overnight Float: Bixler’s Ferry Front Royal
Distance/Time: 19-45 miles, about 3 days
Head north along the South Fork Shenandoah River, nestled between Shenandoah National Park to the east and Massanutten Mountain to the west. Class I and a few Class II rapids push you along. The water is normally clear, cool, and inviting. Conservation easements protect parts of the river not publicly owned, while other places are private land. Wise paddlers will work with an outfitter to develop a trip suited to their needs and abilities.
The Camping: Camping options are on riverside parcels of George Washington National Forest, as well as private campgrounds. Develop a camping plan with your outfitter.
- Fort Valley Ranch
- Page Valley Fly Fishing
- Shenandoah Caverns
- Bear Mountain Zipline
Photo Credit: Brian Camp, @brian_k_camp
The Overnight Float: Back Bay to False Cape State Park
Distance/Time: about 9 miles one-way
Outfitter: Wild River Outfitters; Ocean Rentals
Bring your own kayak or canoe and start at Start at Little Island Park, a Virginia Beach city park astride the Atlantic. Leave the park and launch into Back Bay. Paddle south through Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge to South Inlet and primitive campsites at False Cape State Park. Paddlers can continue a couple of miles onward to Tripps Cove, where more primitive state park sites are available. While here, explore the park on the 15 plus mile trail system.
The Camping: Camp on the bay side or carry your stuff to the Atlantic side of the island. False Cape State Park’s offers designated reservable sites. Campers must call ahead and make their reservations.
- Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center
- Virginia Beach Fishing Center
- Rudee Inlet Stand Up Paddle
- North Bay Shore Family Campground
Dismal Swamp Canal/Lake Drummond
Photo Credit: John Henley
The Overnight Float: US 17 to Lake Drummond
Distance/Time: about 4 miles one way
This trip is best done from fall through spring. Start at the state boat ramp on US near Ballahack Road. Paddle your canoe or kayak south through the Dismal Swamp Canal then west on a feeder canal to first come, first served campsites on the feeder canal near Lake Drummond, one of only two natural freshwater lakes in Virginia, part of the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Next day, continue west on the feeder canal to reach cypress-ringed 3,000-plus acre Lake Drummond, then return to the campsite for another night. Paddle back to the ramp at your leisure.
The Camping: Pitch your tent at the Feeder Ditch Spillway, where you will find fire rings and screened picnic shelters. Bring your own water and firewood. Restrooms with water are available during the warm season.
- Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge
- Chesapeake Planetarium
- The Founders Inn and Spa
- USS Wisconsin Battleship
Johnny Molloy has written many books and guides that detail travels through 26 states, including Virginia. Johnny’s writings include hiking guidebooks, camping guidebooks, paddling guidebooks, comprehensive guidebooks about a specific area and true outdoor adventure books. He has hiked, paddled and camped throughout Virginia from Cumberland Gap to the Eastern Shore..