Virginia is home to diverse kayaking opportunities, from secluded mountain streams to the open coast. Beginners can find plenty of calm, slow-moving rivers in which to test the waters, while those in search of adventure have access to some of the most challenging whitewater east of the Rockies. If it's wide open spaces you want, the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic coast provide millions of acres of navigable water.
Rolling on the River
The Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers, both near the Fredericksburg area, offer long stretches of slow-rolling water, making them great places to learn the ropes of kayaking, although you don't have to be a beginner to enjoy the gentle waters and pastoral landscapes. The section of the Rappahannock that flows past the Chester F. Phelps Wildlife Management Area is particularly scenic, with dense forests on the east bank and rolling farmlands to the west. You might see otters, beavers, eagles and other wildlife along the way. A few areas, including the confluence of the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers, can be a bit more swift and challenging, so use caution. Other rivers across the state that offer easy to moderate kayaking include the James, Shenandoah and New rivers.
Experienced kayakers can tackle several whitewater areas across the state. Virginia's navigable whitewater ranges from fairly easy class 1 streams to extremely difficult class 5 rapids and everything in between. Some of the most extreme whitewater in Virginia is on the Russel Fork River during October, when the water released by the John Flannagan Dam forms class 5 rapids. A particularly brutal 75-foot section known appropriately as "El Horrendo" may well be the most challenging water in the state and should be attempted by only the most seasoned river rafters and kayakers. If all this sounds a little extreme, the James River includes numerous class 1 to 4 rapids, including several in and around the city of Richmond. The Potomac and Shenandoah rivers have some moderately challenging sections as well.
Between the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia has more than 500 miles of shoreline, including pristine salt marshes, coastal estuaries and white sand beaches. Kayaking is one of the many ways to enjoy this diverse marine ecosystem. During calm conditions, the Virginia Beach area is a popular spot among ocean kayakers, and miles of open shoreline provide countless places to put a boat in the water. The bay and its many tributaries are also home to countless put-in points, including state parks, national wildlife refuges and private marinas in Virginia and neighboring Maryland. The area is also a prime fishing ground, and with a current Virginia fishing license you can catch a variety of freshwater and saltwater species right from your kayak.
Know Before You Go
Kayaking in Virginia -- especially whitewater kayaking -- carries with it some inherent dangers and should not be approached without caution. Numerous companies and organizations provide guided kayak trips on most of the state's major waterways. A complete guide to Virginia's boating safety regulations, along with information on every state-operated boat launch and access site, is available on the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries website. American Whitewater is another excellent resource, and this nonprofit organization provides a wealth of kayaking and general paddling information and resources.