When it comes to flatwater paddling possibilities, Virginia is hard to beat. Not only does it have numerous bays, coves, and inlets of the Atlantic tidal regions to explore in your kayak or canoe, Virginia also has alluring and scenic reservoirs dotting the countryside, from massive impoundments such as Buggs Island Lake in southern Virginia to smaller lakes like Flannagan Reservoir, deep in the folds of the Appalachian Mountains. Perhaps a quiet pond is more to your liking, stroking your watercraft across Stumpy Lake, a designated natural area where wildlife reigns amid the cypress trees.
Whether you bring your own canoe or kayak or rent a boat on site, get ready for a rewarding Virginia paddling experience. Note: Canoes and kayaks are often rented seasonally so check ahead if you are planning to rent a boat at a particular destination. Now, snap on your life jacket, grab your paddle, and let’s immerse ourselves in 20 Virginia flatwater paddling destinations, then find your own adventure.
Photo Credit: Brad Deel, @brad.deel
Nearest Town: Clintwood
Canoe/kayak Rental: No
The Paddle: Flannagan Reservoir features 1,143 acres of lake surface situated at nearly 1,400 feet in elevation, perched deep in the mountains of Southwest Virginia. Managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the shoreline shows off nothing but tree-covered hills and hollows. Fifty miles of shoreline take the form of long fingers and embayments, making for intimate paddling. The two uppermost lake arms – Pound River and Cranes River, feature narrow, twisting paddle routes rich with scenery, deep water, and secluded coves. Both lake arms have convenient launch sites as well.
After the Paddle: Drive in to Clintwood for some south of the border fare at La Casa Mexicana.
Photo Credit: Sam Dean, @sdeanphotos
Nearest Town: Haysi
Canoe/kayak Rental: Yes, at Breaks Interstate Park
The Paddle: Located entirely inside Breaks Interstate Park, Laurel Lake comes in at a mere 12 acres. However, what it lacks in size it makes up in scenery and additional outdoor opportunities. Canoes, kayaks and pedal boats can be rented on site. You can cruise the wooded shoreline with its small coves and check out the dam, too.
After the Paddle: There is so much to do in Breaks – where Russell Fork cuts a gorge known as the “Grand Canyon of the South”. Gaze upon Russell Fork frothing and crashing in a foam of whitewater 1,600 feet below. Overnight at the campground. Hike the Overlook Trail or head down to Russell Fork itself via the River Trail. Take Nature Drive for a scenic auto tour. The park has nature and history programs to complement the scenery at Breaks Interstate Park.
NORTH FORK OF POUND LAKE
Nearest Town: Pound
Canoe/kayak Rental: No
The Paddle: This is intimate mountain lake paddling at its finest. Almost entirely ringed in wooded natural shoreline, 154-acre North Fork of Pound Lake is set deep in the Jefferson National Forest. Pine Mountain forms the primary backdrop to the lake, while lesser mounts frame the rest of the stillwater. Built for flood control back in 1966, the slender impoundment presents narrow bays galore — fed by mountain rills – to explore. A canoe/kayak launch is located near the dam, while another launch is located near the uppermost part of the lake.
photo credit: Joshua Moore, @jtm71
After the Paddle: Head to nearby Wise and treat yourself to some Mexican food at El Castillo, right on Main Street. The Guest River Gorge Trail, a rail trail, starts in nearby Coeburn and can add hiking or family bicycling to your adventure.
HUNGRY MOTHER LAKE
photo credit: Chad Williams, @echadwilliams
Nearest Town: Marion
Canoe/kayak Rental: Yes, at Hungry Mother State Park
The Paddle: One of Virginia’s very first state parks, Hungry Mother also contains one the state’s prettiest impoundments. Hungry Mother Lake, ringed in highlands and circled by a hiking trail, covers 108 acres. No gas motors are allowed, keeping the beautiful scenery free of motor noise. The park rents, kayaks, canoes, paddleboards, and paddleboats, making it easy to launch and explore the slender reservoir fed by highland streams coursing off the hills above.
After the Paddle: Hungry Mother State Park offers a variety of cabins for overnight guests and a campground for those who prefer roughing it. Hiking trails course through the preserve, including the loop around Hungry Mother Lake. After visiting the park head into Marion and eat at the Wooden Pickle Food & Spirits, a local icon with a laid-back atmosphere.
photo credit: Sam Dean, @sdeanphotos
Nearest Town: Dublin
Canoe/kayak Rental: Yes, Claytor Lake Water Sports at Claytor Lake State Park, you can also rent paddleboards
The Paddle: Claytor Lake came to be after the mighty New River was dammed. The large mountain lake stretches over 20 miles in 4,500 winding acres of surface water, plenty of room to paddle. You can head down lake toward the impoundment’s dam, or head up lake along the shore of the state park. Small inlets beckon while mountain views enhance the paddle.
After the Paddle: Drive to nearby Dublin to hit Verona’s Pizza for Stromboli, calzone, salad or pizza.
photo credit: Matt Ross
Nearest Town: Martinsville
Canoe/kayak Rental: No
The Paddle: Philpott Lake is large, — 3,000 acres – but has been recognized for its paddling potential, as the Philpott Lake Blueway has been developed. Nine launch sites and nine lake destinations are noted on the blueway, among them Deer Island, only accessible by boat and Calico Rock, a 200-foot cliff. A recommended trip starts at Bowens Creek boat launch. Paddle southwest up Bowens Creek embayment, making your way up to Bowens Creek Falls, a waterfall at the head of a cool cove. Alternatively, paddle into the main lake then circle Turkey Island and Deer Island, both isles only accessible by water.
After the Paddle: Drive on into Martinsville for some good ol’ BBQ or ribs at the Checkered Pig. Lunch or dinner. Specializes in Southern hospitality. It can be crowded so jump into the fun. As they say there, “Everybody is welcome!”
SMITH MOUNTAIN LAKE
photo credit: Chad Williams, @echadwilliams
Nearest Town: Rocky Mount
Canoe/kayak Rental: Yes, at Smith Mountain Lake State Park among others
The Paddle: I love Smith Mountain Lake, a big impoundment with more twisting coves, embayments and arms than a squid has tentacles. The highland scenery adds to the watery splendor. The state park makes for a good starting point, considering how the shoreline along the preserve is kept in its natural state. Explore the plentiful coves, even an island off the shore. Check out Smith Mountain Lake Community Park across the water. If you paddled along every bit of state park shore and into each cove you will be worn out.
After the Paddle: The state park has a fine trail system and recommended campground. Check out the land features of this park. After that, drive over to Drifter’s Restaurant for casual lakefront dining. Open during the warm season. Has a children’s menu.
Nearest Town: South Hill
Canoe/kayak Rental: Yes, kayak rentals at Poplar Pointe Marine in Bracey
The Paddle: Lake Gaston, a long and sizeable impoundment of the Roanoke River, spreads its waters from Virginia into North Carolina. However, the Virginia portion is ideal for paddlers. Several routes are detailed as part of the Southern Virginia Wild Blueway. Start this particular paddle at Steele Bridge Landing on US 1, head down lake then turn into Beechwood Flats, a good place to spot waterfowl. Adventurous paddlers will also head up the slender Flat Creek embayment, off Beechwood Flats up to Bear Swamp. Returning to Beechwood Flats you can make a loop back to Steel Bridge Landing, about a 5-mile trip not including the side trip of Flat Creek embayment.
After the Paddle: Make a run into Clarksville and dine at Lamplighter Restaurant & Lounge.
BUGGS ISLAND LAKE (LAKE KERR)
photo credit: Big Orange Frame
Nearest Town: Clarksville
The Paddle: This paddle is also part of the Southern Virginia Wild Blueway. Start at Staunton River State Park, located at where the now-stilled Staunton River meets the dammed Dan River, in uppermost Buggs Island Lake. Leave the state park boat ramp and paddle up the Staunton River arm, circling Jeffress Island and Harris Island. On your return route make side trips up Cargill’s Creek and Hogan Creek embayments. Makes a 5-6 mile trip. Most of the shoreline is either state park or wildlife management area.
After the Paddle: Can’t agree on where to eat? Head to Cooper’s Landing Inn & Travelers Tavern in Clarksville for elegant Southern cuisine.
photo credit: Preethi B. Harbuck
Nearest Town: Warm Springs
Canoe/kayak Rental: No
The Paddle: Many will argue Lake Moomaw to be Virginia’s most scenic lake. It is hard to disagree. The mountain-rimmed impoundment is set deep in the Jefferson National Forest, its shores completely wooded, mountains rising from the clear waters like a relief map. The place is remote, too, adding an element of surprise and adventure to a paddle here. However, expect a lot and Lake Moomaw will deliver. The big lake is narrow at the top with wider sections and islands at its lower end, and has two campgrounds and four boat launches. For a rewarding paddle start at Bolar Flat Launch then circle an island-filled cove to reach Greenwood Point, a boat and trail accessible camp. From there, return to Bolar Flat, ringed in mountain splendor, for a 9-mile trip. The lower lake has additional paddling promise as well.
STUMPY LAKE NATURAL AREA
Nearest Town: Virginia Beach
Canoe/kayak Rental: Yes, at Chesapean Outdoors in Virginia Beach
The Paddle: Take this excellent family floating opportunity at Stumpy Lake Natural Area, near the main attractions of Virginia Beach. Rent a canoe or kayak, gracefully entering the water on a specially designed dock, then explore the no-motors allowed lake, ringed in regal cypress trees. Wander the lake to your heart’s content, spying for wading birds or enjoying this park’s nature, accessible for both tourists and residents of Virginia Beach.
After the Paddle: Hit the Ninja Sushi Bar for some healthy, fresh food, complementing your paddling workout at Stumpy Lake. Soups, salads and cooked entrees, too.
Photo Credit: Mike Zorger
Nearest Town: Spotsylvania
The Paddle: Lake Anna is one of the largest reservoirs in Virginia, over 13,000 surface water acres, and provides a freshwater recreation destination for residents of greater D.C. The wildest shores are at Lake Anna State Park. Take off from the launch near the park’s popular swim beach then head right and up the cove, skirting the park shore to the head of an unnamed stream. Backtrack, then circle around Jetts Island. It’s about a 3-mile loop from the boat launch. For an alternate trip, trace the shore of Lake Anna State Park easterly. It is about 5 miles one way to the top of the Pigeon Run arm of the lake, making for a 10 mile round trip.
After the Paddle: I’ve enjoyed hiking at this state park, so hit the trails if you are so inclined. Or grab the crew and hit The Cove at Lake Anna. Plant yourself on the deck overlooking the lake you just conquered by paddle, order a cold beverage then reward yourself from the varied menu.
SWIFT CREEK LAKE
Nearest Town: Richmond
Canoe/kayak Rental: Yes, at Pocahontas State Park
The Paddle: Pocahontas State Park is conveniently located to Richmond, making it a popular destination. The sizeable state preserve is centered by Swift Creek Lake, a pretty little reservoir ideal for budding paddlers. Coming in at 156 acres, the watery paddling place is big enough for exploring but not so big to be overly subject to winds and waves. Very narrow for a Piedmont lake, its upper reaches are slender and marshy. The wooded shoreline makes for a natural experience, so no matter where you go or how much you paddle here, you can’t go wrong. The park rents all manner of boats, from canoes to kayaks to paddleboards. The no gas motors rule keeps the atmosphere serene.
After the Paddle: The hiking trails here are fun and I’ve stayed many a night in the campground and like it. After the paddle, head to Riptides Seafood for fresh fare from the ocean. They offer salads, soups and non-seafood as well.
BELLE ISLE STATE PARK
Nearest Town: Warsaw
Canoe/kayak Rental: Yes, at Belle Isle State Park
The Paddle: Belle Isle State Park is a quiet destination that puts you on “island time” when you enter its cozy confines. Located on the banks of the lower tidal Rappahannock River, the park rents canoes and kayaks at a very reasonable rate. Take off from the quiet canoe & kayak launch on Mulberry Creek then paddle out to the wide Rappahannock. Stop at Brewers Point, where you can overnight camp at a hike-in or boat-in camp, part of the state park. Paddle the shores of the river, where you’ll find forests, wetlands, and wildlife. It’s about 3 miles one way to the park boat ramp on Deep Creek, making a 6-mile trip without exploring additional inlets, like Porpoise Creek.
After the Paddle: The campground and trails here at Belle Isle are worth your time. After the paddle, drive to nearby Warsaw and indulge in some tasty morsels at Michelle’s Sweet Treats. All their items — from pies to cookies to cupcakes — are made from scratch.
Nearest Town: Manassas
Canoe/kayak Rental: Yes, at Fountainhead Regional Park
The Paddle: Looking for a fun paddle near D.C. that everyone in the family can do? Explore a long, serene lake, where the north shore is entirely parkland, carved with intimate wooded coves. Occoquan Reservoir, a 2,100-acre impoundment created to supply Fairfax County with water, doubles as a paddling spot close to all the D.C. has to offer. Your embarkation point is vast Fountainhead Regional Park, where you can rent canoes or kayaks; hike and picnic, too. The lake is part of the greater Occoquan Water Trail.
After the Paddle: Grab a bite at the Secret Garden Café to enjoy American style food on the patio of an 1840s home. Also, Manassas Battlefield and its trails are nearby, as is Washington’s Mount Vernon.
photo credit: Sam Dean, @sdeanphotos
Nearest Town: Sandbridge
Canoe/kayak Rental: Yes, Adventure Kayak & SUP in Virginia Beach
The Paddle: Start at Little Island Park, a Virginia Beach city park astride with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Back Bay on the other. Leave the park and launch into Back Bay and explore this tidal estuary dotted with islands and channels. Wildlife can be rich – bring your binoculars. Circle Little Island or visit Long Island. Paddle to the Horn Point canoe/kayak launch at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge and stretch your legs or explore some of the activities on land at Back Bay (entrance fee required to land at Back Bay NWR)
After the Paddle: Head to the Baja Restaurant for cold beverages and tasty seafood. Live music during the summer.
Nearest Town: Woodbridge
Canoe/kayak Rental: Yes, at Pohick Bay Regional Park
The Paddle: Pohick Bay is an ideal place for families to explore the greater tidal Potomac River. Rent canoes, kayaks or standup paddleboards and ply the south shore of Pohick Bay. Cruise along the shores of Pohick Bay Regional Park to the mouth of Pohick Creek, with its channel entering the bay. Circle around the north part of Pohick Bay before returning to the park, which has its own launch for non-motorized boats. Add other activities to your adventure, from hiking to picnicking to nature study at this 1,000 acre-preserve.
After the Paddle: You earned a pizza from Astoria Pizza Restaurant. Go enjoy it. While in the area, consider visiting Prince William Forest Park, with its historic CCC buildings, trails, and scenic drive.
GREAT DISMAL SWAMP/LAKE DRUMMOND
Photo Credit: John Henley
Nearest Town: Chesapeake
Canoe/kayak Rental: No
The Paddle: Make an 8-mile there-and-back into the Great Dismal Swamp. Start at the state boat ramp on US 17 near Ballahack Road. Paddle your canoe or kayak south through the Dismal Swamp Canal then west on a feeder canal to Lake Drummond, one of only two natural freshwater lakes in Virginia, part of the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Continue west on the feeder canal to reach cypress-ringed 3,000-plus acre Lake Drummond, a Virginia legacy.
After the Paddle: Eat dockside on the nearby Elizabeth River at the Amber Lantern Restaurant. Overlooks the water with good food but a casual atmosphere.
EASTERN SHORE NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
Photo Credit: Rachel Stevens
Nearest Town: Cape Charles
Canoe/kayak Rental: Yes, at Southeast Expeditions
The Paddle: You can rent your own kayak or go on a tour (recommended) to explore the creeks of the Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge, located on the Eastern Shore of the state. Cruise among the marshes, looking for wildlife, especially rewarding for birders. Work the tides to your advantage. Going on the tour is a good idea for those less familiar with kayaking coastal waters, or handling a sea kayak. Plus the guides know where to spot the wildlife!
After the Paddle: Head to the Shanty for some seafood, situated directly on Cape Charles harbor, adding a visual element to stimulate your palette.
photo credit: Bill Crabtree, Jr.
Nearest Town: Chincoteague
Canoe/kayak Rental: Yes, at Assateague Explorer
The Paddle: Head out to the Eastern Shore and start your adventure at Chincoteague Island and paddle the ocean and adjacent bays. A good way to start is to join a sea kayak tour, where your boat and guide are furnished, taking the worry out of paddling in tidal regions. Leave Chincoteague Island then paddle out to Assateague National Seashore, seeking out the wild ponies that call Assateague home. Land on the shore and walk along the Atlantic before returning to your base on Chincoteague.
After the Paddle: There’s a wealth of activities in addition to kayaking at Chincoteague – go fishing on charter boat, take a scenic cruise, go hang gliding, or take a flight above the Atlantic. Restaurants and hotels aplenty can be found here, enabling an extended vacation.