Potomac River Water Trail


Potomac River Water Trail

As an American Heritage River and with 300 miles recognized as a National Recreation Trail, the Potomac River is closely connected to our Nation's history and rich in recreational opportunities. Beginning at Jennings Randolph Lake to the mouth of the Potomac, you may choose to paddle the 355 miles to the Chesapeake Bay or take a single or multi-day trip; all will give you a different view of the ways that previous residents used the river and its banks for their livelihood, transportation and recreation.Please note that boating, canoeing, kayaking and other activities on rivers can be dangerous. Plan your trip and follow all safety precautions.

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Remember: safe use of rivers and any designated trails, at any time, is your responsibility! Trail maps are for informational and interpretive purposes only and are not meant for navigational purposes, nor do they take into account level of skills or ability required to navigate such trails. The Chesapeake Conservancy, National Park Service, and/or the individual trail associations assume no responsibility or liability for any injury or loss resulting directly or indirectly from the use of trails, maps or other printed or web-based materials.

Main image: Potomac River Water Trail


Hours and seasons for public launch sites vary. Consult the map and guide for details.


Many sites along the Potomac have user fees. Check with the site manager in advance.


Experience the Potomac River Water Trail by boat, canoe or kayak. The Potomac is suitable for sailing and motoring all the way to Washington DC. The river is quite wide in its lower half - up to 12 miles near the Chesapeake Bay; adverse weather conditions can make it particularly dangerous for canoeists or kayakers.

When on the river, you can fish, look for wildlife, visit riverside communities and historic sites, or just enjoy the surrounding landscape. The Potomac River Water Trail Map & Guide provides information on many sites along the river. Visit these sites to learn more about the Potomac and the Bay.

Be sure to consult a water trail guide, detailed maps and local conditions prior to any river trip! Follow all safety precautions.


There are many existing public or commercial launch sites along the water trail route. Launch sites provide parking and access to the river. Communities and sites along the route provide a variety of visitor services.

Water Trail Maps.


State and federal parks have ADA accessible facilities. Other sites will vary.

Trail History

An anchor in the ever-changing context of the Potomac is George Washington's vision of the River as "the great avenue into the Western Country." The Potomac provided the central hub in the life of our Nation's first president. He was born and died on its banks, he surveyed much land within the basin, and his calling as a military leader came on the river and in defense of the Potomac Country for the British Crown. Washington used the River as a highway from the eastern settlements to the wilder west, and it provided food, income, and power for many. Washington himself owned about 12,000 acres of land in scattered locations.

The theme of an east-west corridor links the history, transportation and technology of the Potomac River corridor. Prior to the European invasion, land transportation in the Potomac region was largely by trail, usually the improved trace of a game trail. Large mammals, especially bison and elk during historic times, picked routes that used the least energy and, over the years, the passage of animals engraved trails in the landscape. People followed these trails and the resulting paths became the established routes of travel.

Transportation by waterway was unreliable at best. Whenever paddlers encountered an obstruction they would have to carry their crafts around the obstructions. But as General Washington recognized, the Potomac represented more than an avenue west--it also represented resources and water power. The River has provided a rich fisheries resource, remarked upon by Captain Henry Fleet in 1631. Washington harvested the river to feed his establishment fish, both fresh and salt, to sell and to fertilize his fields. The shad population in the River may be taken as an example of a fairly typical change in abundance overtime. Washington harvested a seemingly unlimited population of shad and, in the 1832 harvest, 22,500,000 were taken. A century of overfishing, obstacles to upstream migration, and pollution have resulted in reducing the shad population to the status of threatened. Today, however, American shad reintroduction is described as a success story.

European colonists recognized the vast potential of waterpower by adopting water laws, including mill seat rights, as some of their first legislation. As long as the Europeans remained confined to the Tidewater, there were very few sites with enough feet of fall to power a water mill. Wind and tidal mills predominated during this period, but as settlement expanded into the Piedmont mill-seats became an important aspect of land grants. The individual mill evolved in two ways: Many started as saw mills and produced lumber until the area was cleared; and either seasonally or sequentially, they were used to mill grain, plaster, bone, wool, paper as well as used for cutting stone.

During the War of 1812, British ships were a common sight on the Potomac River.

Last updated: October 05, 2021