It is rare to find a waterway that allows paddlers to determine the length and difficulty of their trip. The lower capital section of the Susquehanna River, from Camp Hill to Highspire, is just such a stretch of river. Whether you are looking for a short, easy to navigate trip, or want to spend the day afloat, both are possible in this one section. Plus, there are numerous islands to explore if you wish, and best of all it’s all within minutes of almost anywhere in Pennsylvania’s Capital Region!
The Susquehanna River, at over 444 miles in length, is one of the most popular river systems in not only Pennsylvania, but the Northeast United States as well. Due to its many scenic stretches and lack of commercial traffic, the Susquehanna is popular among all types of outdoor enthusiasts – from anglers chasing smallmouth in Harrisburg, to boaters towing skiers in Wrightsville, or paddlers getting an up-close photo of the mini Statue of Liberty, there is truly something for everyone.
Despite its overall popularity, there are still sections of the river that are relatively unknown to the average paddler, areas that are rarely spoken of when discussing “must paddle places.” The lower capital section, from Camp Hill to Highspire, is one of these sections. Although it will rarely make a paddler’s bucket list, it is a hidden gem worth a few hours of your time.
I started my own exploration at the Market Street Access Area. This free public launch is located on the southside of New Cumberland, behind Bob McCollum Park, and is maintained by the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission. With a narrow ramp that passes under a railroad bridge and a small parking lot, this launch is not ideal for motorboats, but it is perfect for paddlers. Once you reach the water you will find plenty of open shoreline, perfect for beaching your kayak while you park, and you can launch into a wide, calm section of river.
Even though I was only a few miles from downtown Harrisburg, three major interstates, and nearly a quarter million residents, I was instantly immersed in a paddler’s dream. Wide, slow-moving water that was almost devoid of any other users allowed me a carefree, relaxing float that is rarely available on other area waterways. Although one might believe this was due to my visiting during the middle of the week – at a time when few waterways are crowded to their maximum capacity – that was not the case. The truth is this section of the Susquehanna rarely finds more than a handful of users on the water at any given time. Not only is there limited access (the two accesses I used for this trip are the only two on this stretch), this area is also very shallow, making it unsuitable for most motorboats. The boaters who do utilize this area are primarily anglers, or waterfowl hunters during the fall running jet boats.
As I continued down river, I quickly lost sight of the few anglers visible near the launch and spent the rest of the trip in solitude. My thoughts quickly turned to how perfect this area would be for a host of paddling activities including kayaking, canoeing and even stand up paddle boarding. I also envisioned bringing younger, inexperienced paddlers here, allowing them to hone their basic skills without the worries or stress that comes with increased traffic.
Islands to explore, Tom Burrell photo
Although the scenery varied slightly as I moved south, with the iconic Three Mile Island towers becoming visible in the distance and the islands giving way to wide open water, the conditions remained relatively calm. While there is the occasional rock or ledge to watch for, most of the water is clear of obstacles or dangerous rapids. Depending on the season and water levels you may need to watch for areas shallow enough to cause you to bump bottom. If you’re paddling during the fall, it is likely you will encounter waterfowl hunters, as the Susquehanna River is a major flyway and many of the islands are dotted with hunting blinds. If paddling during this time, it is advisable that you steer clear of the islands and be on the lookout for blinds, decoys or other signs of active hunting.
I ended my trip at the Steelton/Highspire boat ramp, located on the left bank just below the Turnpike Bridge. Although there is a fee to use this ramp ($5 per day or $50 per year), it is worth the investment. Not only is it the only available takeout until Middletown, it is a very nice and well-maintained park with a new ramp. Plus, you will have easy access to I-83, RT 283 and the PA Turnpike when leaving. Although I took a semi-direct route and covered the almost three miles in just under two hours, you could easily expand your trip in terms of both distance and time. Because the river is so wide in this area – averaging just over a half mile – you could double or triple the trip simply by zigzagging to explore different areas.
The portion of the Susquehanna River just below Harrisburg is best known for its past connection to the region’s industrial interests. At various times in the past the river has supported commercial fishing, the steel industry and major rail hubs. Today many of those businesses are gone, but their remnants remain and are often visible within yards of the riverbank. This past history is one of the reasons this section is not as popular with sportsmen as City Island or Goldsboro. But if you can look past the less than picturesque shorelines and see what this section does offer, it is likely you will make it one of your go-to paddling areas.
From Harrisburg to Havre de Grace, this 65 mile stretch of the Susquehanna shows off the scope of this largest tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. Canoeists and kayakers can explore the river's history and scenic beauty.