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Paddleboarding through Nature Around Washington, D.C.

 

A note about COVID-19 and visiting parks: Help stop the spread of COVID-19 and follow all current directives from your governor and local health officials about wearing face masks and physical distancing.

In spring 2021, someone asked me about stand up paddleboard (SUP) trips in or near Washington, D.C. that afford easy escapes into the outdoors.  With 5,582,170 people, the population of the Washington, D.C.-Arlington-Alexandria metropolitan area is ranked seventh in the country.  Yet despite all the urban hustle and bustle, there are numerous places within 25 miles of the center of our nation’s capital where one can launch a SUP and appreciate the scenery, flora, and fauna that Mother Nature offers.

SUPs can launch any place a kayak can, and the trips I describe here are also well suited for recreational kayaks due to the short paddling distances and mostly sheltered waters.  However, SUPs are not kayaks and they have their drawbacks…particularly regarding the fin. A fin helps with tracking, but it also brings the paddler to a jarring stop when it collides with underwater obstacles such as submerged logs or rocks just below the surface, both of which are common in natural spaces.  In contrast, kayaks have retractable skegs, rudders (typically retractable), or neither.

The original fin that came with my SUP protruded 9.5 inches below the board.  I later switched to a 7-inch swept-back fin with a large surface area that made it easier to paddle in shallow spots while still maintaining good control.  Eventually, I installed a retractable fin, which as of 2021, is uncommon.  Fully extended, it is 11.5 inches long, but when it encounters an obstacle, it folds, creating a mere 3.5-inch profile.  Mine produces more drag than a fixed fin, but it also allows me to easily paddle in places that I never thought I could.  Recently, I've noticed that some SUPs are designed with a deep fin box built to support a fin that fully retracts into the board.

For most paddleboarders, the best way to minimize this issue is to time outings around the high tide.  This will help you avoid obstacles by being out when the water is at its deepest.  There are many resources for tidal information, but my favorite is Tidespy because it is overlaid on a map.

You’ll definitely want to use the tide to your advantage if exploring Pohick Bay.  It is a fantastic place for viewing wildlife, but it can get shallow.  Launch from the cartop boat launch in Pohick Bay Regional Park, Lorton, Virginia, and see how far you can paddle upstream against the current, from Pohick Bay to Pohick Creek.  Watch for cypress trees, beaver lodges, northern water snakes, and snapping turtles.  If you don’t have a SUP, the park will be happy to rent you one.


Paddleboarders make their way upstream on Pohick Creek

Snapping turtle on Pohick Bay

A great blue heron on Pohick Bay feeds its fledglings

A short distance from Pohick Bay is Mason Neck State Park, also in Lorton, Virginia, where one can launch at the cartop boat launch and then paddle northeast in Belmont Bay to Kanes Creek.  Here you’ll find pristine views, lizard’s tail flowers, violet-blue pickerelweed, and if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll see white pickerelweed – something I didn’t even know existed until I paddled there.  You can rent kayaks (but not SUPs) at the park.


Scenic view on Kanes Creek

White pickerelweed on Kanes Creek

Another place that rents kayaks (and canoes but not SUPs) is Patuxent River Park in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.  Renters and folks with their own watercraft can launch from Jacksons Landing and paddle upstream on the Patuxent River to the Western Branch, an area I describe in Paddling in Paradise at Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary.  One can also head downstream from Jacksons Landing to Jug Bay, a protected location designated an "Important Birding Area" by the National Audubon Society.


Osprey at Jug Bay

South of Jacksons Landing is a tributary of the Patuxent River called Mataponi Creek (top photo).  This, and other great locations, are best accessed via Selbys Landing, one of my favorite places to launch.  Mataponi Creek serves as the demarcation between Patuxent River Park and Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary, and is a superb spot for seeing wildlife and attractive scenery.


Muskrat on Mataponi Creek

Paddling on Mataponi Creek

The short but sweet House Creek, on the opposite side of the Patuxent River from Selbys Landing, is a place where you’ll want to investigate every nook and cranny so you can experience all that the marsh has to offer.  The view is especially nice from a SUP since you can see above the vegetation.


Daphne and I on House Creek

About 0.8 mile west of Selbys Landing is Lyons Creek, which serves as the border between Anne Arundel and Calvert counties.  It is a nice trip for the paddler looking for a narrow waterway having a good mix of marsh and swamp.


Paddling on Lyons Creek

There is no shortage of natural places to paddle along the Patuxent, but if you want to be on the water at dawn or dusk, when wildlife is more active and Patuxent River Park is closed, then Patuxent Wetlands Park in Lothian, Maryland, may be a better option.  Here, one can paddle upstream to explore Back Channel, home to many red-winged blackbirds and lovely yellow flowers of the Bidens genus.


Paddle Back Channel in September to see lots of yellow flowers of the Bidens genus

Downstream of Patuxent Wetlands Park are various narrow tributaries on the west side, lined with spatterdock and arrow arum.


Spatterdock-lined tributary of the Patuxent River, south of Patuxent Wetlands Park

Other terrific natural wetlands to explore via SUP in the Washington, D.C. area are described in articles I’ve written over the last couple of years:

American lotus flower on Mattawoman Creek

I can think of no activity more peaceful than paddleboarding in natural wetlands.  For people that live in or near our nation’s capital, there are numerous tranquil locations close to home where one can unwind, relax, and savor the natural beauty of the world from atop a SUP.

For more information, see
Current Results – Largest Cities in the United States
Prince George’s (PG) Parks – Jug Bay Natural Area

Patuxent River Water Trail

The Patuxent River Water Trail offers visitors the opportunity to paddle the river, camp along its banks and visit its numerous parks, historic sites, sanctuaries and wildlife areas.

Pohick Bay Regional Park

Pohick Bay is a water oriented park located on the Potomac River 25 miles south of the nation's capital. Pohick Bay offers canoes, kayaks, paddle boats and jon boats for rent on the weekends.

Mason Neck State Park

Overlooking the Potomac River, the park is a haven for migrating bird species in spring and fall. It has hiking trails, 3 miles of paved multi-use trails, a large picnic area, a playground, a car-top canoe launch and a visitor center.

Patuxent River Park Jug Bay Natural Area

Jug Bay Natural Area offers many activities including walking through wetlands, guided boat tours, hiking and horseback riding over eight miles of trails, boating, fishing, camping, hunting, and visiting a museum.

Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary

Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary encompasses almost 2,000 acrees adjacent to the Patuxent River. The habitat is managed primarily for geese, but many other wildlife can be seen here.

Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve

Dyke Marsh is located along the west bank of the Potomac River, approximately 95 miles from the Chesapeake Bay. Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve consists of approximately 485 acres of tidal marsh, floodplain, and swamp forest.

Kingman and Heritage Islands Park

Kingman and Heritage Islands are natural parklands found on the Anacostia River in Northeast Washington, DC. There are over 50 acres of natural area to be explored on these two island habitats by water and land.

Bladensburg Waterfront Park

Bladensburg Waterfront Park offers access to the Anacostia River for boating, fishing, birdwatching, and sightseeing at the "head of tide" just below the confluence of the Northeast Branch and Northwest Branch.

Saki

Saki has been exploring the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries on kayak or stand up paddleboard (SUP) since 1999. He has competed in various races, organized and led numerous trips, and circumnavigated Kent Island both via kayak and SUP. Saki also enjoys nature photography, hiking, cross country skiing, raising chickens, and looking for new adventures.

July 9, 2021

Main image: Mataponi Creek, all photos by Saki
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