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.
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.
Some rivers are so peaceful and unspoiled, you almost don’t want to spread the word, but the exception is the Mattaponi River above Aylett, Virginia. This rare stretch of undeveloped coastal plain river is one of those places that just calms and relaxes as you float along.
I’ve made many great memories along the Mattaponi at Zoar State Forest, a 40 minute drive northeast of Richmond. There’s the sunny December day my wife and I paddled into flooded bottomlands between sycamores and loblolly pines, the hike during my baby daughter’s first spring where we discovered pink swamp azaleas and bright green new growth, and the September evening I spent just floating with the river’s current in a canoe.
Adding another memory to the list, last August I set out with a friend on a quintessential Virginia paddle – roughly 4.5 river miles from Zoar State Forest to the Aylett boat ramp. Here the Mattaponi begins its transformation from a narrow, forest-lined river to a marshy tidal waterway. Wildlife abounds, and there are few visitors.
After turning into the forest’s entrance, we immediately bear left at the fork and follow the dirt road to the parking lot. We carry the canoe down a short trail to reach the boat slide on Herring Creek. With the summer water level low, the creek was just a few inches deep, so we walked the canoe a few hundred feet to the Mattaponi River.
The first thing we notice on our paddle is the dark water. Tannins from the leaves of nearby trees have stained the river the color of iced tea. The clean, sandy bottom is visible through three feet of clear amber water, schools of minnows darting about. The air buzzes with choruses of crickets and cicadas.
With the water level so low in late summer, the going is rough at first. For the first two miles the river is narrow and winding, with logs fallen almost completely across it in places. But the slow current is forgiving, giving us plenty of time to thread the canoe between fallen branches.
While we don’t see any other people on the river, there’s life all around. Kingfishers fly low over the water in search of a meal. Ospreys perch in the tree branches above. Something scrambles down the riverbank and splashes into the water. Maybe an otter? A hefty fish jumps right in front of the canoe.
“The river is associated with swampland in the floodplain that’s right alongside it,” Dennis Gaston of the Virginia Department of Forestry later told me. “It has a very rich diversity of both fauna and flora that inhabit that ecological niche.”
Beyond the trees and wildlife, the paddle reveals unexpected sights. Along sharp riverbends, small clay cliffs rise out of the water, their sides glistening with springs. Tiny waterfalls drip off the lush ferns and moss at the top of these cliffs. Streams rush out of basketball-sized holes in the clay near the river’s waterline. Gaston said people sometimes find fossilized sharks’ teeth embedded in the clay.
After about 2.5 miles, we notice a change. After navigating constant sharp riverbends and logjams, the river begins to widen and straighten. While we’re still over 60 river miles from the Bay, the tidal influence becomes noticeable here. In fact, the Mattaponi has the highest average daily tide change of any river in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Falling water leaves exposed mudbanks shaded by forests of spatterdock leaves – umbrella-like plants found in tidal freshwater marshes – and a great blue heron pokes around in the flats.
Soon we paddle under the Route 360 bridge at Aylett and towards the boat ramp on river right. While we pull out here, if we had continued downstream the river would widen further and become flanked by big tidal marshes near Walkerton. This stretch is prized by anglers during the spring migratory fish runs that bring perch and shad, along with the resident bass, catfish, and crappie. In late winter, I was lucky enough to explore this part of the Mattaponi with Capt. John Page Williams to produce this video.
There are few places in our region where you can paddle for miles along a blackwater river without seeing development of any kind. Zoar State Forest makes it easy to access the wonders of the Mattaponi. While word about this amazing river hasn’t spread too far, paddlers who make the trip will not be disappointed.
This trip isn’t for total beginners, but with some planning can easily be completed by paddlers with a bit of experience.The Mattaponi is always changing depending on the season, tide, and recent rainfall level. Look up the current conditions before setting out.
First, check the water level at this gauge. A gauge height between 4 and 8 feet is the sweet spot for paddling. The day we went it was at 3.2 feet, which makes for a slow and technically challenging trip over downed trees. Really high water levels bring strong currents that make paddling dangerous.
Consulting the tide chart for Aylett or Walkerton is also crucial. Plan on a falling tide, ideally leaving Zoar State Forest at high tide or up to 2 hours afterwards. You’ll go with the flow rather than battle tidal currents.
This water trail follows approximately 120 river miles along the tidal York, Mattaponi, and Pamunkey rivers. The route spans a diverse landscape through parts of Virginia described and mapped by Captain John Smith in the 1600s.