A man fishes from a kayak

Paddling the Rivanna Reservoir

This quiet (motor-free) getaway provides central Virginia paddlers and anglers with easy access and an instant escape.

You don’t have to travel far to dip a paddle blade in a pristine and tranquil lake near Charlottesville, Va. Located on the city’s northeastern outskirts, the 450-acre South Fork Rivanna Reservoir is the largest body of water in the area, drawing paddlers of all types as an instant escape with its easy access. 

Owned and operated by the city of Charlottesville as a water supply reservoir, the man-made lake is formed by the Rivanna Mills dam near the main paddling launch off state Route 29, creating 5 miles of flatwater as a playground for paddlers, rowers and anglers. With gas-powered motors prohibited, the miles of undisturbed, forested shoreline and secluded coves offer a perfect getaway for canoeing, kayaking and standup paddleboarding. While you’re not allowed to swim in the reservoir, since it’s municipal drinking water, you can paddle to your heart’s content, heading upstream past the University of Virginia’s Rowing Boathouse until you encounter the river current coming in from above—covering that distance is a six-hour round-trip excursion sure to unplug you from busy work weeks.

Kayak Fishing

If you want to try your hand at fishing from either a canoe or a specialized fish kayak, you picked a great spot. The lake contains largemouth bass, bluegill, black and white crappie, redear sunfish and channel catfish. Try to catch them all for the Grand Slam. As evidenced by their limits, they’re plentiful: Largemouth bass have a harvest limit of five per day; sunfish 50; crappie 25; and catfish 20. While you can fish for them from shore, they’re even more fun to reel in from your paddlecraft. And reminder: You won’t have much competition from faster anglers as gas-powered boats aren’t allowed. More info: dwr.virginia.gov


Bring your binoculars with you and keep them handy. On your paddle you’re likely to glimpse great blue and the smaller green herons (likely out hunting small fish), belted kingfishers, Canada geese, a variety of ducks—and even bald eagles and ospreys as raptors have recently moved back to the Rivanna.

Getting There

The boat ramp for Rivanna Reservoir is located on state Route 659 off of VA-631 (Rio Road) on the north side of Charlottesville. (Keep in mind that the reservoir does not offer any other facilities besides a boat ramp and parking.) From Interstate 64, take VA-29 north for 2 miles, then a left onto Rio Road (VA-631). After a half-mile, take a right onto Woodburn Road (VA-659) for a couple of miles, bearing left to the lake access. Note: Parking is limited (though capacity may expand in the future), so carpool if possible. You can also access the reservoir at the Woodlands Road Boat Launch, although there is no parking, so you have to park on the road. More info: dgif.virginia.gov

Refresh & Refuel

Just a mile away from your launch, celebrate with a cold draft beer or legendary house margarita at the Texas Roadhouse, where you can also replenish the day’s carbs with hand-cut steaks, fall-off-the-bone ribs and fresh-baked bread. And hopefully you paddled longer than you expected because the portions are Blue Ridge big. More in the mood for pizza and suds? Try BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse for Chicago-style deep dish, handcrafted beers (try the Goliath Imperial Red IPA, with six different malts and four hops) and, yes, the unique Pizookie dessert. 

Want More?

You’ll find another great flatwater paddling option at the nearby 170-acre Ragged Mountain Reservoir, complete with hiking trails. Though keep in mind, the access isn’t as simple; you’ll have to carry your boat down a long, steep bank to launch: dgif.virginia.gov

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.