Paddling Guide to the Shenandoah River

Plan an overnight adventure on one of the country’s best rivers to launch a multi-day paddling, camping, and fishing trip from a canoe or kayak.

Go ahead and sing it: “Oh, Shenandoah, I long to see you; Away, you rolling river…” You’ll be singing this storied river’s praises as soon as you paddle it as well; it’s just as perfect for floating as it is for a folk song tradition.   

The principal tributary of the Potomac River, the Shenandoah is 55.5 miles long, with two forks that are about 100 miles long each in Virginia and West Virginia. Draining the Appalachians’ Shenandoah and Page valleys on the west side of the Blue Ridge Mountains, its multiple paddling sections cater well to beginner and intermediate paddlers for their easy flatwater, camping options and access. Pick your boat launch and trip length and start planning an on-water adventure; the region lends itself to easy, permit-free overnight options, with both private and public camping options, as well as numerous companies able to assist with shuttle services, boat rentals, and guided trip offerings. No matter how long your trip, expect outstanding scenery and wildlife (and to break out in song). 

South Fork Shenandoah 

Covering 1,650 square miles, the South Fork begins at the confluence of the North and South rivers near Port Republic, Va., before flowing north 97 miles to meet the North Fork and form the Shenandoah proper at Front Royal, Va. Surrounded by George Washington National Forest to the west and Shenandoah National Park to the east, it’s a popular destination for canoeists with its low gradient serving up miles of tranquil flatwater interspersed with just enough Class I-II rapids to keep you on your toes. Note: three low-head hydropower dams exist at the Virginia towns of Shenandoah, Newport and Luray, requiring a portage around. Still, the river’s beauty and its proximity to urban areas (notably Washington, D.C., roughly an hour east) attract thousands of paddlers each year, with several canoe outfitters operating trips on various sections. It’s also a haven for tubers later in the summer. Twenty public access points along the river let you plan float trips of varying distances. 

Hotspots include the Waynesboro Water Trail, a 4-mile stretch of the South Fork with easy put-in/takeout points in between for shorter trips (try starting at Ridgeview Park and paddling down to Basic Park). Also worth floating: the 3-mile stretch from Beaker’s Ferry to Foster’s, which you can add another 9 miles to by extending the trip to Burner’s Bottom (taking in the splashes of Class II Compton’s Rapid). Want to go overnight? Head down to Bentonville for a two-day trip, or all the way to Front Royal for a three-day outing, staying at cabins or camping along the way.    

North Fork Shenandoah 

Another idyllic canoeing river, the North Fork of the Shenandoah drains 1,034 square miles of northeastern Virginia, flowing north 116 miles from northern Rockingham County to Front Royal, where it joins the South Fork to form the main stem. Littered with bedrock ledges, the “Seven Bends” section between Woodstock and Edinburg harbors especially good fishing opportunities.

While smaller than the South Fork, the North Fork still offers excellent canoeing with clear water, scenery, wildlife and mild whitewater. (Caution: Low flows in late summer can require walking your boat through shallow areas.) Also, note the six dams along the stretch: the first upstream of Timberville; three between Edinburg and the state Route 758 bridge east of Woodstock; and two between Strasburg and Riverton. The North Fork undulates through Rockingham and Shenandoah counties, offering smooth, clear water, incredible views of Massanutten Mountain, and lots of wildlife, including many species of fish like large and smallmouth bass, channel catfish, crappie, muskie, and sunfish. Because of its abundance, the river is widely considered one of the top 10 smallmouth bass rivers in America. 

Main Stem Shenandoah

The main stem of the Shenandoah is formed at Front Royal, Va., where the North and South forks join. Flowing 57 miles until emptying into the Potomac River at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., the river’s 35 miles in Virginia is designated as a state scenic river, whose gentle sections and low gradient with occasional Class I riffles make it wonderful for tubing, canoeing and kayaking. It’s also packed with fish like smallmouth and largemouth bass, sunfish, crappie, muskie, and channel catfish, making it popular with anglers. Note: One hydroelectric project, the Warren Dam, is located just downstream of Front Royal. Five public access points, owned by the Virginia Dept. of Game and Inland Fisheries, serve as put-ins and takeouts, with private land comprising most of the banks.  

Best Season

Any sunny day between mid-April to mid-October can be ideal to settle into a canoe or kayak on any of the Shenandoah sections.  

Best View

If you’re near the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley, paddle on the historic Potomac River near Harpers Ferry, taking in the view of the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers—it’s as dramatic a photo op as you’ll find on the East Coast. 


Front Royal Outdoors offers self-guided canoe, kayak, raft, and tube trips on the South Fork, including specialty fishing kayaks and standup paddleboards. Shenandoah River Outfitters in Luray is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and can shuttle you upriver, letting you float back at your own pace (choose from canoes, kayaks, rafts or tubes). 


Looking for something else to do in the area? Take a side-trip to a cave and explore the unique limestone formations and cathedral-sized rooms of Luray Caverns, the East’s most extensive cave system. Info: 

Post-Paddle Suds

Head to the Shenandoah Valley Brewing Co., in Staunton, birthplace of Woodrow Wilson, for a ShenVal Lager (or darker lager called The New Sheriff).  

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.