30 Kayaking Tours within One Hour of Washington, DC

kayaking washington dc

By Steve Smolinski

Longtime paddler and wooden kayak builder Steve Smolinski has written for Sports Focus Magazine. This is his first book. He and his wife paddle their hand-built kayaks in and near DC, as well as elsewhere, whenever they possibly can.

Steve and his wife Karen have been avid kayakers in the Washington, DC area for over 10 years and after finding a number of routes discussed in various forums online he had never seen one single reference guide that included it all.  As professionals they wanted to limit the amount of time spent in a car so they could maximize time on the water… hence the book title. 30 Kayaking Tours within One Hour of Washington, DC  catalogs the incredible diversity of waterways ideal for short to medium length paddles just a short distance from the nation’s capital—from the Potomac, Patuxent, and Anacostia rivers to lakes, reservoirs, and small tributaries. These are all half-day to full-day trips, including the short drives from the city, covering nearby Virginia and Maryland paddles as well as some within the District itself. With special focus on tides, time of day, and season, Smolinski helps enhance the reader’s chances of observing the wildlife that is so unexpectedly plentiful here. Smolinski is not only an avid kayaker but also a builder of wooden kayaks, and he devotes sections to the immense satisfaction of being on the water in a craft made from scratch—a Zen experience, he says.

kayaking washington DC

Steve Smolinski (author of 30 Kayaking Tours within One Hour of Washington, DC) & his wife, Karen, paddling the James River in their handbuilt wooden kayaks.


Here’s a Sample Paddle Trip from the book: Paddling Pohick Bay

Directions: From the Beltway, U.S. Route 495, take Route 95 South to exit 161 to Lorton, Route 1 North. Go about 1.5 miles to the first stop light and turn right on to Gunston Rd. Go about 4 miles to Pohick Bay Regional Park entrance on left.

GPS Coordinates: 38 deg, 40’, 37” N, 77 deg, 10’, 07” W

Amenities: The Park is open 7 days a week 0700 to dark; there is a $4/kayak launch fee in jurisdiction (resident of the counties of Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun and the cities of Alexandria, Fairfax and Falls Church), and $6 launch fee for non-jurisdiction. and there are restroom facilities adjacent to the parking lot. Kayak rentals and instruction are available as well; Kayaks can be rented for $8.50/hour or $37/day ($9.50/hour and $41/day for non-jurisdiction). The Park also has guided canoe and kayak trips, camping, miniature golf and a Frisbee disc golf course on site. For more information, see http://www.nvrpa.org/parks/pohickbay/index.php.

Length of Paddle: 3 1/2 miles – 5 3/4 miles; 1 3/4 – 2 3/4 hours

Route Description: Entering the boat launch area, there are two boat ramps to the right of a very large parking lot. While you can launch here, at the far end of the parking lot is a terrific sandy beach ideal for launching cartop watercraft.

This has become one of our favorite paddles because of the large diversity in wildlife seen on each trip, as well as the crystal clear water in Pohick Bay. While it’s not required to go at or near high tide, the higher water levels allow you to paddle further up both Pohick and Accotink Creeks.

Once you launch, turn left and follow the shoreline. You will see a few houses along this portion of the paddle, but these will be the only ones visible along the route. During the spring through fall months, you will encounter river grass and spatterdock vegetation (also called cow lilly) covering the surface of a significant portion of Pohick Bay. After about 1/4 mile, you will see large stands of spatterdock and the entrance to Pohick Creek. In areas free of the sea grass, you will be able to see in excess of six feet to the bottom. We have spotted 12”-18” catfish, slightly smaller bass, and turtles swimming near our boats.

On our most recent paddle, on New Years Day, in unseasonably warm mid-50 deg weather, most of the Potomac river upstream of Pohick Bay was iced in at the launch points, but the majority of Pohick Bay was ice free. Ice did fill in portions of the Pohick and Accotink creeks, but we still were able to get in an hour and a half paddle, and saw over 30 blue herons, several eagles and a variety of ducks, golden eyes, bufflehead ducks, and mallards.

Upon entering Pohick Creek, the spatterdock will guide your way in the spring through fall months. It is recommended staying in the main channel on the way up the creek, and save any exploring of side channels, of which there are several, for the way back. As you head up the creek, depending on the season, there are beautiful, white Marsh Mallow flowers (used for both medicinal and ornamental purposes), and pickerelweed along the banks. You may encounter some bass fishermen even quite a ways upcreek as you continue on.

1Marsh mallow

Marsh Mallow

After exploring the creek for about 1 1/4 miles, you will pass under a wooden walking bridge, and shortly after that, a point where the creek shallows to small ripples over the bottom. On our last paddle as we reached this turnaround point, we saw an adult deer crossing the creek about 50 yards further than our position.

Traveling back down creek, there is a cut to the right that you can follow all the way back to Pohick Bay. About half way along the cut, we encountered an egret rookery with about 30 adult and immature egrets vying for vantage points on two co-located dead trees.

egret rookery

Egret Rookery

Once you have exited the creek and re-enter Pohick Bay, stay left and paddle along the shore as the bay curves around. There’s an abundance of herons and egrets to be found along the shoreline. About ½ mile up the cove, the shoreline opens up considerably, marking the entrance to Accotink Creek. For a shorter paddle (about 3 1/2 miles), head back across Pohick Bay to the launch point, passing a small island in the middle of the bay.

For the longer paddle, turn left into one of two entrances of Accotink creek. In the spring through fall months, you will encounter lots of spatterdock vegetation similar to the Pohick Creek entrance. Staying to the left, you may come across a heron rookery in the trees along the shore.  On our most recent paddle, we saw upwards of thirty herons along this stretch. Like Pohick Creek, you can paddle about 1 mile up the creek before having to turn around because of the shallow depth.

On the return trip back to Pohick Bay, when you reach a fork in the creek, stay left to paddle a new stretch of the creek. Head across Pohick Bay back to the launch point.

Excerpt from Zen and the art of Building a Wooden Kayak:

No significant carpentry skills are required to build a kayak, nor knowledge of how boats are constructed.  Once you begin the process, however, you quickly become totally immersed in the step-by-step evolution from a bunch of pieces of wood, fiberglass cloth and epoxy to something that will become a beautiful vessel to transport you across the water… I first became aware of the benefits of a hand-built wooden kayak in 2003, when my wife, Karen, and I first started kayaking together.  The wooden kayak was lighter, tracked straighter, and required much less effort to paddle.”

“Another surprising benefit of a wooden kayak is its durability.  Both the kayaks I have built for our use have  had significant scrapes along rocky river bottoms and concrete boat ramps.  While the scrapes were noticeable, a very cursory sanding and one or two layers of varnish returned the surface to it’s pristine condition.  A confession: I accidentally backed into our garage door, as the door was rising up, with the kayaks on top of the car, and the aluminum door panel buckled and had to be replaced, but the kayaks were undamaged!”

After a couple of years of paddling his brother’s wooden kayak, Steve got tired of answering people’s questions about whether he built it or not with, “No, my brother did.”  He says he researched the various wooden kayak websites and discussed it with his brother.  “I settled on the Pygmy series from Port Townsend, Washington, mainly because I liked the lines of their boats over the other companies I looked at.”

“So now when we go out paddling, we are almost always met with comments like, ‘Wow, those sure are pretty boats! Did you build them?’ I can now say proudly that I did, and we invariably spend several minutes talking about both the boats and the experience of building them.”

30 Kayaking Tours within One Hour of Washington, DC is available for purchase at: http://www.countrymanpress.com/titles/KayakDC.html

Wooden Bridge & Wooden Kayaks

Wooden Bridge & Wooden Kayaks


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