Things to Do

20 Great Ways to Get Out on the Water on the Potomac River

Here are some favorite local outings and day trips.

Leesylvania State Park. Photograph by Evy Mages

Two words of caution about getting out on the Potomac. First, plan ahead. In this age of Covid, reservations are required for all outings. Second, it’s a big river and can change rapidly, so be sure to check conditions before setting out. If you can, stick to protected areas like creeks and bays, or go out with a guide.

Great for: Seeing Sunken Ships

In September, Maryland’s Mallows Bay—where a “ghost fleet” of more than 100 wooden World War I–era ships lies partially submerged—was designated a Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary. You can glide through the naval graveyard on a guided kayak tour ($49 or $75); register at 1440 Wilson Landing Rd., Nanjemoy.

Great for: Spotting an Eagle

Next to a federal sanctuary for bald eagles, Mason Neck State Park offers gorgeous scenery and chances to spot not only bald eagles but al-so swans, turtles, and other wildlife. You can rent a canoe or kayak to explore Kane’s Creek and Belmont Bay. 7301 High Point Rd., Lorton.

Great for: Seclusion

On days when Mason Neck State Park fills up and the parking lot closes, there may still be room at nearby Pohick Bay. You can rent a paddleboat, kayak, canoe, or SUP. And you may find yourself relatively alone on the hiking trails. 6501 Pohick Bay Dr., Lorton.

River & Trail Outfitters. Photograph by Steve Droter.

Great for: Tubing Whitewater

Near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, River Riders (rive­ and River & Trail Outfitters (rivertrail.comboth offer tubing trips ($27 to $47), either on a relatively quiet stretch of the Shenandoah or on thrilling whitewater in the Potomac. Afterward, head to Harpers Ferry Brewing Co. for a beer and a cliffside view of the river.

Great for: Cooling Off

On Potomac Paddlesports’ guided trip, Discover the Potomac ($98), you’ll enjoy a lushly canopied section of Muddy Branch creek where the air is typically ten degrees cooler than what surrounds it. On this silent stretch, you may see painted turtles and, if the water is clear, freshwater mussels.

Great for: Learning to SUP

For $49, Paddlestroke SUP will teach you the basics of standup paddleboarding. Looking for more challenge? You can eventually learn to “surf” the Potomac’s whitewater.

Great for: Learning to Sail

Belle Haven Marina is a good spot for the whole family to learn—the marina offers lessons to a group quarantined together. It rents sailboats, too, and the helpful staff will even tow you back in if the wind stops and you get stuck. (It happens.) George Washington Memorial Pkwy., Alexandria. Not sure you’ll like sailing enough to commit to lessons? Northern Virginia Sailing School offers a two-hour Try Sail outing ($100) at Leesylvania State Park, so you can get a feel for it first. 2001 Daniel K. Ludwig Dr., Woodbridge.

Great for: Learning to Row

Thompson Boat Center, typically the site of many regattas, has classes for beginners through advanced in scull rowing. Kayaks, canoes, and SUPs are also available to rent. 2900 Virginia Ave., NW.

Great for: Feminist History

Occoquan Regional Park, where you can rent a kayak to explore the Occoquan River, is the future home to the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial, scheduled to open in 2021. 9751 Ox Rd., Lorton.

Great for: Monumental Views

While many boathouses have suspended tours, Key Bridge Boathouse in Georgetown is still offering a SUP monument tour ($65) and sunset monument tour by kayak ($65) as well as SUP orientation ($55), kayak orientation ($55), and both dock ($25) and SUP yoga ($45). 3500 Water St., NW.

Great for: Going With the Flow

Maryland’s Point Lookout State Park sits at the southernmost tip of the Potomac, where it flows into the Chesapeake Bay, about a two-hour drive from DC. Visitors who come to hit the beach, camp, fish, or rent a canoe are surrounded by water on three sides—which is what made it a strategic lookout point during the Revolutionary War and War of 1812. 11175 Point Lookout Rd., Scotland​.

Great for: A Private Kayak Tour

The stretch of Mattawoman Creek in Indian Head, Maryland, where Atlantic Kayak offers private 90-minute sunset tours ($40 a person, minimum of six), is rich with fish and bird life and thick with stalks of wild rice, cattails, American lotus, and other lush native plants. 301-292-6455.

Great for: A Cheap Thrill

If you’re looking for an easy, inexpensive way to get out on the river, consider Potomac Riverboat Company’s water-taxi service. Several routes connect its docks at the Wharf, Georgetown, Old Town, and National Harbor. A one-way adult tick-et is $13; round trip $21.

The Wharf in DC. Photograph by Evy Mages

Great for: A Waterfront Lunch

Before or after you hop onto a rented kayak, canoe, or SUP at the Wharf Boathouse, you could grab a slice at Union Pizza or a soft-serve at Soda Pop Shop and enjoy it along the boardwalk. 700 Water St., SW.

Great for:

Learning to Fish Through August 28, you can tackle the basics of fishing, plus learn about the Anacostia River, on a free Friday Night Fishing event hosted by Anacostia Riverkeeper. Gear, bait, and life preservers (required for children 12 and younger) are provided. Sign up on Eventbrite. 1520 First St., SE;

Great for: Catching Fish

Snag a monster blue catfish, trout, or other catch with captain Jon Griffiths of Potomac River Trophies. Griffiths promises to use whatever it takes to land a fish—fly, light tackle, or sight fishing. Outings can be on a boat or on shore; $175 and up.

Great for: Fishing on Your Own

Fletcher’s Boathouse, just north of Georgetown, is a popular place to fish. It even sells bait. But you don’t have to be hooked on fishing to rent a rowboat, kayak, paddleboard, or canoe. Also on offer: 90-minute nature tours on selected evenings ($55). 4940 Canal Rd., NW.

Great for: Idling Under the Beltway

See a scenic stretch of the Potomac south of Old Angler’s Inn on a guided tour from Ashby Gap Adventures. Their half-day Potomac trip, which floats beneath the Beltway—they swear it’s “surreally quiet”—costs $85 a person ($55 for under age 14), or $425 to rent a raft for up to six guests. Ashby Gap also offers a fall-foliage float up near Harpers Ferry.

Great for: Camping and Kayaking

A genuine fossil beach awaits anyone who makes the nearly one-mile walk down Westmoreland State Park’s Big Meadow Trail. There you can spend a fabulous day hunting for prehistoric shark teeth along the brackish Potomac shore or just chill on the sand. You can also rent a kayak to explore Virginia’s Northern Neck shoreline. The camping is at a Civilian Conservation Corps–constructed park, and it’s fantastic. 145 Cliff Rd., Montross.

Great for: Renting a Powerboat

At Hampton’s Landing marina, you can rent a kayak or SUP to investigate picturesque Neabsco Creek. Does paddling sound like too much work? You can also rent a 24-foot motorized pontoon boat to tool around the Potomac. Rates start at $325 for four hours on a weekday. 16205 Neabsco Rd., Woodbridge.

Not included in this article are parks whose rentals or tours were suspended as of press time and those where you need your own boat to access the water. The outings and rentals here were open as of press time, though that could change.

This article originally appeared in our September, 2020 issue. To view our full guide to the Potomac River, click here.

Editor in chief

Sherri Dalphonse joined Washingtonian in 1986 as an editorial intern, and worked her way to the top of the masthead when she was named editor-in-chief in 2022. She oversees the magazine’s editorial staff, and guides the magazine’s stories and direction. She lives in DC.