Downstream from an inconspicuous slide put-in at Kelly’s Ford, roughly 30 miles upstream of Fredericksburg, the Rappahannock River gently meanders through 17 miles of fertile cropland, forest and wildlife management area before joining the Rapidan at the Confluence, a popular recreational hangout.
Here, paddlers, anglers and sunbathers become one with a river that offers everything wild and necessary to restore the human spirit. Less than 10 miles north of downtown Fredericksburg, the Confluence could easily pass as an exotic location on a faraway island.
Long, uninterrupted river vistas, curtains of greenery and large rock outcroppings characterize much of the upper Rapphannock; especially, the 8-mile stretch between Snake Castle Rock and the Confluence.
It is a segment favored by John Tippett, executive director of the Friends of the Rappahannock, a nonprofit advocate for the river that coordinated the development of the Rappahannock River Water Trail—one of 21 water trails in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network.
The trail covers a 30-mile stretch
in the middle section of the Rappahan-nock, the longest free-flowing river in the Bay watershed, stretching from its headwaters in the Blue Ridge Mountains to its meeting with the Chesapeake Bay at Stingray Point, the latter named for the fish that nearly killed Capt. John Smith at the site in 1608.
The Friends of the Rappahannock’s mantra for the water trail—as with other education projects—is: “Explore the river not just as consumers, but as stewards.” It is a message that the group has been consistent about, and it has served its reputation well.
“It’s a difficult line to walk,” Tippett acknowledged. “You try to provide additional recreational opportunities for people, but not at the environmental cost of the experience.”
Put another way, the goal is to make the river accessible, but not to lose the integrity of the wildness people come to see and appreciate. And that wildness comes in many forms. The Rappahannock boasts Class II and Class III rapids in several reaches—drawing a broad constituency of whitewater paddlers. The American Canoe Association’s Collegiate Nationals will take place in the river in early June.
Many recreational fish species live in the Rappahannock, most notably, largemouth and smallmouth bass. With destruction of the Embrey Dam in 2004, the Rappahannock now flows 184 miles unimpeded. As a result, large numbers of shad, herring and striped bass are returning to their historical river “roots.”
Anglers across the state have turned their gaze toward the Rappahannock, especially since the recent fish kills in the Shenandoah. They are joined by wildflower enthusiasts, birders and naturalists who come to catch a glimpse of bald eagles, beaver and river otter.
In the upper-middle reaches of the trail, expansive rocks form small islands that provide a variety of primitive campsites, many of which can only be accessed by boat. These are quite popular and are used on a first-come, first-served basis. Tippett noted that most paddlers get their first or second choice, though, even during the height of the camping season.
This same section of the water trail to below the old Embrey Dam attracts swimmers and picnickers during summer months. The FOR monitors water levels and warns potential users of the dangers that fast-moving currents present. (Check their website,
www.riverfriends.org, before venturing out.) An especially troublesome spot in the area of the old dam, for example, collects sediments and creates a deep underwater sinkhole that can surprise even the most capable swimmers.
Public access points along portions of the trail are few and far between, so planning ahead makes sense. Because of the long distances involved, paddlers in many cases will need to camp overnight on the river or take advantage of a local livery service.
This is the first year that paddlers can explore the river with a newly printed map and guide. Produced with funding from the National Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay Gateways Program, the river map and a trail guide also describes in detail the cultural and natural features of the upper Rapidan and Rappahannock rivers to the Fredericksburg City Dock (just south of the fall line). While the 30-mile water trail ends here, the river of course does not. It becomes a much wider tidal tributary more suited to the powerful, motorized boats making their way south to the Chesapeake.
The trail guide and map are printed on waterproof paper and brim with safety information, low-impact usage tips and stewardship information, like how to practice “catch and release” fishing.
Inside the guide are detailed nuggets of historical events, Native American influences, wildlife and other attractions that visitors are likely to take in while traveling on the river.
Canals serviced both the Rapidan and Rappahannock during the early industrial era of the 1800s, and a series of locks promoted navigation for flat-bottom boats, called bateaux, at dam locations.
Today, paddlers venturing along the canal at Ellis’s Mill (Mile 130.2), will be humbled by its cut through the massive Snake Castle Rock at the northern end of the old dam. Three sides of the old stone grist mill dating back to 1740 are still visible.
Evidence of other mills, locks and canal paths still exists in many sections of the Rappahannock Water Trail, allowing visitors an opportunity to explore this piece of 19th-century U.S. history.
Interpretation of the river’s treasures was also boosted by Gateway Program grants, which were used to install 10 interpretive kiosks along the water trail to showcase historical events and natural features of the river valley.
One unforeseen outcome of the water trail project has greatly benefited the wide diversity and skill levels of recreational users that swarm to the river. A river mileage system established using GPS-based data points is the official one used by emergency responders during search and rescue events. Working with private landowners, local rescue squads are securing “locked access” to old farm trails and footpaths that lead to the water’s edge, thereby shaving valuable time off rescue efforts.
“We were able to locate these small trails based on the aerial images used in the map products,” Tippett said. He noted that this compromise helps to address the challenge of increased activity on river segments with limited public access points.
The trail also benefits from some of the organization’s advocacy work. Last year, it led a successful campaign that resulted in the City of Fredericksburg placing 4,200 acres of prime waterfront acreage into a conservation easement.
The group is working with Fredericksburg to craft a comprehensive management plan for its easement properties along the river corridor. The city, for its part, is hiring a river steward to oversee the management of these parcels, including campsites and other public amenities on the river.
As part of the water trail initiative, the Friends of the Rappahannock will soon open an orientation center that features safety exhibits and real-time data on water levels and weather conditions.
The underlying message: Know your limits and budget enough time to make your trip safe. The newly published trail guide and map—along with a soon-to-be-released guide for the lower, tidewater section of the river—will help visitors do just that.
Friends of the Rappahannock
The Friends of the Rappahan-nock Office and Water Trail Visitor Center is generally open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays.
Public river access sites are open during daylight hours whenever the official water level gauge near Fredericksburg, VA, indicates the river is below 3.2 feet. Paddlers can check the current river level and upstream weather conditions at the FOR website www.riverfriends.org to avoid dangerous rising river levels.
Links to local outfitters are also found at the site.
There are no access fees at public Rappahannock River landing sites in the Fredericksburg area.
For information or to order a trail guide and map, call the Friends of the Rappahannock at 540-373-3448, or visit www.riverfriends.org.