Having previously paddled various times on the North & South forks of the Shenandoah River, I had wondered what the main river was like further downstream. The opportunity to find out arose on a sunny June weekend, when I hooked up with friends Mike & The Bean for an overnight river campout. In savvy kayaker fashion, I promised them a delicious dinner if they hauled an ample supply of beer in Bean's canoe.
We shuttled Mike & Bean's trucks to the public landing at Locke's Mill near Berryville, strapped the Bean's canoe onto my kayakmobile and headed toward Front Royal. The Sheetz on Hwy. 340 was a convenient stop to pick up lunch, and of course more beer! After crossing the old single-lane, low-water bridge at Morgan's Ford, we parked in the small gravel lot there and were on the river before 9 AM.
I had read about this stretch of the Shen in Ed Grove's book which gave me a good idea of what to expect, but Ed doesn't give away all of her secrets. Almost immediately you are taken away by the bucolic scenery along the Blue Ridge, the deep green waters, and the peaceful solitude, despite being just a few miles off I-66. Unlike the South Fork where several outfitters run canoeing trips, the main Shenandoah seems to be the quiet domain of local fishermen. You see a few houses and RV campers along the way, but mostly just farmland hidden by a treeline on either bank.
The Shen alternates between deep pools of slow current, and quicker shallow Class I stretches riddled with shoals, river-wide ledges, and invisible boulders lurking just under the surface. Your boat will acquire a few new "character lines" at lower water levels. About 3 miles downstream of Morgan's Ford, you start to hear a dull roar, which sounds like a waterfall, but turns out to be a spectacular 3-ft ledge. A fisherman had advised us that the sneak route is a slot on river left, which I imagined might date back to the days of batteaux transporting goods downriver; just line up with the center of the slot and ride the fun wavetrain through it. Below the ledge there's several pourover spots you can do a little surfing on. Ferry across to river right and there's a gravel bar to stop and enjoy a cold beverage, and cast a line for smallies.
After a couple smaller ledges and a bend in the river, we came to Treasure Island -- not sure why it's named that, but it appears to be someone's camping spot. In fact we saw a truck on the island, there's a shallow ford on the backside. We stayed left in the main current, and crossed a couple more cobbled areas. After another long island, the river makes a 90° turn to the right, passing below a "Lover's Leap" cliff on the left; a stretch of flatwater then leads toward a 1000' hill called "The Blue Ball". At the base of the hill is a huge boulder in the river called "White Horse Rock". Didn't look like a horse to me, but it was a good spot to stop for lunch. Some small private recreational lots back up to Howellsville Road here. Jumping off the rock looks tempting, but there are boulders lurking underwater there too.
Shortly after the rock we came to Swift Shoals, which if the river is running good can surprise you. These are run at a diagonal left to right, with the more exciting lines on the left side, and a drop of a few feet over 30 yards. The river quieted down again and we came to Robinson Crusoe Island. If there's enough water you can go river right and explore the small creek-like channel behind the island. When I floated out from behind the island, I surprised two women who had paddled upstream from Hwy. 50 in their rec boats and were lounging riverside, reading books. I waited a bit for The Bean & Mike to catch up (all that paddling gets in the way of drinking beer ya know!), and we started scouting for a campsite as we crossed under the Hwy. 50 bridge.
After the bridge, there's a 2-mile-long island called Burwell Island. Again you can take the channel behind the island, escaping the sun in the shady canopy of trees. The island looks like it was once cultivated farmland, but is now overgrown; the mainland here on the right is wild and mysterious woods at the foot of the mountain ridge. Obvious campsites are sparse, but there's a nice small one perched atop the northern tip of the island, overlooking some rapids where the channel rejoins the main flow of the river. Not knowing of that spot in advance though, we stopped about a half mile before there, where we spotted a clearing in the trees on the mainland. The banks were a few feet high and muddy, but we managed to drag our boats up. We had paddled 14 miles for the day.
We were in the shadow of Mount Weather, and true to its name, a drenching thunderstorm came through just after our camp was set up. It was a hot day and the rain was refreshing; we stood out by the river for awhile just enjoying the shower. After the rain calmed down it was time to further lighten the beverage supply and cook up some grub. We'd brought along some charcoal and a portable firebox stashed underneath the coolers in the canoe, and had a fine dinner of New York strip steak, seasoned summer vegetables and garlic mashed potatoes. I don't know whether it was the food/beer or just the mystique of the river, but zonked out in my hammock that night, I had some rather strange dreams. At one point I woke up in the total darkness and saw several strobing flashes of light scurrying along the ground; bio-luminescent insects perhaps, but nothing I've ever witnessed before in all my days of camping.
Sunday morning brought another nice day, with clouds keeping it cool. The water level was several inches higher, and moving faster from the rains. As we departed our campsite, the rapids by the tip of the island added a bit of excitement; you had to maneuver around some rocks and downed trees as you make your way back out to the river.
With 7 more miles to go the Shenandoah wasn't yet done making us smile. About a mile downriver we heard another roar which I wasn't expecting. This one was louder, off to the west. I paddled across river to investigate, and found a channel of water coming from behind a small island that seemed to be flowing the wrong way! I paddled up it as far as I could and beached the kayak. Wading the flow around to the left, I suddenly came upon a lush scene that may as well have been in the garden of Eden... tucked away in the trees was a beautiful 10-foot waterfall, with a perfect swimming hole! We lingered here for a while enjoying Nature's surprise, and took a dip in the cold pool.
Continuing down river it then makes a horseshoe bend to the right (known as Calmes Neck) and there are a series of ledges to navigate. Mike and The Bean each took a turn in my kayak. As the river start to turn left again, we came to what is supposedly an old Native American fish dam. A distinct "V" of rocks spanning the river just underwater is clearly the handiwork of man. Finally, we came to a spectacular cliff-face on the right side of the river, and dropped over a couple more 1-ft ledges, before spotting the old red-sided barn that was Locke's Mill. The take-out is a concrete ramp on river left. (You can also takeout at Watermelon Park, the locals' party spot another mile downstream.) It was a great weekend excursion. I look forward to paddling this same trip again in the future!
no facilities other than the public boat ramps with free parking. a few primitive camping spots on the islands or up against the mountain
Wilderness Tsunami 120; Mad River Explorer 16 Rx
Morgan's Ford - take Happy Creek Rd (Rt. 624) from Front Royal, or Fairground Rd (Rt. 661) to Morgans Ford Rd from Hwy. 340/522. Ramp is on the south side of the low-water bridge.
Locke's Mill - cross the Morgans Ford bridge, go 1.5 miles and turn left onto Fairground Rd (Rt. 661). Turn right on Hwy. 340/522. After 4 miles turn right to stay on Hwy. 340. Go another 8 miles, then turn right onto Bishop Meade Rd (Rt. 255). Almost immediately, after the train tracks, turn sharply left onto Briggs Rd (Rt. 617). After 1 mile turn left onto the lumpy Lockes Mill Rd (Rt. 618). The ramp is 2 miles down on the right, with parking across the street. You might hear banjos.
"Classic Virginia Rivers" by Ed Grove
2-3 Day Trip
Kayaking, Canoeing, Fishing
River/Creek (Up to Class II)
Number of Portages:
USGS Gauge: http://waterdata.usgs.gov/usa/nwis/uv?01631000
if the Front Royal gauge on the South Fork is at least 1.4', there is enough water for this trip. 2' or more the water will be fairly high.