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Smith River in Virginia

Trip Overview

When Philpott Reservoir is generating, they release a large volume of water down what is generally too-low-to-paddle Smith River. We've been kayaking this in inflatable kayaks since my youngest son was two (seven years ago). We don't do the section from the dam to Bassett Mirror with him because there are a couple hairy moments which require attention.

Putting in an hour or two after generation starts (see the phone listing for a recorded line as to when they are generating) keeps you from running out of water. There are a couple of places to put in near Philpott, both require a short carry to the water.

This is not water that should be attempted by complete novices because the water is powerful, there are obstructions to be avoided, there are rocks and ripples that will grab the unwary and the water can be very cold even in the middle of summer (40-50 degrees is normal discharge temperature).

But it's also not beyond the experienced family paddler. Sections of rushing water quickly empty into flat paddling with egrets, duck, and other wildlife. From the vantage point of the river it is hard to believe you are in the middle of what was recently a high polluting industrial mill area. Remains of the mill, discharge piping and pump stations are visible as well as evidence of early attempts to make the Smith River a transportation hub tying into the Dan River.

Trout fishing near the dam attracts people from all over but the water warms quickly so trout aren't found further downstream. A trout license is required as well as attention to season and limits.

The more adventurous may want to hit the water within two hours of the dam release, the more cautious should wait three hours for water levels to rise above the boulders.

Take out at the Bassett Factory (near Bassett Mirror) is easy with a small parking lot, further down stream take out can be done at a small access point on The Great Road, another hour down stream (mostly flat paddling) is the Smith River Canoe Access Trail. You must get out before the Martinsville Dam.

A good introduction to the river is to drop off at Bassett Mirror and take out at the The Great Road, it's about two hours with a couple of fun rollers but mostly gentle floating. Plan on getting in there at least three hours after the dam has released water, it takes about an hour for water to reach Bassett Mirror and 2 1/2 hours to reach Great Road. See someone else's report about that section.

The lower section between Smith River Canoe Trail (near the Old Iron Bridge) and Martinsville Dam is flat and goes through some ugly parts of town so I skip it.

Below the Martinsville Dam the river can be accessed near KMart for a flat but interesting float to the Smith River Sports Complex. Martinsville Dam is small so the release is generally not an issue except after major storms.

Cell service is spotty, especially on the water. Do not disrespect any river. Smith River levels can rise rapidly and the power behind the water is beyond what you can swim against. Following storms there are many strainers that will drop you into cold water with limited shore access or drown you if you get tangled. It's not Class V white water but there are a few points where stupidity can get people hurt or worse. Finally, don't beach on private property. There are a couple of homeowners who have posted signs warning boaters to avoid trespassing. They are serious and reports of some displaying firearms are common though they won't bother you if you are in the river. These people have had to deal with unruly paddlers leaving trash and tearing up shore area.


Philpott Reservoir has lots of camping, including Fairy Stone Lake which is a great lake for paddling around since there are no big power boats.


Except fishing licenses, no.


271 Trent Hill Dr

Bassett, VA

for put in at the base of the dam

3521 River Road
Fieldale, VA
for final take out (Great Road is access off of 220 exit).


There is a rare book about the Dan River which details interesting points along the basin.
Check out Dan River Basin Association for lots of info

  • Duration: Day Trip
  • Sport/Activity: Kayaking, Canoeing
  • Skill Level: Intermediate
  • Water Type: River/Creek (Up to Class II)
  • Group Rates: No

Locations on this Trip