South Branch Potomac River in West Virginia
We paddled from Welton Park in Petersburg to the Old Fields Bridge north of Moorefield. Total distance was about 12.5 miles.
For summertime, the river was about double (500 CFS) the average volume, which made this a relatively quick trip - about 5 hours from put-in to take-out without really paddling very hard.
The S. Branch has a well developed set of river access points, 17 in all from Petersburg to the confluence with the N. Branch at Green Spring, WV, 73.5 miles downstream. The more famous part of the S. Branch is "The Trough", about 6 miles downstream of the Old Fields Bridge carrying US Rt. 220 over the S. Branch. We've been paddling thru the Trough for about 20 years and paddled it the previous Saturday. Since we were staying a few extra days, we decided to try a part of the river we'd never seen before.
The put-in at Welton Park, 1.6 miles east of Petersburg, is a breeze. You can actually drive right down to the water on a rocky beach. My wife and I settled into the boat with our Golden Retriever, Chester, and began to paddle the approximately mile-long pool. Along both sides of the river, we saw an amazing number of Little Green Heron, probably 75-100 in all. We've never seen that many in one place, so we assumed there was a rookery nearby. We also saw Great Blue Heron(s), 3 or 4 Bald Eagles, and, near the end of the trip, a Golden Eagle.
As we neared the end of the first pool, we saw a horizon line, so we slowed down to take a look. There were numerous riffles. The ones on the left were too shallow, so we chose the main stream in the middle. The river drops about 15 feet in about 200 here, with a nasty double chute carrying about 40% of the water. There was a 2-3 foot tall irregular wave where the two chutes combined. We opted for the right chute, which was a mistake. As we passed the flow of water and the wave on the left, the boat tilted hard right, filled with water, and did a one-eighty. It didn't really count as a "dump", since our heads stayed dry (except for the dog!), but it humbled us right off the bat. The only casualties were a couple of newly-opened beers, now mixed half-and-half with the healin' waters of the S. Branch.
After retrieving the beers and a couple of other things, we were a bit more careful on the rest of the rapids/riffles. The countryside is very pretty in this area, not as dramatic as the Trough itself, but interesting in its own way. The river valley ranges from a mile or two wide in places, to mini-Trough's where the hills come right down to the water. There are some interesting rock formations above Moorefield, reminiscent of those just above Romney, below the Trough.
The river passes through a number of pools, from a half-mile to a mile long, each one terminating in a rapid. Some are fairly easy and obvious while others require some skill to navigate. All were lots of fun, ranging from Class I to Class II (and maybe the first one was a III). One in particular dropped the river about 30 feet in a hundred yards, with a good bit of maneuvering needed at the top, followed by a 150 foot-or-so wave train to ride down the hill. That was lots of fun. Each rapid has a pretty well defined horizon line at the top, so you'll know when you come up on it.
There is one rapid you should scout and possibly portage, just below the Fisher Bridge-South access point. When we approached it, we saw a hand painted sign on a half-sheet of plywood that said "STAY RIGHT!" Whoever put that up wasn't joking. There are a number of full sized trees in the main current of the river, with a sandbar on the right and a hard right turn at the bottom. The whole river narrows down to about 20-30 feet wide, and if you're not careful, it'll pull you right into a nasty strainer. My wife and dog got out, and I hugged the right bank and solo paddled thru the rapid. If you're not comfortable paddling this rapid, by all means drag your boat or portage around it.
Continuing through Moorefield, the only indication you have that you're not out in the boonies is some noise from a nearby industrial park. The river widens and becomes shallow past the second Fisher Bridge access point (why the WVDNR named two access points, 2.5 miles apart, the same name, is beyond me). The river bottom at this point is bedrock, and has a number of short ledges and rock gardens. Unless the water level is higher than it was when we paddled, you'll have to pay attention thru the rest of Moorefield and just below. The last pool is a good 1-1/2 to 2 miles long, ending just below the Old Fields Bridge.
All in all, it was a great trip, and it was good to see what the S. Branch has to offer beyond the Trough. The water was pretty clear, and there wasn't much trash (except for some tires) in and along the river. There was some algae-covered debris in the river below the second Fisher Bridge point, presumably downstream of Moorefield's sewage treatment plant. I wouldn't drink the water, but I wasn't bothered by swimming in it, either.
The Welton Park access (39 0'4.62"N, 79 4'58.35"W) has restrooms, a picnic area, and playground facilities. You can drive your car right onto a rocky beach along the river.
The Old Fields access (39 6'12.84"N, 7857'30.14"W) has no facilities (although the bushes are well hidden from the road), and you can also drive right to the water's edge.
Motels and camping are available in both Petersburg and Moorefield.
Put in at Welton Park: 1.6 miles east of Petersburg, WV, on US 220. Take out at Old Fields, 2.25 miles north of Moorefield, WV, on US 220.
After the trip, I contacted the WVDNR District II regional office at 1 Depot Street, Romney, WV 26757-1400, (304) 822-3551. They sent a brochure on the South Branch Public Stream Access points that would have been very helpful before the fact. USGS Topo Quads for Rig, WV, and Moorefield, WV. Also, the free "Google Earth" can be pretty useful.
- Sport/Activity: Canoeing
- Skill Level: Intermediate
- Water Type: River/Creek (Up to Class II)