Editor’s note: This PaddleVA blog is the third in a series where we’ll highlight some of our favorite blueways, parks and paddling spots in our great Commonwealth of Virginia. Check out our first two picks, the James River Edition and the Kiptopeke Edition.
Enjoy a relaxing Sunday float. Bring the family for a weekend paddleboarding adventure and spend the night in a yurt. Canoe into a primitive campground. Get a glimpse of unique native creatures, from zebra swallowtails to bald eagles. At Powhatan State Park, you can do it all.
Tucked into a bend on the historic James River, Powhatan lies close to the city of Richmond. At just over 1,500 acres, it offers plenty of space to explore, from wooded groves to two-and-a-half miles of river frontage to open fields with wildlife observation points.
Powhatan State Park Manager Amelia Hulth knows that Powhatan’s location is one of its draws, and its popularity is only growing. Especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s noted an increase in park visitors of all types, including paddlers.
“One of the things that we want to do at state parks is to increase access to the James River. That's why this park was built,” she explained. “We are in the greater Richmond area, so if you live in Richmond, you can be in Powhatan in 30 to 45 minutes. Our section of the James River is more secluded, so you can have a more backcountry experience compared to the paddling you might see closer to the city.”
Hulth also notes a recent increase in some species of winged visitors.
“It’s becoming a more frequent thing to see bald eagles along the James River,” she said.
Paddlers can also spot herons, ducks and owls, especially if they arrive early in the day.
As is true of many state parks, summer weekends in Powhatan tend to be busiest. If you’re looking for more solitude, Hulth recommends exploring the river in the shoulder seasons—early spring and late fall—or coming out early on a weekday morning or later in the afternoon. The park opens at dawn and closes at dusk, so visitors have all day to explore.
“The times when I get to see the river at sunset are the prettiest,” said Hulth. “I get to see a change through the seasons and all the wildlife. In the spring along our section, there are thousands and thousands of pawpaw trees blooming and zebra swallowtail butterflies fluttering. Then, fast forward a couple of months to the end of the summer, and you’ll see those pawpaw trees just loaded with fruit.”
If you’ve never eaten a pawpaw, you’re in for a treat. Former James River State Park Manager Andrew Philpot describes the flavor as a “custardy banana.” If you’re curious about the native fruits, you can read more about them in his blog, “It’s Pawpaw Time,” on the Virginia State Parks website.
September and October mark pawpaw picking season. In fact, in honor of Powhatan State Park’s 10th anniversary, the park hosted its first-ever Pawpaw Festival on Saturday, September 16.
Plan Your Trip
With three separate paddle launches—all of which are public access cartop launches—visitors can design a trip that matches their experience level and timeframe. The stretch of river in the park includes plenty of opportunities for wildlife (and train!) sightings. Before planning your trip, check out some of the park’s most popular routes.
Powhatan Launch A to Launch C (2 miles)
Prefer to stay within the park? This two-mile route, perfect for newbies, features calm waters. It takes most visitors an average of two hours, while paddling entirely within Powhatan State Park bounds. Before exiting the river at Launch C, paddlers can venture to one of the coolest features on this stretch of water, the Licking Hole Creek Aqueduct, which is an old railroad trestle. This former railway bridge runs along the old Kanawha Canal and spans the intersection of Licking Hole Creek and the James River, creating a bricked arch for paddlers to explore.
Curious about the history? Take your time exploring the shaded waters. You might just find the brick that memorializes the date the trestle was built. With parking areas adjacent to all launches, it’s easy to ferry your kayak, canoe or paddle board back to your car. Just note that each vehicle that enters the park is subject to a $5 parking fee.
Powhatan Launch A to Launch B (0.5 miles)
Though it’s the shortest route, this path may lead to the biggest adventure. Put in at Launch A for a brief half-hour (or less) paddle to the park’s primitive, canoe-in campground. With nine sites and a composting toilet, this campground, which is open year round, gives visitors a back-to-nature experience. Each primitive site features a gravel pad, fire ring, lantern hook and picnic table. With no water or electricity, you’ll experience the joys of being in the wild. Overnight fees are $20/night for Virginia residents and $23/night for non-Virginia residents.
But don’t worry—you won’t be TOO far away from civilization. If you don’t want to canoe out, you can hike 0.2 miles to the parking area. And there will be snacks—at least during pawpaw season. Hulth notes that this short trail lies under a canopy of pawpaw trees.
Not into roughing it? Powhatan also offers 29 campsites with electric and water hookups at River Bend Campground, group campgrounds for up to 24 campers, and recreational yurts for paddlers who want to make a weekend of it. Explore the park’s lodging options.
Powhatan Launch A to Maidens Landing (4.5 miles)
The most popular paddling route takes boaters just outside park bounds to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) public boat access at Maidens Landing on Rt. 522, just south of Rt. 6. You’ll enjoy all of the features within the park and more. Just beyond Launch C lies Little Creek Culvert. Like the Licking Hole Creek Aqueduct, Little Creek Culvert is part of the old Kanawha Canal, which later became the road bed for the rail line.
Note that while Maidens Landing does offer free parking, there is no transportation service back to the park.
West View Boat Ramp to Powhatan (10.5-12.5 miles, depending on exit launch)
Want to make a full day of it? Put in your boat outside the park at DWR’s West View public access boat ramp and paddle to any of the three launches within Powhatan State Park. Make sure to start early, as this will be an all-day event for most paddlers. You can hop out after 10.5 miles at Launch A, canoe into the primitive campground at Launch B, or exit the river at Launch C.
Ranger-Guided Tours & Paddling Events
Powhatan currently leads canoe tours on a regular basis, offering new and experienced paddlers the opportunity to practice their skills. During these guided adventures, which run 2-3 hours, you can learn more about the James River watershed, the history of Powhatan State Park, and the park’s natural and cultural resources.
Powhatan also hosts an annual “Clean the Bay Day” each summer. Since its inception in 1989, this Virginia tradition has engaged volunteers across the state in environmental stewardship, removing an impressive 7.3 million pounds of trash from the shorelines.
Keep an eye on the park’s website for upcoming events for paddlers.
Choose Your Own Adventure
You can easily plan your own route that includes a float through Powhatan State Park. View the park map online. Then visit DWR’s website to explore more public boating access sites along the James River and throughout Virginia.
Want some added motivation? Powhatan is one of 31 Virginia State Parks that participates in the Wandering Waters Paddle Quest. As you paddle Virginia’s parks, you can log your progress online and earn prizes.
Paddle all 31 and you’ll receive a cellphone dry bag and a Wandering Waters certificate. What’s better than encouraging people to get out on the water? Sign up for the Wandering Waters Paddle Quest today.
Paddle Forth — But Don’t Forget the Logistics!
Hours: Dusk to dawn daily. Park office and gift shop are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.
Park Fees: $5 parking fee for standard vehicles; $3 fee for boat trailers; no charge for boat launches.
Weather Conditions: Before setting off on your paddle, always check the forecast and river levels on the National Weather Service website. Hulth notes that Powhatan goes by the Cartersville and Westham gauges.
Boat Safety: As always, make sure you have your PFD, water, food and some form of communication. Hulth strongly recommends that all paddlers wear a life jacket while on the water and let someone know when and where they will be exiting the river.
See you on the river’s bend!
Photo credits: Powhatan State Park