OUR RIVERS ARE IMPORTANT PATHWAYS THAT CONNECT OUR PAST TO OUR FUTURE. FLOAT WITH US AS WE PAY HOMAGE TO SOME OF OUR MAJESTIC WATERWAYS AND THE TOWNS THAT EMBRACE THEM.
Two rivers of wild and scenic beauty in their own right, the North Branch and South Branch of the Potomac, meet in a peaceful confluence on West Virginia’s northern border, far from any town. There, they form the main stem of “the nation’s river.” The Potomac flows through surprisingly remote territory for most of its path to Washington, D.C. and the Chesapeake Bay.
The West Virginia community closest to the origin of the Potomac’s main stem, Paw Paw is named for the tree fruit that grows wild in the area. Like much of the surrounding region, it was once known for its bountiful orchards—it even had freight and passenger rail service into the 1960s. Today, the population is about 400. Paw Paw is located at the top of the Paw Paw Bends, a 30-mile stretch of the Potomac so meandering that the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Company preferred to tunnel through a mountain than follow the river. The Bends is a beautiful stretch to boat—put in downstream of the bridge over the Potomac.
The stretch of the Potomac River alongside Shepherdstown is where local inventor James Rumsey famously first successfully demonstrated the steamboat. Perennially in competition with Romney for the title of oldest town in West Virginia, Shepherdstown is home to Shepherd University. German Street, at the center of town, is lined with unique shops and restaurants. The town also boasts a lively arts culture and is home to the renowned Contemporary American Theater Festival, which stages six new plays in rotating repertory every July. Go for the food and art and, meanwhile, enjoy the river—head to Shepherdstown Pedal and Paddle for bicycle, kayak, and canoe trips on a rapids-free section of the Potomac.
Known especially for abolitionist John Brown’s raid of a federal armory in 1859, Harpers Ferry is the picturesque community at the center of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. The town is perched high above the stunning confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, a view famously admired by Thomas Jefferson. The B&O Railroad bridge over the Potomac River here made Harpers Ferry highly strategic, and the town changed hands eight times over the course of the Civil War. Today the national historical park is highly popular, as are the rivers—contact River Riders in town for guided whitewater trips and canoeing, kayaking, paddleboarding, and tubing on the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.
The six-mile Trough, on the South Branch of the Potomac in Hardy and Hampshire counties, is one of the most scenic paddling and fishing destinations in the state. Dramatic rock formations rise on either bank, and bald eagles soar overhead.