Tubing the Potomac River
Imagine floating down a river, cold beer in hand, as the rooftops and steeples of a historic town slowly pass you by. You’re headed toward a railroad bridge and if you’re lucky, there’s a train clanking by. The sun is out and it’s hot, but the river water is refreshing. Better finish that beer though, because there’s some class II rapids up ahead that’ll require your attention and use of both hands.
So where are you? You’re tubing on the Potomac River. That historic town? It’s Harpers Ferry. And it’s one of the most affordable and fun things you can do within a 75-minute drive of Baltimore.
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You could use one of the many outfitters found around Harpers Ferry, and I’ve used River Riders several times before. For around $40 a person you’ll be given a tube, life-jacket and transportation to and from the river. It’s not a bad deal, but you’ll be doing a lot of hurry-up-and-wait while filling out waiver forms, watching safety videos and waiting in lines for the bus. With a little preparation you could go on your own for cheaper, with more freedom and have a longer trip on the river. Here’s how you do it.
First, you’re going to need your own gear: river tube, life-jacket, a pump that fits Boston valves, water shoes, and a cooler tube. All of this can be found at Wal-Mart, Dick’s Sporting Goods or Amazon for about as much as you’d spend if you used the outfitter twice. I’ve never had trouble with the Intex River Run tubes, which can be found at Wal-Mart for around $10-15.
OK, so now you’ve got all your gear, your beer, and some food packed up in a cooler. You’re ready to get on the water. But first, a few words of wisdom.
When it comes to alcohol, you need to be discreet and responsible. Drinking is allowed while you’re on the river, but it is forbidden on either side of the river, and if a ranger catches you with an open container on either riverbank, you can expect a hefty fine. Many outfitters will officially say they don’t allow alcohol, but it’s more of a disclaimer. They don’t check coolers, and again, once you’re on the river, it’s allowed. You also don’t want to drink too much, being that you’re on a river with some fast water and deep spots that can be dangerous if mixed with lots of alcohol. If you drove to get there, well, you’re going to need to drive home. And don’t bring glass bottles onto the river. I’ve seen first hand what can go wrong when you do and it’s not pretty.
Secondly, ALWAYS wear a life-jacket. Yeah it can be uncomfortable but it could also save your life. Just recently, two men drowned on the Potomac River when their fishing boat capsized. The next day, a woman drowned while tubing on the Shenandoah not too far away. These unfortunate deaths illustrate how the river demands to be taken seriously. You came here to have fun, right? Don’t turn it into a tragedy. Wear that life-jacket at all times. Stay safe.
Now let’s get to the fun stuff.
You’re going to need at least two cars. Park the first car at the take-out location. I’ve been using a take-out point on the Maryland side of the river between Sandy Hook and Knoxville and parking a car on Keep Tryst Road, where it comes to a sharp U-turn. Leave a car there, preferably one with a keypad on the door allowing you to lock the key in the car so you don’t have to worry about taking it on the river. It’s a good idea to walk to the river from here so you can familiarize yourself with the takeout spot so don’t miss it when you’re on the river. Cross over the train tracks and find the C&O Canal toe path. Make a right. Walk about a tenth of a mile and find a trail that enters into the woods. I am pretty sure the trail is unmarked, but you won’t miss it. Follow that down to the river and enter the clearing there. Look around and find a feature that you’ll be able to spot later on. In fact, it’s a good idea to bring a neon pink ribbon — or something easy to see — and tie it to a tree. Hike back to your car. Now, pile all your tubing mates and gear into the second car and heard towards River Riders (you’ll also want to stop for ice at the gas station along the way if you haven’t gotten ice already – there’s a gas station on the Virginia side of the Route 340 bridge) where you’ll need to buy a parking pass for $5. The parking pass is for the River Riders campground, where you’ll be launching from and leaving the car. Here’s a hint: River Riders is always swamped during the weekend, so don’t wait in ANY of the lines. Go inside and flag down a worker – you may need to be aggressive while doing this because buying a pass takes 30 seconds, whereas all the other people in line are spending minutes filling out disclaimer forms. Once you’ve got that parking pass in hand, head to the campground and show the pass to the attendant there. It’ll probably be Petey so tell him I said hi.
Once you’ve inflated all your gear and packed your cooler full of food and drinks, you’re ready for the river. The put in location is flat water, and you’re going to need to paddle across the river, but take your time doing this. Soon you’ll hear the sound of rushing water. It’s time for some action. Try to stay to your left. There’s a shaded maze of small chutes and rapids on this side of the river that culminates in a long wave train. Depending on the water levels, you may need to lift up your butt to avoid slamming into rocks, but otherwise you’ll enjoy the ride and the view of Harpers Ferry to your right.
Once you pass under the railroad and pedestrian bridges, you’ll enter into the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. I recommend paddling toward the right side of the river for the rocks on that side. It’s a good location for lunch. If you’re lucky you’ll find the same two rocks that I use for the break, since there’s a nice chute running through them, creating a little waterslide that you can go down sans tube. I usually keep my vest on for buoyancy to avoid raking my butt on the rocks below the surface. At the bottom of the chute there’s somewhat of a whirlpool where we hang out after eating and enjoy a few drinks before continuing down river.
Once back in your tube, go through that waterslide between the rocks and continue to stay right. Up ahead you’ll see a large rock – larger than any others – with a bunch of people on it. It’s a party spot for locals and some tubers, so naturally my friends and I have named it “Party Rock” even though its official name is Bass Rock. It’s pretty much a frat party, so if that’s not your thing, continue down the rapid directly to the left of Bass Rock; the partiers will egg you on and cheer or jeer you as you pass, depending on the outcome. This is the biggest chute on this section of the river, so make sure you’ve secured your cooler to avoid having it tip over and scatter all your trash into the river. You can wipe out here, and there’s no shame in it, but be careful not to hurt yourself, spill your cooler or lose your tube. If you do want to hang at Bass Rock for a while, find a safe place to leave your tube and make your way toward the rock. You’ll run into some friendly people who will probably offer you beer and tips on how to jump into the rapid below. It’s around eight feet deep, so I wouldn’t advise you to dive into the water here, although people do all kinds of dives and flips that are beyond my talent and courage level. When the water is high, the river will push you down river fast so swim hard out of the current. At normal levels, it’s pretty easy to make your way back to Bass Rock for another jump.
Continuing down river from Bass Rock, the river mellows out. Directly under the Route 340 bridge is the Potomac Wayside Park, which is the takeout spot for several outfitters, so a lot of people will end their journey here. Unfortunately there is no parking allowed here, or else this would be the most logical takeout spot. You can take another break here; there’s a great waterfall just up the trail and to the right but be prepared for a shock, the water is much colder than the river. But on a hot day it’s refreshing to stand under the falling water and hear the deafening rush of it coming down from above.
You’re coming toward the end of the journey now, but there’s still a ways to go. Once you go under the Route 340 Bridge, there’s another outfitter takeout spot to the right, but you want to get left. If you cut hard across the river – and this is tough to do – you can enter into a shaded section of water that splits off from the river just beyond the bridge. If you do this, your work is done as the takeout spot is on the left side of the river. If not, you can take your time getting across. It’s all flat water here, so you can relax for the remainder of the ride. About an hour or so later, you’ll start to hear rushing water again but you won’t be going through that. This is the takeout spot. Look for the pink ribbon if you left yourself one, and if not, there’s a good chance you’ll see people splashing about in the water since it’s a popular section of the river. There’s a rocky beach that’s pretty easy to spot from the river, so keep an eye out for that. Israel Creek empties into the river here. Take all your gear out and make sure you haven’t left any trash behind and make your way up the trail and toward your car. Once you’ve deflated all your gear and loaded it into the car, drive your car to the River Riders campground to retrieve car #2.
And that’s it. You’re all done. And, by doing this yourself, you’ve saved time and money. It may be a lot of work, but it’s worth it.