The graphic below is a contrasted view of Hampton Roads, and what’s shocking to me is just how much water we have. Each of those blue snaky fingers represents a new adventure.
You are missing an incredible experience if you’re not taking advantage of our region’s waterways. I’m writing this city-by-city guide to outline my favorite places to paddle as a starting point, but these are just the beginning. Wonderful places to kayak or canoe are everywhere. Here are my top picks:
Chesapeake (2-way tie):
Northwest River Park
Located in Southern Chesapeake, Northwest River Park has it all: you can camp, hike, fish and you can even play putt-putt. Launch at Baum Road or Indian Creek Road to wind your way down the Smith Creek or Indian Creek, respectively, until you reach the Northwest River. The Northwest shoots the whole way down to the Outer Banks, so you can paddle until your heart is content. I love this spot because of the dense, wild bald cypress forest and the mix of twisty, calm creek and the major waterway.
Feeder Ditch / Great Dismal Swamp
This well-known adventure is worth the hype. Paddle the three-ish mile Feeder Ditch through the lock system to Lake Drummond, the largest of two natural lakes in Virginia. The ditch itself is arrow-straight and enveloped in woods, with turtles perched on logs and a tunnel-view in either direction. The lake is enormous, beautiful, and well worth the trek in. Amidst the nearly black water, cypress trees and their knees pop up in seemingly impossible locations. You can do it as a day trip, or use the campsite at the end of the Feeder Ditch overnight. If you want to spend any real amount of time exploring the lake itself, I recommend staying the night. Otherwise, it makes for a long paddle for one day.
Just a few minutes from Downtown Hampton, this launch seems geared towards bigger boats, but it works fine to launch canoes and kayaks. Paddle towards the Hampton River, passing yachts and large sailboats as you do. Beginners: veer left at the fork and paddle past Hampton University, past the Air & Space Museum, under I-64, and on. More advanced paddlers with appropriate gear can veer right towards the open water under the HRBT and on to Fort Monroe and the Old Point Comfort Lighthouse. Sunset Creek is a bit more urban than most others on this list, and it provides a nice change-up from some of my other favorite marshy spots. Plus, it makes a wonderful detour if you see your Google Maps turning red and you’re lucky enough to have your kayak with you.
The Warwick River winds north with many s-curves through protected wetlands and past waterfront properties. Watch for ospreys hunting and egrets stalking through the marshes. In this direction, there are numerous tiny to large inlets to explore (check the tides and be careful to avoid getting stuck in the mud). If you head the opposite direction from the launch, you can paddle down clear to the James River. Take a left-side offshoot to explore Lucas Creek if you like.
Lafayette Public Boat Launch
I live in Norfolk, and it’s this accessible spot that first stole my heart. Located by Colonial Place, this pops you into the Lafayette River right by Granby Street. If you go east, you can thread your boat either past the Zoo or down Wayne Creek towards Tidewater Drive. If you go west, you can cruise down under Hampton Blvd. What’s more satisfying than hanging out with a bald eagle while the world is stopped in tunnel traffic 30 feet from you?
Hoffler Creek Wildlife Preserve
Disclaimer: I work here as the Programs Director. However, that doesn’t change that I sincerely love to paddle here. The shot above is taken right from the kayak dock. Since you can navigate Hoffler Creek along the perimeter of the Preserve, you’re bound to see tons of wildlife: otters, ospreys, egrets, herons, muskrats, turtles, crabs, eagles and on and on. Go left and you can snake back through the riparian forest and salt marsh. Go right and you can explore the intersection of the proud James River by Craney Island.
Hoffler Creek also offers affordable rentals. It’s a great place to try out paddling for an hour or two if you don’t have a boat of your own.
Bennett’s Creek Park
Go north from the ramp and you’ll paddle along the Suffolk Canoe Trail to the powerful yet peaceful Nansemond River. Alternatively, head south on Bennett’s Creek and explore either (or both) branches of this waterway to the south. On my last visit, I had just an hour to paddle and I still managed to see a river otter, a bald eagle, tons of egrets and herons, and hundreds of fiddler crabs. Check it out!
Back Bay Wildlife Refuge
Back Bay is my destination of choice when I’m feeling exploratory. The Refuge is gigantic: 4,589 acres including a strip of barrier island and marshy island habitat. You can paddle to and amongst unique islands that dot the protected bay. Plus, it’s another hot spot for wildlife. I’m fairly certain I could spend every day here for the rest of my life and not be bored. Devote a few hours, and come early to avoid crowds in the summer.
Note #1: Water is powerful! Take safety precautions each and every time you paddle. Wear a personal flotation device (PFD), let someone know where you put in and where you plan to paddle, go with another person, and check the tide charts. Make sure you learn basic boating safety before you set out and paddle in locations consistent with your ability.
Note #2: If you don’t have a boat, don’t let that deter you. There are many places searchable online that rent kayaks and canoes at hourly and daily rates. If you’ve tried out kayaking a few times, check out Wild River Outfitters. (This is a good starting point for daily rentals, expert advice, and tour info as well). Don’t hesitate to talk to friends and family about borrowing gear or kayaks: the more people on the water the better.
What are your favorite places to paddle in Hampton Roads?