Difficulty II-III
Length 6.2 Miles
Flow Range 1.70 - 9.00 FT
Flow Rate as of: 33 minutes ago 2.87 [FT] 👍 ℹ️ ⚠️
Reach Info Last Updated 06/28/2020 10:36 am

River Description

The Shenandoah Staircase is a classic run that has an appeal to a wide variety of paddlers. Lower water creates a superb training ground for the beginner paddler to hone their skills. Medium water creates several small and fun playspots to delight the playboater. High water brings out the big water enthusiasts and the extreme rodeo stars. When the water is rockin, the playboating in this area is spectacular!

The standard run is from Millville, WV to just below Harpers Ferry, WV. Playboaters interested in a park & play run will be interested in the 'Bridge to bridge' run. This would be the 1.7 mile run from the (WV) 340 bridge over the Shenandoah to the (MD) 340 bridge over the Potomac.

The Staircase can be run a bit lower below the WV 340 Bridge over the Shenandoah than from Millville.

This is the site of the annual Tim Gavin Downriver Race.

From Frederick Maryland take Hwy 340 West to Harpers Ferry.
The Potoma Wayside take-out is on river right just upstream from the bridge.
Parking is limited (three spaces).

To get to the put in, continue South on 340 about 1.5 miles.  After you pass the stoplight at the Harpers Ferry Park entrance, look for the next stoplight.  At this stoplight, turn left on Millville Road. Follow the road about 2 miles down thru Millville, WV until you see water. Some of the rafting companies own land on the banks, expect to pay $10.00 per car on summer weekends ($5.00 weekdays) to park at the River & Trails Put-in. Or continue on about a mile further to the public parking at the power transformers.

Some guidebooks recommend taking out on river left near the 340 Potomac bridge near Sandy Hook, Maryland. The CSX Railroad has closed and now enforces a no crossing rule for the railroad at Sandy Hook.  Potoma Wayside (heavy traffic and minimal parking) and the Harpers Ferry Adventure Center (fee charged) on the Virginia (the West Virginia/Virginia line is just above these take-outs) side of the river; and Weverton (an additional mile of mostly flatwater paddle and long carry on confusing trail) and Brunswick (very long flatwater paddle), both on the Maryland side, are the only remaining takeouts.

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

Rapid Descriptions

Millville Power Plant Put-In

Class - N/A Mile - 0

Park at the Power Transformers. There have been reports of break-ins at this location.  Putting in at the outfitters put-ins downstream cuts out some flatwater and is more secure.

Small Riffle

Class - I Mile - 0.1
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A small, class I riffle is found just downstream of the Millville Power Plant put in. It is nothing serious, but it does make returning to the put in for any reason difficult. If you need to return to the put in, the easiest way is to paddle on the opposite side of the island in mid stream toward the dam, come around the island, and paddle back down to the put in.

Outfitters Put-ins

Class - N/A Mile - 1.2

Dinks Campground (now owned by Rivers & Trails Outfitters) and the Shenandoah river access (now owned by the Harpers Ferry Adventure Center each have put-ins that can be used by arrangement.  River Riders outfitters also has a put-in further downstream, but it is unknown whether private boaters can arrange to use it.   Fees for using the outfitters put-ins vary from $20.00 to $10.00 on weekends and $10.00 to $5.00 weekdays, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, depending upon who you talk to (and what their mood is that day).


Class - II Mile - 2.8

The flatwater pool from the put-ins to here drops into a series of small Class II rapids, some of which can be played, but none of which are particularly noteworthy.  It ends in another pool above "Bull Falls."

"Bull Falls"

Class - III Mile - 3.1
Class III (III+ at higher and particular water levels).  A large ledge rapid with numerous slots and channels to choose from depending on water levels. The primary slot is the third from the left bank, although lately there has been an increasing  use of the second slot from the left bank.  The first slot against the left bank, is rumored to have rebar, but some paddlers risk that for a boof move in that slot.  There is a great playhole just below the third slot.

"Bulls Tail"

Class - II Mile - 3.2

Wave train after "Bull Falls."  Some of the best surfing on the river is here.

"Lunch Rock Follies"

Class - II Mile - 3.3

AKA "Rocky Road", AKA "'Round the Mountain".  Small waves and ledges.  The name "'Round the Mountain" might be better thought of as a specific (class II+) way of running this rapid, which is to run just to the right of a large rock at the beginning right of the rapid, but then stay as left as possible and run a tongue across the face of the rapid.  Where this tongue confronts the main current in the middle of the rapid, this line necessarily becomes a ferry, then where the two currents merge, a tongue again.  A great way to learn how to run a rapid with conflicting currents.  

"Spike Dam"

Class - II Mile - 3.7
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Back in the day, a Dam was built to divert  water to the Patowmack canal.  Lots of rebar and other sharp metal can be found in the dam remnants.  The canal can be seen on river left.   Run the left most channel at low flows.   At higher flows the right side is preferred.


Class - II+ Mile - 4.1

The sight of the Hwy 340 bridge signals the start of the "Staircase."  The ledges and rapids continue for more than half a mile.

"Hesitation Ledge"

Class - II+ Mile - 4.7

Double ledge on the center & right of the river, ledges spread out more on river left, making a river left run easier, particularly at high water. 

"Roller Coaster"

Class - II+ Mile - 4.9

Series of Diagonal waves.  Some of the best surfing on the river is here.

"Mad Dog"

Class - II Mile - 5.7

After the confluence with the Potomac, there is a set of Class II waves named "Mad Dog" Rapids by the rafting companies.  The West Virginia/Virginia state line comes down the river right side ridge to the Potomac (the Potomac river itself is always Maryland), so from here, the river right side of the Potomac is in Virginia.

"White Horse"

Class - III Mile - 5.9

Class III set of larger irregular waves known as "White Horse" Rapid.   Main channel is to the left.   Lots of good play.   There are also popular playspots ("Cogler's Hole," "100 Yard Dash," "Dash's Hole," "Mouse Hole") located more in the river center or among the rocks on river right.

Sandy Hook Take-out

Class - N/A Mile - 6.1
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River Left take-out.  The first takeout (Sandy Hook) on the MD side is 1/2 mile downstream from the confluence of the Shenndoah River on river left immediately before the US 340 bridge at Sandy Hook. To reach this takeout from Rt. 340, take the last left as you approach the 340 bridge from the MD side, then take the first right to the bottom of the hill where the road approaches the railroad tracks. The takeout is on posted railroad property and involves crossing two sets of very active tracks.  This once very popular takeout has been closed by the railroad.

Potoma Wayside Take-out

Class - N/A Mile - 6.2

River right take-out.  The second takeout (Potomac Wayside) on the Virginia side immediately before the lower (MD) 340 bridge.  There is space for loading and unloading here, but there are only three parking spaces where you can leave a car.  Other parking options near Potoma Wayside are very limited and/or expensive.   An empty parking lot near the gas station is often utilized when it's not being used for fireworks sales and other intermittent activities. Finally, the Harpers Ferry Adventure Center charges a flat fee for use of their Take-out and parking.  The whole parking and traffic situation on the VA side can be somewhat daunting because of the narrowness of the shoulder and the speed of the heavy two lane traffic.

Weverton Take-out

Class - N/A Mile - 7.7

Other take-outs include:  "Weverton" which is 1 1/2 miles of flat and moving water  downstream from the US 340  bridge on the Maryland side.  This take-out is hard to see from the river and requires a long walk through the woods and down the tow-path, but it does have an authorized on foot at-grade Railroad crossing.

Brunswick Take-out

Class - N/A Mile - 11.1
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The "Brunswick" take-out (also on the Maryland side) requires an additional 5 miles of paddling, with the last 3 1/2 miles consisting of flatwater; however, there is an authorized at-grade railroad crossing for vehicles and a boat ramp offers the convenience of easy access and close parking. 


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8 years ago

Ran this section at 8.15 water level and it was a blast in inflatable Tomcats. The first and last rapids were approaching class IV at this level. No dangerous snags or strainers encountered on our trip.

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8 years ago

Man everyone is staking a claim on something here. As a guide from the original outfitter no longer in business and having run this stretch in the thousands of times, it can be run at any level seen in the last 35 years by any boat. If you want to enjoy a scenic and historic stretch of river, go to it. Crowds on weekends from Mem Day to August will be very heavy. Go in fall or winter for solitude. Water from 4 feet up is entertaining and from 10 upward is sporty. This is a classic canoe river and still beautiful after all these years - don't trash it.

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8 years ago

I would mention that 6.5 ft. and under is fine for novices, anything above swims become difficult at Bull Falls. I've seen a few of them swim 200yrds to LunchRock. Didn't look fun. 9ft. and up a spill at Bull Falls would require an even tougher swim and a tough boat recovery for novices. IMO>

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James Steffen
11 years ago

Ran this route yesterday at 5.2 what a great run the staircase was a blast.

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11 years ago


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Jason O'Neil
13 years ago

I just started guiding on this river and I enjoy it, it definatly is not a hard river to run most of the time. Its a great river for a family with small kids to go on. When its at high water like around 10 feet or so its alot of fun. Could somebody tell me where dash hole is ive nvr heard of it. o and the rock to jump of is called beer can rock. the 4th chute of bull falls that is pictured with the strainer is called suicide chute. O and dont lump all of us together as aholes some of the guides are but most of them arnt. But this river is great for learning.

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Will Jacobs
13 years ago

Don't fool yourself...this is not a pure whitewater run.....and as far as the guides that work this area they have always been a-holes since I was a little kid....everyone of them thinks they are some sort of pro...this river isn't even that difficult here...the only reson that buisness exsists is to cater to the rich a-holes that are moving west from Fairfax and destroying the area. Either way this is a fun run low or high......if it's low you grab a bunch of beer and sit in Bull Falls all day as it turns into a hot tub at low levels in the summer time.......if it's higher water than you might have some decent rapids.....also look for a jumping rock around the take out us locals call the "Warshing Machine". You'll recognize it as the spot where everyone is getting drunk, usually lotsa mullets, and probably a 18year old girl draggin her baby around and 8 months pregnant. Sucks cause the rednecks trash the place (beer cans and the like) but a fun spot to hang in the summer either way... just avoid the raft guides as those of us who grew up in the area don't care for thier pretentious attitudes. Believe me the rednecks are nicer!

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tyler kerns
15 years ago

you all have gotta be kiddin me. we run commercial trips down this until it is under 1ft. that's boats of 6 and a guide. you don't know what technical is. and as for the high end of running this river, it doesn't get class 4 characteristics until it hits double digits. its hardly worth gettin off the couch if you arn't gettin paid to do it unless it is above 5ft. --LP rules-- team HF

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16 years ago

After running this at 1.8 I have mixed feelings about the minimum level. The section from Millville to the railroad bridge was painfully low. But the staircase has some ok play at these low levels. The hardest thing about the lower flow is avoiding the drunks in inner tubes. I believe the rapid called whitehorse, the last one above the river right takeout had the best play. I'm going to echo John Dukes comment that the minimum should be raised to two feet, with a note that it can be run lower by the truely desperate.

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John Duke
17 years ago

I honestly think the 1.5 minimum is to low.. bull falls is the only rapid with any fun at all!!!
The staircase can take 45 minutes to pick through at this level
Lets stick with wild water west va. minimum of 2.0 for a minimum

Gage Descriptions

It can be run down to 1.5', but it's getting bony. There is a report of a run in a Grumman Canoe down to 1.3', but that was in the 1960's or 70's and the paddler was the late Wally Foster (RIP) who took special pride in running stuff lower than anyone else in his Grumman Canoe.

A realistic minimum for the upper part of the run is 2.0, below that you're going to scrape over rocks until you get to the Shenandoah (WV) US 340 bridge.  Below the Shenandoah (WV) US 340 bridge, there is some surfing to be had at "Roller Coaster" and "White Horse" above 1.7

The stream starts changing character above 4.0 feet and gets bigger and faster. Most playboaters won't run this below 3 feet. Above 3 feet, several play options open up. This section can be run as high as your good sense and skill will allow.

Above 5 feet Staircase starts to take on some class 4 characteristics.

Expert playboaters love the river around 5 feet, and a couple of local professionals say that at 10 feet the river has some of the best playwaves in the east.

Directions Description

Description kindly provided by a volunteer under the condition of anonymity.

Takeout:- park on the shoulder of the road across the street from the Exxon on Hwy 340 in Virginia (along the Potomac). 37245 Jefferson Pike, Purcellville, VA for an exact address of the Exxon.

Bear Left on US-340 - go 3.25.1 mi.

Turn Left on MILLVILLE RD(Country Road # 27) - go 1.52.4 mi.

Pass through the town of Millville, WV.

Continue on Country Road #27; cross the train tracks.

On the left side of the road just past the train tracks there is a rafting company putin. It costs $3 / car + $2 / boat to park there. You can continue on up the road and park on the shoulder of the road for free.

An alternative takeout is to park on Sandy Hook Rd on the Maryland side, but parking is difficult there and the shuttle is longer.

I saw some people who did a park-and-play by parking at the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and hitting some waves there.

Date Flow Result Factor  
2020-04-17 n/a Near Miss/Rescue One Boat Trip Read More
2016-06-07 High Fatality Inexperience Read More
2003-11-21 High Fatality Inadequate Equipment Read More
1993-03-26 High Fatality One Boat Trip Read More
1986-05-24 n/a Near Miss/Rescue One Boat Trip Read More



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Harpers Ferry Access Study Reveals Need for New Approaches (MD/WV)

Kevin Colburn

The final Weverton Rail Crossing Feasibility Study was released this week, which considered two options for improving the crossing of CSX railroad tracks to provide safer public access to the Potomac River and the C&O Canal National Historical Park, and for use of the Appalachian Trail. The Report reveals insurmountable problems with the two proposed access solutions, but also highlights other possible paths forward. 

article main photo

Support Improved Potomac River Access at Harpers Ferry (WV/VA/DC)

Kevin Colburn

A local planning agency has championed a study of the Weverton access site just downstream of Harpers Ferry. This site is an important Potomac river put-in/takeout site for Shenandoah and Potomac River paddlers who have few access options in the area. At issue is an informal crossing of the two-track CSX railroad used by almost 27,000 paddlers, Appalachian Trail hikers, and visitors to the C&O Canal National Historical Park last year. The study outlines two options to formalize this access site and improve the safety of crossing the railroad tracks. Either option would be a big improvement, as would a standard road crossing, and paddlers are encouraged to submit a supportive comment by the June 15 deadline. 

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Portage Trail Secured At Millville Dam on Shenandoah

Kevin Colburn

Federal regulators recently issued a new 46-year license for the Millville Dam on the Shenandoah River that includes a formal portage route sought by American Whitewater. The dam is just upstream of the popular Staircase section of the Shenandoah. Also included in the license is continued operation of several access areas up and downstream of the dam. While our requests for a serious analysis of dam removal were denied, we hope the dam owner considers removal in the future for this outdated dam.

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Harpers Ferry Access Options at Outfitters Clarified for 2016

Kevin Colburn

Over the past couple years American Whitewater has been working with regional paddlers, the National Park Service, and other interested folks to improve river access on the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers near Harpers Ferry, WV. One outcome of that effort has been recognition of the parking, access, and shuttle services the rafting outfitters in the area offer provide. The outfitters worked with private boaters to share a fact sheet of the various services they offer, which you can download.

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AW and NPS Co-Host Access Meetings in Harpers Ferry (WV/MD/VA)

Kevin Colburn

Earlier this month American Whitewater and the National Park Service's Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance program (RTCA) hosted a series of meetings and site visits in the Harper's Ferry, WV area.  We met with roughly 35 interested groups and individuals, including 18 leaders from the paddling community, and visited over 20 river access sites.  The meetings kicked off a collaborative effort to create and implement a river access Plan for the Harper's Ferry area, and were highly successful.  

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Cheat Canyon Settlement Reached; Land Set Aside for Endangered Species

Charles Walbridge

After two years of intense negotiations an agreement reached to protect endangered species in the Cheat River Canyon. Allegheny Wood Products acquired roughly 5,000 acres in the Cheat Canyon below Albright, WV in 2003 for $9.75 million. When they began building roads and cutting trees the following year the government took no steps to enforce the Endangered Species Act. A lawsuit was filed in 2005 by Friends of Blackwater Canyon, the WV Chapter of the Sierra Club, and the Cheat Lake Environmental and Recreational Association. Although American Whitewater was not a party to the litigation we are gratified that an agreement was reached and commend both parties for their efforts.

Tony Allred Jr


Robert Miller


Matt Muir


Revision #Revision DateAuthorComment
1208463 11/09/17 Tony Allred Jr 11-9-2017 - cleanup
1208199 08/14/17 Tony Allred Jr 8-14-2017 - minor corrections
1208200 08/15/17 Tony Allred Jr 8-14-2017 - minor cleanup
1208201 08/15/17 Tony Allred Jr 8-14-2017 - minor cleanup
1208202 08/15/17 Tony Allred Jr 8-14-2017 - minor cleanup
1208462 11/09/17 Tony Allred Jr 11-9-2017 - cleanup
1208203 08/15/17 Tony Allred Jr 11-9-2017 - cleanup
1213778 10/01/19 Tony Allred Jr updated description
1214074 12/27/19 Tony Allred Jr updated image position
1192235 08/11/04 Robert Miller n/a
1215185 06/06/20 Tony Allred Jr updated description
1215244 06/11/20 Tony Allred Jr updated description
1215358 06/28/20 Tony Allred Jr updated description
1208467 11/09/17 Tony Allred Jr 7-20-2018 - cleanup
1195567 06/26/09 Matt Muir Small change in wording of Directions
1208197 08/14/17 Tony Allred Jr 8-14-2017 - minor corrections
1208461 11/09/17 Tony Allred Jr 11-9-2017 - cleanup