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
Park at the Power Transformers. There have been reports of break-ins at this location. Putting in at the campgrounds downstream cuts out some flatwater and is somewhat more secure.
Dinks campground (now owned by River & Trails outfitters). As of 2016, River & Trails charges $10.00 per car to park on weekends ($5.00 per car weekdays) from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
The flatwater pool from Dink's Campground 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
Class II+ (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. There is a great playhole just below the slot.
Wave train after "Bull Falls." Some of the best surfing on the river is here.
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.
built back in the day as a diversion dam for the Patowmack canal. Lots of rebar and other sharp metal in the dam. The canal can be seen on river left. Run the left most channel at low flows. At higher flows the right side is preferred.
The sight of the Hwy 340 bridge signals the start of the staircase. The ledges and rapids continue for nearly a mile.
Double ledge on the center & right of the river, ledges spread out more on river left, making a river left run easier
Series of Diagonal waves. Some of the best surfing on the river is here.
After the confluence, there is a set of Class II waves called Mad Dog Rapids. 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.
Class II+ (III at higher water) set of larger irregular waves known as White Horse Rapids. Main channel is to the left. Lots of good play. There are also popular playspots located among the rocks on river right.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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>
Ran this route yesterday at 5.2 what a great run the staircase was a blast.
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.
Above 1.7 there is some surfing to be had in Staircase and Whitehorse.
A realistic minimum is 2.0, below that you're going to scrape over rocks until you get to the Shenandoah (WV) US 340 bridge.
The stream starts changing character above 3 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 4 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.
Permits are not required for this reach.
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.
Potoma Wayside Access
Millville Tailrace Access
Weverton River Access
Harpers ferry Access Workshop
Harpers Ferry Access Site Visit
Millville Tailrace Access Area
Millville Powerhouse Access Area
Millville Dam Acces Area
Big Eddy Access Area
340 Bridge Access Area
Playing at Bull falls
Running Bull Falls
2nd chute @ Bull Falls 7ft
Henry running bull falls
Staircase Aerial Map
The Cat and the Bull
Classic Bull Falls Drop
Bull Falls - 3rd "Classic" drop
Bull Falls - 4th drop with strainer
Bull Falls - 1st and 2nd drops
Bull Falls - 4th drop surfing wave
Dash Hole, Shenandoah
If someone gets hurt on a river, or you read about a whitewater-related injury, please report it to
American Whitewater. Don't worry about multiple submissions from other witnesses, as our safety
editors will turn multiple witness reports into a single unified accident report.
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.
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.
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.
Nancy Kell, a very experienced Mid-States kayaker, died on February 24th after flipping in a Class II rapid on West Virginia's Red Creek. There were a number of strainers in the vicinity above and below the water. One of them snagged her tow tether, pulled her out of her boat, and held her under water. She was with a very experienced crew but they could not reach her quickly enough. Equipment snags are a real risk. In the light of this accident I strongly urge anyone using a cowtail, pigtail, or tow tether to recheck your setup, and to consider whether wearing a tow tether makes sense. Be certain that your tether releases cleanly at both ends. Do not attach the front carabiner to a non-releasable point, like a pocket or strap. Ms. Kell did this, and it may have been a contributing factor. Apparently many current rescue PFD designs to not feature a front release point! Do not attach a tether to the rear of your PFD with a non-locking carabiner, as that may inadvertently clip into a rope. The tether should fit very snugly, without sagging, but as the photo shows Ms. Kell did that, and it did not protect her! The harness release should be quick and foolproof. Practice harness releases under pressure before using it on the river. Finally, remember that any additional strap is a potential snag hazard. Ask yourself if the usefulness of a tow tether is worth the risk, especially on small, strainer infrested creeks. Carry it in a PFD pocket or dry bag if necessary. Click for a link to the report in the AW Accident Database. (Jeff Macklin Photo)
Get your groove on baby! This year Gauley Fest is a 60’s themed event to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. To memorialize that historic event we are flashing back to another era for a 60’s throwdown. Started in 1983 to celebrate the derailment of a hydro-electric project that would have disrupted the flows on the Gauley River, Gauley Fest has grown to become the largest paddling festival in the world.
American Whitewater received the following open letter to boaters from the rangers and staff of the Gauley River National Recreation Area. This letter will keep you up to date on important management actions of the National Park Service on the Gauley River. Enjoy your paddling season on this classic whitewater river. As in past years, American Whitewater has leased the field above Masons Branch, also known as the Legg field, for overflow parking.
Log into the American Whitewater website and you can contribute to river descriptions,
flow and access tips, and maps associated with runs you've done. You can even add new
runs to the inventory!