The Violette's Lock to Pennyfield Lock (GW Canal) run on the Potomac river is an excellent run for paddlers who are working on their skills. Local canoe clubs use this river section extensively for training. The rapids are Class I-II in nature and are appropriate for practiced novice and higher skilled boaters. The river seems to pick up a lot of strainers here, so be on the lookout for ever changing obstructions. (The river can also be run in the main channel through an area known as area of islands and river debris known as the Seneca Breaks, but this isn't the traditional run.)
[With use of the watered C & O Canal on the Maryland side of the river, this run has the additional advantage of not requiring a shuttle. In simplist terms, paddle down the river, then paddle back up the canal. - THE C&O CANAL HAS BEEN DEWATERED THROUGH 2018 AND MUCH OF 2019, SO THE LOOP RUN IS NOT AVAILABLE - IT MUST BE RUN WITH A SHUTTLE FROM VIOLETTE LOCK TO PENNYFIELD LOCK.]
The river section, located near the Virginia bank of the Potomac, is accessed from the Violette's Lock picnic area along the C & O Canal (see directions below). To putin, walk across the canal bridge and follow a faint trail to the right and down to the river bank at the top of a canal feeder channel. Paddle across the river, which is very wide here, above the old canal dam. Enter a river right channel on the Virginia shore and you are on the commonly run portion of the river. Parts of this intimate channel are formed by the old George Washington canal, a failed Virginia-side canal project that has now been retaken by the river here.
Once in the channel, the current picks up. Strainers are a constant problem, so please be aware and make sure you have the skill to avoid them. The first rapid is an open rock garden good for eddy turn practice. The next rapid is the Surfer's Hole that maintains a friendly hydraulic at many levels. Below here, there is a rapid with a ledge formation constricting most of the water into a narrow right-side slot. In late June 2001, this channel was mostly-blocked by potentially dangerous strainers, so stop and take a look. Paddlers with excellent boat control may be able to find their way around the trees on the far left of the right slot, but the route is complicated. There is also an S-turn that starts river left, and a final set of drops and chutes.
All told, the channel run is about 1 1/2 miles. After the chute drop, you can paddle back up an adjoining channel and out into the main flow of the Potomac. Ferry across the river to the Maryland side. [CANAL DEWATERED FOR 2018/2019 - NO LOOP - During most of the year, when the National Park Service (NPS) waters the C&O Canal, you can takeout at a dirt bank and trail on the Maryland side. This trail leads to the C & O Canal. Put-in here and paddle north (upstream) back to the Violette's Lock picnic area. (Total run is 3.4 miles.)] During the winter when the NPS dewaters the canal (or any other time you'd find running a shuttle to preferable to paddling the canal) an alternative is to run downstream to Pennyfield Lock (Total run is 3.3 miles) or Swain's Lock (Total run is 6.3 miles), both also on the Maryland side.Directions: The Violette's Lock picnic area is off of River Road (Route 190) in Montgomery County, Maryland about 8 miles north of Potomac, MD. From Potomac, travel north on River Road to a left turn onto Violette's Lock road. The turn is easy to miss. Its about a half a mile before the intersection of Route 112. You will know you have gone too far if you come to the stop sign and a sharp left bend in River Road.
As the above description says, take a right turn once you cross the bridge over the canal. There is a very inviting trail off to the left that leads right to the water. Bad trail to take.
The river is damn near a mile wide here. And the play is on the opposit bank. So get ready to do a whole lot of flatwater paddling to get across to the other side.
When you get to the river, you'll see a river wide shoal area. Make sure you ferry across the river above the shoals. The entrance to the feeder canal is above the shoals. If you miss that move, one of the channels below the shoals comes in just below the wave pictured here. Fun wave.<br />
If I were in my long boat, I'd stay in the main channel and play with attaining my way back up over taking the canal. Most of the upstream moves looked very do-able in the 3 foot range on the gauge.<br>
Ran center line of Potomac off Violet's Lock in a broad loaded canoe. No issues river only slightly swollen off last few days of rain. I-II's perfect little beginner run or control refresher.
Avoided right side channels plenty of strainers across the top made me doubt the run in a canoe, sure a kayak could squeeze through.
GW canal running very well. No real hazards due to high river level.
I ran it today, three days after a topical depression passed over the area. Quite a bit of fun. Several big trees headed downstream, competing with me for space. The level at Little Falls was 4.4. A bald eagle buzzed over me. No strainers today anyway.
Ran this today at 3.93ft and had a great time! It looks like a really long ferry across the river to the Patowmack (GW) Canal section, but it passes rather quickly. Lots of choices to make while in the canal section as the islands and debris piles cut the river into individual channels. When nearing the end of the canal, note the large yellow arrow on the tree on the left side of the right-hand channel. It'll be pointing left into what is (at this moment) a strainer. Simply run to the right of the woodpile/strainer and then attain around the left hand side of the island to get back to the main channel and run a couple of fun little ledges before starting to ferry left to the shore line to take out. The best take-out is visible as two trees are marked with yellow paint squares which you can see from just about anywhere on the river. The paddle back up the canal starts out really shallow at the 4' mark, and then deepens for a bit, but once you are committed to the canal, there's no real way out until the take-out at Violette's lock. At 3.93 feet, we had to clamber up the canal bank 100 yards from the lock because it simply got too shallow to go any further.
The "maximum" level of 4.2 is rather odd here. At somewhat higher levels (I ran this at 4.6 recently, for example), some of the features tend to wash out, and the trip actually becomes more interesting going down the Seneca Rapids on the river itself, but there is nothing dangerous in the way that a "maximum" normally is meant to indicate.
I recently taught my friend to paddle here and this is a GREAT section for it. One of the pluses that I'm surprised not to see here is the play wavehole right at the put in! This is the most park and play I've ever seen. BE WARNED: the wave is fun, but shallow after, so make sure you have a solid brace and combat roll! For new paddlers, this is a great way to learn to run small drops and power through holes (my buddy had a blast with that).
This is a great place to learn how to PooPoo Roll, but after that it is time to move on to the peepee area.
Added by John Querry:
The park on the Virginia side of the GW canal and the Seneca Breaks is owned by Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. It is just down stream of the Lowes Island Golf Course. Officially, the park has no name, but it is commonly know as "the park at the end of Seneca Road".
For paddlers looking for an aerobic river access hike while carrying their boat, they can park outside the park gate at the end of Seneca Road. Then carry down the paved road, pass by a utility dirt road gate on your right, to where the road takes a sharp left turn at the intersection of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail. Continue straight onto a dirt trail for about 500' along the ancient Seneca Road bed to the GW canal shore. It's about 1 1/4 mile and a 300' hill carry from the gate to the put in. To paddle all of the rapids in the Canal loop, the best take out is about 500' past the Colonial Pipeline right of way. The right of way is easily recognizable from the river. It's a 100' wide swath on both sides of the river that is completely void of large trees. The trail at the take out connects back to the Potomac Heritage Trail which is also the dirt utility road you saw while carrying to the put in. So it, in turn, takes you back to Seneca Road.
Be prepared for a work out: it's a 3 mile, up hill carry from the take out to the park gate. That's about 4 1/4 miles of total carrying; but if you live on the Virginia side of the these rapids, it will save you about 2 1/2 hours of rush hour driving to get to and from Violets Lock.
This section runs at most levels. The above gauge recommendations reflect levels where the described features are apparant. When the LF gauge goes above 4 feet, the rapids begin to wash out and alternative routes can be used by the intermediate and above paddler.
Permits are not required for this reach.
We have no additional detail on this route.
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End of flatwater at Violette's Lock
C&O Canal and Potomac just 1/2 mile downstream from Violette's Lock
Just upriver from Violette's Lock looking downstream
Birds eye view downstream from Violette's Lock
C&O Canal 1/2 mile downstream from Violette's Lock
Birds eye view upriver, 3/4 mile downstream from Violette's Lock
Rock island just downstream from Violette's Lock
Birds eye view near the Virginia side of the Potomac
Just downstream from the put-in at Violette's Lock
1/2 mile downstream from Violette's Lock, looking upriver
1/2 mile downstream from Violette's Lock
Nice park-n-play spot at Violette's Lock
Surfing on a Saturday
Surfing wave in GW Canal
Turtle in C&O Canal
The Surfer's Hole @ the GW Canal
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Several newspapers reported this week that the Coast Guard is proposing to close a portion of a popular section of the Potomac River whenever high-ranking officials are playing golf at Trump National Golf Club. DC area paddlers quickly balked at the proposed new rule and Congressional leaders have joined them in pushing back against the proposal. The Coast Guard has posted their proposed closure rules, and an opportunity to comment online until August 9, 2017. Alternative approaches could allow both public use of the river and secure use of the private golf course.
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