Partnerships and a path to paddle by...

By Lisa Gutierrez
The height of summer is right around the corner and unlimited adventures await us outdoors. In a state like Maryland, surrounded by rivers, bays and ocean, the summer season reawakens the instinct in folks to be on the water. From the Youghiogheny River and Deep Creek Lake in the mountains of Western Maryland to the marshes and beaches of the Coastal Bays and Atlantic Ocean, the greening of landscapes everywhere is a signal that it is time to dust off the paddles and lifejackets, strap those kayaks and canoes to the top of the car, and set off exploring.

An Emerging Network of Water Trails for Maryland
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Greenways and Water Trails Program works with partners at the state, local and federal level to establish water trails across the state. The program provides a variety of technical assistance such as developing concept plans, data collection, map creation and brochure design.

“Evolving from the popularity of land trails and greenways in the 1990s, planning for water trails was added to the repertoire of services offered by the Greenways and Water Trails Program,” says Teresa Moore, Director of DNR’s Waterway and Greenways Division. “The progression to water trail planning was a natural since the program was already involved in coordinating and planning for other conservation and recreational opportunities in the state.”

The renewed Chesapeake Bay Agreement in 2000 also helped to further the popularity of water trails in the Bay region, by setting goals to increase public access to the Bay and its tributaries by 20 percent, and to establish 500 miles of new water trails in the Bay watershed by 2005. Responding directly to these goals, the Greenways and Water Trails Program tracks the state’s existing, developing and potential water trails. A list of water trails in each county can be found in the 2000 edition of the Maryland Atlas of Greenways, Water Trails and Green Infrastructure, (, which continues to grow. Since 2000, close to 400 miles of new water trails have been established in Maryland. The program is now focusing on working with partners to establish water trails on the state’s major river systems and creating a series of user-friendly maps to guide paddlers to these trails. Following is a description of two that are currently available.

Explore the Nation’s River – The Potomac River Water Trail
The Potomac River marks Maryland’s southern border, spanning more than 300 miles from the mountains of Garrett County to where it meets the Chesapeake Bay at St. Mary’s County. Every type of paddling experience, from churning Class V rapids to gently moving slack water and endless expanses of wavy saltwater, can be found along its length. Two distinctive water trail map sets have been created to guide paddlers interested in exploring the Upper and Lower portions of the Potomac River. A third map set detailing the middle Potomac River, is currently in production.

The Upper Potomac
Kayaker paddling the rapids of the upper Potomac river. A partnership among DNR, the National Park Service C&O Canal National Historical Park, the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, and the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB) resulted in the creation of the Upper Potomac River Water Trail maps that were introduced in 2002. The five-map set covers more than 100 miles of the river between Cumberland and Sharpsburg, Maryland. This section is narrow and rocky, featuring low, scattered islands in the channel and steep rocky cliffs along the banks.

The maps are distinctively river-oriented to provide information on what paddlers will see as they travel down the Potomac. Features include the location of river access points, visual landmarks, camping sites and other support facilities such as restrooms and parking on both the Maryland and West Virginia shorelines. Special attention was paid to describing the location of C&O Canal hiker-biker sites and facilities that could be accessed from the river. Information on local history, natural resources and boating safety are also included. The format of the water trail maps enables paddlers to customize their trip – a few hours, a day or even longer.

Special places to visit while paddling the Upper Potomac Water Trail include Fort Frederick State Park and the historic towns of Hancock and Williamsport. Another highlight is a paddle through the infamous Paw Paw bends in Allegany County. It is here that the Potomac meanders gently through miles of S curves and the mountains rise up dramatically on all sides. When it is misty or foggy the landscape can seem almost mystical. This section is also popular with families and scout troops because of the ready access to parking, campsites and shuttle services.

The Lower Potomac
Kayaker skimming across the calm waters of the lower Potomac river The Lower Potomac Water Trail spans approximately 100 miles of the tidal Potomac, from Washington, D.C. to where the river meets the Chesapeake Bay at Point Lookout in St. Mary’s County. This section has a distinctively southern feel. The river is wider and the topography noticeably lower than the upper reaches. Once beyond the urban areas close to Washington D.C., the quality of the landscape is reminiscent of an earlier period of time before the shoreline was dramatically altered by an ever-expanding civilization.

A joint effort among DNR, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, and the National Park Service Gateways Network in 2000 resulted in the creation of the Lower Potomac River Water Trail maps. This six-map set includes information on access sites, camping, and support facilities on both the Maryland and Virginia shorelines of the tidal Potomac. Rich with history and natural areas, the Lower Potomac Water Trail is an attraction for both heritage- and eco-tourism. Visitors traveling the river today can visit some of the most important historical sites in the country, including Fort Washington, Mt. Vernon, Piney Point and Point Lookout. A highlight of this water trail includes a visit to Mallows Bay just offshore of Charles County. Mallows Bay is home of the largest concentration of sunken ships on the East Coast and attracts an abundance of wildlife under, as well as above, water.

The majestic Potomac River is just one of Maryland’s many wondrous waterways –large and fast or small and meandering -- worth exploring this summer. So load up and let’s go – a good time is bound to be had by all!

“… the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.”

T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)

The Potomac River Water Trail map sets sell for $8 (Upper) and $5 (Lower). To obtain copies of the maps visit, click on the water trails button and download an order form. For more information on Maryland’s water trails, contact the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Boating Services Program at 410-260-8771 or e-mail to

Lisa Gutierrez...
is the Program Chief of the Maryland Greenways and Water Trails Program. She has more than 12 years of experience working on land conservation and natural resource planning, and is an avid paddler.

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