Cover photo: Michael Hundley
Anytime is the perfect time to visit Virginia’s river towns. In the summer when you can paddle your way. In November when it’s Virginia Oyster Month, with oyster-centric commemorations happening up and down the shorelines of the “Oyster Capital of the East Coast”. Autumn is also cider season and time for fall rockfish tournaments, which are also held in spring. Join us as we take you on a 400-mile Virginia #WanderLove road trip to Virginia’s Great American Rivers!
Great American Rivers of Virginia
Virginia is served by nine major river systems, four of which flow into the Chesapeake Bay: Potomac River, Rappahannock River, York River, and the James River. These four rivers divide the eastern coast of Virginia into distinct regions: three necks (peninsulas) including Northern Neck, Middle Neck and The Peninsula (southernmost neck) and South of the James. Along these waterways are vibrant and charming river towns, from urban cities to quaint villages. In warmer months, river towns are a water lover’s delight, providing opportunities for paddling, fishing, boating, sailing and other water activities. During cooler months, Virginia’s river towns play host to a variety of events and activities unique to the Chesapeake Bay region.
The Potomac River, coined the “Nation’s River” by George Washington, begins in West Virginia, meandering 405 miles just south of the Pennsylvania line, through Washington, DC, and separating parts of Maryland and Virginia.
We kick off our WanderLOVE journey in Alexandria, Virginia, at the George Washington Memorial Parkway, a 25-mile recreational roadway managed by the National Park Service, connecting McLean, VA, to Mount Vernon. Paralleling the Potomac River, the parkway provides access to trails, parks, and scenic lookouts and “links sites that commemorate important episodes in American history and preserve habitat for local wildlife.” While in Alexandria, you can visit Old Town, home of the Torpedo Factory Art Center, ride a riverboat or stop at the historic, storied Jones Point Lighthouse constructed 1855. Continue south and you’ll come upon Belle Haven Park, a 16-acre park in Fairfax County with trails for hiking, biking and watching planes coming in for landings at DCA. Take the parkway to Mount Vernon, the estate of the first president.
Continue south to King George County, where the Northern Neck begins. Visit Dahlgren Heritage Museum and learn the unique history of Naval Support Activity South Potomac and the Navy base’s significant impact from its inception in 1918 to today. Hike old-growth forests and watch for wildlife at Caledon State Park
Town of Colonial Beach, Virginia
Plan to stay in neighboring Westmoreland County, in Town of Colonial Beach, Virginia (CBVA), itself a peninsula, bounded by the Potomac River and Monroe Bay. A beach and river town, CBVA boasts the second largest public sand beach in the state. Take the path less traveled and explore Monroe Creek and Monroe Bay from the Virginia Water Trails in the Northern Neck Heritage Area.
During the the spring and fall seasons, sign up for the Colonial Beach Fall Rockfish Tournament. Sponsored by Colonial Beach Chamber of Commerce and Colonial Yacht Club, the tournament includes a Captain’s Meeting, two days of fishing, prizes and a 50/50 raffle.
Town of Colonial Beach is also the place to get the freshest seafood for dine-in or carry out. Beach bars Dockside Restaurant and Tiki Bar and High Tides on the Potomac and The Black Pearl Tiki Bar also offer live entertainment. Several other restaurants provide breathtaking waterfront views such as The Lighthouse Colonial Beach, Riverboat on the Potomac, and Wilkerson’s Seafood Restaurant.
Award-winning Denson’s Grocery and R&B Oyster Bar celebrates Virginia Oyster Month in the Beer Garden at Colonial Beach Brewing (CBB), offering Grilled ‘Denson’s Style’ Oysters and Raw Chincoteague Oysters ‘On the Half Shell’ for only $1 per oyster with the purchase of a pint or growler of CBB craft beer. Oyster Stout recommended! Denson’s also participates in the Chesapeake Bay Wine Trail’s Fall Oyster Weekend (see below), shucking it up at nearby Ingleside Vineyards and King George’s Backporch Vineyard.
Oyster Capital of the East Coast
Virginia is home to eight oyster regions, each producing its own distinctly-flavored oysters, unique to the waterways in which they grew. Connecting these regions is the Virginia Oyster Trail, a “visitor-directed experiential journey of discovery program” that invites visitors to explore the coastal communities in which the oysters are harvested. The Trail guide highlights more than 100 points of interest along the trail, such as restaurants serving oysters; artists and art galleries specializing in regional coastal art; local lodging and tours; and oyster-related festivals and events.
Every spring and fall is the annual Chesapeake Bay Wine Trail Fall Oyster Weekend. Visit Ingleside Winery, located just outside Colonial Beach. or other participating Trail wineries, including Backporch Vineyard in King George, Generals Ridge Vineyard in Hague, Rivah Vineyards at the Grove, Kinsale, and Good Luck Cellars, Kilmarnock, all of which host wine and oyster pairings. Live music and other special events may also be included. Ditchley Cider Works, also in Kilmarnock, serves the drink of the fall season–cider! Trail winery The Dog & Oyster Vineyard, Irvington, is known as the place “where the terroir of the grape matches the merroir of the oyster” and features oyster dishes year round at its SLURP oyster bar. In fact, owner Dudley Patterson was instrumental in the creation of the Virginia Oyster Trail. Some Trail members also offer waterfront lodging; and Jacey Vineyards, Heathsville, is accessible to boaters, with seven docks on its own private cove.
Visiting these wineries will take you down along the Potomac River to the end of the Northern Neck. Stop at the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum. Take a free ride on the Sunnybank Ferry, which crosses the Little Wicomico River.
Town of Irvington, Virginia
Loop around the bottom and head back north, this time along the Rappahannock River. You will love spending a few nights in the romantic Town of Irvington. Book a stay at the historic Hope and Glory Inn, sipping and slurping at the boutique hotel’s Dog & Oyster Vineyard, or stay at the renowned resort The Tides Inn, situated on Carters Creek, the last inlet before the Rappahannock River meets the Chesapeake Bay, and home to Kellum Brand Oysters, Weems, since 1948. Another free ferry, Merry Point Ferry, takes passengers across the Corrotoman River.
Rent or buy your own paddleboard from the experts at Windswept Experience & Supply or try SUP (stand up paddle) yoga! Take in the breathtaking water sunset views with a sailing cruise or charter from Sail & Surf Adventures. After you’ve worked up your appetite, grab dinner at Dredge, where chef/owner Bryan Byrd takes farm-to-table (or tide-to-table) to a whole level.
Everything you ever wanted to know about oysters can be learned at The Tides Inn Virginia Oyster Academy. Hear the history of the state’s oyster industry, oyster ecology and tools of the harvest. Accompany a traditional Virginia waterman by boat for a one-hour harvest excursion. After the voyage, a seasoned chef teaches you the art of oyster shucking and how to expertly pair oysters with delicious sauces and a variety of wines. Taste of the Bay, sponsored by Lancaster by the Bay Chamber of Commerce, is a highly anticipated event held each November. The annual food festival features tastings of local wines and craft beers, food samplings from local restaurants, live music and a variety of artisan vendors.
Cross the Rappahannock River into the Middle Peninsula Urbanna Days, typically part of the Urbanna Oyster Festival, the Official Oyster Festival of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Head south to the George P. Coleman Memorial Bridge, the only vehicular crossing of the York River. Just over the bridge, you’ll arrive at Watermen’s Museum in Yorktown, where you can learn the history of Revolutionary War watermen and take boat-building classes. There’s plenty to see and do in Yorktown, which prides itself on being an area “as rich in American history as it is modern-day charm.” Learn about the American Revolution at one of its many museums. Visit an art gallery or family friendly attraction. Or spend a day on the river, visiting Riverwalk Landing where you can shop, dine, cruise or just admire the stunning York River views.
Drive further south on The Peninsula and you’ll find yourself in Newport News, home to Virginia Living Museum, with hands-on exhibits, a planetarium and a nature trail with 250 species of plants & animals. Follow the James River north past oyster and shellfish management areas and you’ll soon come to Colonial Williamsburg, a 301-acre living history museum depicting life in the 18th century.
Yorktown, Williamsburg and Jamestown form the “Historic Triangle”, an historical area between the James and York rivers where some of Virginia’s–and the country’s–most pivotal, history-shaping events took place. Within the triangle are a number of living history sites, including aforementioned Colonial Williamsburg, Yorktown Battlefield, and the New World’s first English permanent settlement at Jamestown.
Follow the James River to Richmond, the bustling, urban capital of the Commonwealth of Virginia, before heading back north to Alexandria. Adventurous roadtrippers can expand their journey by heading further inland to explore more Virginia rivers, such as two of Virginia’s longest Roanoke River and New River.