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National Harbor: A Good Paddle Isn’t a Gamble

Image Credit: thisisbossi

Things to Know

  • Boat rentals are available seasonally from the Boating in DC dock on the Commercial Pier.
  • Launching your own boat at National Harbor is not recommended – the National Harbor Marina does not allow private boats to be launched from the dock.
  • If you rent a kayak, you are not permitted to cross the Potomac River toward Alexandria. Kayakers must stay on the east side of the river.
  • If your group has some members who aren’t too keen about getting into kayaks, the National Harbor also has the ever-popular pedal boats for rent – take to the water in style in a swan, yellow duck, or green dragon!
  • In addition to instructional lessons, Boating in DC offers late evening guided kayak tours. From a kayak, you can see the lights of Old Town Alexandria and the Capital Wheel lit up at night from the water.

Navigational Hazards

  • The route around Smoots Bay is mostly a protected, nearshore route. However, motorboat wakes can disrupt paddlers.
  • Most motorboat traffic does not venture into Smoots Cove past the marina. However, fishing boats will sometimes cross the area. Make yourself visible and avoid paddling into the oncoming path of other boats.
  • Be cautious when paddling underneath the Wilson Bridge. Stronger currents are sometimes present. Also, wakes and waves can reflect off of the bridge abutments (a phenomenon known as “clapotis”). Generally though, when the weather is calm, the conditions at the Wilson Bridge are also calm.
  • On the upriver side of the Wilson Bridge at approximately the fifth space into the river from the D.C. shore, there are the timber and iron remains of an old ship. Be careful when paddling in the vicinity of the wreck.

Water Safety

Remember: safe use of rivers and any designated trails, at any time, is your responsibility! Water trail maps are for informational and interpretive purposes only and are not meant for navigational purposes, nor do they take into account level of skills or ability required to navigate rivers. The National Park Service, Chesapeake Conservancy and/or the individual trail associations assume no responsibility or liability for any injury or loss resulting directly or indirectly from the use of water trails, maps or other printed or web-based materials. Learn more about water safety.

Marine Forecast

We STRONGLY suggested that you review the marine forecast ahead of heading out for a paddling trip. To review the forecast for this paddle trip, visit:

Emergency Information

Parking & Shuttles

The most convenient parking lot is the outside “G” lot, also called the Carousel lot. Additional parking is available in two parking garages within the National Harbor development.


Full restrooms are located near the marina office, a moderate walk from the Boating in DC kayak dock.


  • ALWAYS wear a properly secured personal flotation device (PFD) when participating in paddlesport activities. Make sure that your PFD has a readily accessible safety whistle.
  • A spray skirt is recommended for cold/foul weather.
  • Wear appropriate protective clothing that shields you from the sun (sunglasses, sunblock, hat, and a long-sleeved shirt that can get wet) and is safe to swim in. Water shoes with closed toes will protect you from abrasive hazards at launch areas that can cut your feet.
  • Bring water in bottles than can be secured to your craft. Bring more water than you think you’ll need and drink regularly throughout your journey.


Trail History

Captain John Smith Chesapeake NHT

  • Smith visited the area that is now Piscataway Park in June 1608. He met with Piscataway Indians in a town called Moyaone, the political center of the Piscataway nation at the time. Archaeological evidence shows indigenous occupation of the area for approximately 11,000 years. Piscataway towns in this area sustained themselves on the natural riches of the Potomac and Piscataway Creek, as well as game and agriculture. Visitors to Piscataway Park can experience a natural landscape similar to that found during the height of American Indian habitation and the Colonial era.
  • By the end of the 17th century, this land became an integral part of the tobacco culture that remained central to Southern Maryland economy for the next 300 years.

Star-Spangled Banner NHT

  • On August 27, 1814, as Washington, D.C. was burning, the British fleet rested on the Potomac near Mount Vernon. As British forces attacked and burned Washington, a British naval squadron sailed up the Potomac and forced the surrender of Alexandria. Loaded with loot, the fleet then headed downriver. On September 1, the British attempted to run the deep-water channel below the Belvoir Manor. Here, a hastily assembled American force hurriedly began to mount a battery on the bluffs above the river. For four days, British and American forces exchanged cannon and musket fire. The British fleet eventually passed the American positions. British shells demolished what little was left of the old Belvoir Manor.
  • The British ship Anna Maria, which served as a sentry near Swan Creek to make sure that American forces did not re-occupy the strategic point that had been abandoned when Fort Washington was destroyed, took onboard many runaway slaves. The British Army and Navy had been sending out the call that any slave who offered to assist the British in the war would receive a life of freedom somewhere in the British Empire for their service. Upon reaching the Anna Maria, these men were trained with small arms and eventually joined a regiment known as the Colonial Marines. Sixty-five slaves made it to the Anna Maria as it sat anchored in Swan Creek. Today, there are communities in Trinidad, Nova Scotia, and Sierra Leone that can trace their origins to the Colonial Marines.

Potomac Heritage NST

  • This region has a rich history of land conservation. Piscataway Park was established to protect the historic viewshed of Mount Vernon. Tax credits to local property owners initiated the land trust movement in the United States. The National Colonial Farm is a living museum of colonial farming and a modern-day organic farm that generates its own electricity using solar energy. The traditional farming methods used at the colonial farm demonstrate the life of most tobacco farmers.
  • Marshall Hall, built circa 1725 and destroyed by fire in 1981, is an example of colonial-era land use in the area. Beginning in 1650, the original property was combined with other smaller sites, including a parcel deeded to the Marshall family by the Piscataway Indians. The property stayed in the family until they were forced to sell it after the Civil War. From the late 1800s until the 1970s, the estate was the site of a popular amusement park.