May 2, 2015.
The section of the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River that runs through the Smoke Hole Canyon is usually only boatable until Mid-May or after heavy rains. On May 2, we decided to head out and explore the canyon. You can see a section of the Smoke Hole Canyon from our hike to Blue Rock here.
To get here, take Smoke Hole Road and continue on to Big Bend campground. The road out to the campground turns to gravel at a point and is pretty rough, but it turns back to asphalt soon. There’s a parking lot to the left before you actually enter the campground- this is where you want to put in. Your takeout spot will be at one of the parking areas near the bridge in Petersburg.
The river is calm and relatively shallow at the put-in. As soon as you round the bend, though, the river widens and deepens to a calm pool. We ran into several canoers and kayakers. Many had set up camp at various places along the river to make a multi-day event of the 16 mile float.
The Smoke Hole Canyon features a lot of the unique geology that Pendleton and Grant Counties are known for. Before long, the rocky river bottom turns the river a lot more choppy and has a few very easy rapids. As we made our way down the river, a couple told us about a large upcoming rapid. We got out of the boat and took a look – we were in a jonboat, so we decided to get out and take the boat around. The rapid was formed by a large, triangular rock that had fallen from Castle Rock, far above the riverbed. As we were putting back in, we watched a group of 2 kayaks and 2 canoes come through the rapid. The canoe in the back had a miscommunication and ended up hitting the rock with the side of the canoe and wrapping it around the rock. We jumped into the river to try to get gear that was floating past.
The rest of the float is, for the most part, a series of small rapids and flat pools. You’ll pass by Castle Rock, pictured above, as well as Peacock Cave, Blue Rock, and several other caves. The Smoke Hole Lodge will also be on the right as you boat downriver. Bluebells, columbine, and hoary puccoon line the riverbank.
As you near Petersburg, you’ll need to keep an eye out for the dam. It is possible to take out and put in again under the remains of the dam; the middle of the dam was blown out, so the water funnels to that point. However, given our boat situation and the rebar that we could see sticking out of the concrete, we decided to pull our boat onto shore and around the dam. There’s a sandy section below the dam that makes for a nice lunch spot. The rest of the float is semi-choppy water with a few concrete bars that you have to pass over, but is much more calm than the rest of the canyon.