Flat Rock Park to West Park Access

Difficulty: Difficult. Travel time: 2 to 3 hours, plus shuttling of vehicles and a long portage. Water Level at USGS gauge #01474500 (Philadelphia): Min. 5.73 ft (300 cfs); Good 6.27 ft (2000 cfs). NOTE: CFS (Cubic Feet per Second) is included in these water level recommendations, because this is what the Philadelphia Canoe Club uses below Flat Rock Dam.

The challenging Class I and Class II+ rapids in the first mile of this trip make this one of the most difficult sections of the entire Schuylkill River Water Trail. And one of the most enjoyable for those with river-reading experience and good boat control in moving water (see below). But the 5-mile stretch after that is just the opposite. It is an easy “sightseeing trip” in the pool of the Fairmount Dam.

But first, a 0.2-mile RR portage around Flat Rock Dam (RM 15.8) is required. After putting in at the Flat Rock Park boat ramp (launch permit required), look for the small portage take-out clearing approximately 0.2 miles downstream (on RR at RM 15.7). Carry your boat up the primitive trail to the service road, turn left, and begin the long walk around the dam. Bear left at the fork to go down the rip-rap slope along the fish ladder to the water’s edge. (For an “action map” and info on Flat Rock Dam portage options, click/tap the Flat Rock Dam hazard icon on the main map.)

You will find the riverscape below Flat Rock Dam to be unlike any other on the Schuylkill. This 20-ft. dam and the natural geological fall line below it create turbulence, swift water, ledges, boulders, a series of Class I to Class II+ rapids, holes, and strong eddies over the next 0.8 mile. This “whitewater mile” is regularly used for practice, play, and training by members of the Philadelphia Canoe Club and other whitewater enthusiasts.

Water levels and paddler skill may dictate/allow a different course of action through this area, but the best route through these rapids, under normal conditions, is:

1.) To avoid the turbulent, powerful outflow of the dam and the “rock garden” below it, start in the quiet water at the portage put-in, then stay RR to enter the channel to the right of the small island ahead. At the end of the island, go left through the small rapid to exit the channel.

2.) Work your way across the river for 0.4 mile through riffles and flatwater, to set up for a left-center approach to the Class II+ rapids ahead (RM 15.1).

3.) Enter the rapids to the right of the large RL rock formation and keep in the current as it goes diagonally from right to left and then exits in a long wave train along the RL bank. (For “action maps” and more information about the Flat Rock “Whitewater Mile,” click/tap its hazard icon on the main map.)

After all the excitement of the Flat Rock whitewater, you’ll begin those 5 miles of impounded flatwater. But before you move on, consider that the steep, wooded riverbank here is the river side of Venice Island, formed in 1818 when the Schuylkill Navigation Company built Flat Rock Dam, the Manayunk Canal, and several locks to produce water power and to transport raw materials and finished goods above the imposing fall-line boulders and rapids you just paddled through. (To learn more about the world-impacting manufacturing history of Venice Island and Manayunk, see A Paddler’s Guide to the Schuylkill River Water Trail.)

On your way to West Park Access, you’ll pass under 13 bridges, many historic and/or iconic. “Colony Castle,” formerly an 18th-century mill and now the home of the Philadelphia Canoe Club will be on RL at the mouth of the Wissahickon Creek.

CAUTION: The pool behind Fairmount Dam unofficially begins at the Wissahickon, so small boat traffic of all types can be expected from here to near the dam. But the stretch near West Park Access is world-famous for its high-caliber rowing training and competitions. Racing shells are moving at triple the speed of recreational kayaks or canoes. And the rowers are facing backwards, with no view of what’s ahead of their boats. Be alert and give rowers a wide berth as soon as you spot them.

A mile downriver (at RM 11.9) you will paddle above the biggest rapids on the river, the “Falls of Schuylkill,” submerged in 1821 when the Fairmount Dam was built. (That swirling water wiggling your boat is a reminder of what is still beneath!)  Historic, splendid Laurel Hill Cemetery watches from the hillside on RL. Refurbished East Park Canoe House and river-facing, heroic statuary grace the elegant 19th-century stone walls that frame the manicured parkways and pathways of Fairmount Park. Bobbing here in the relative tranquility of the middle of the Schuylkill River is a most enjoyable way to soak in Philadelphia’s distinctive sights and big-city sounds.

Before you take out at West Park Access (at RM 9.9, RR, just beyond Columbia Bridge), you may first want to consider paddling down-and-back just a bit farther. If you do, iconic Boathouse Row (RM 8.6) and the most spectacular panorama of Philadelphia’s skyline will be yours to behold!

(For much more about the cultural, historical, and architectural wonders that line the Schuylkill here, see A Paddler’s Guide to the Schuylkill River Water Trail.)