Senaca Creek

River of the month #112

author: Pat Reilly

Seneca Creek is entirely in Maryland. It originates in and flows through the rambling suburbs northwest of Washington, DC and Rockville, Md. Its mouth is at Violets Lock on the Potomac, a popular training/play spot for whitewater boaters about 8 miles above Great Falls.

While the lower Potomac makes a worthwhile paddler destination, featuring whitewater with scenic as well as historic surroundings, one may ask why anyone would want to visit a creek in the vicinity of Rockville, Md. Until paddling Seneca Creek, my only view of Rockville was from Interstate 270 heading into DC. I270 is a monstrous road with 4 main lanes along with 2 service road lanes in either direction, making for a highway nearly as wide as a football field is long. Ugh! Who would want to boat here? Well, let’s remember that this is Maryland. And as discussed in ROM #105 about Deer Creek, Maryland has a habit of protecting long sections of stream banks in state parks. In the case of Seneca, the entire 18 miles of boatable creek is a state park! Amazing! And like other Maryland creek state parks, ‘Great Seneca Creek State Park’ is not developed except for a few roadside parking areas, signage and walking paths. No impounded lakes, bath houses or camp grounds, just a preserved creek corridor. And that’s fine with us.

The state park has at least 4 access points and the C + O Canal National Park has access at the mouth, but other than these spots busy roads make it tough to get to the creek. Plus the park prevents any creek-side roads. All this makes for a lonely creek, at least next to the water. However, Seneca’s little gorge is shallow allowing the suburbs to peak through everywhere on the upper part of the creek. You’ll see a mix of big homes, apartment buildings and businesses sometimes rather close to the creek, but mostly set back on the tops of little hills separated from the creek by expansive and pancake-flat flood plain. If it’s summer and the trees are in full foliage you may not see any buildings but you’ll always hear the traffic noise when boating the top half of this creek.

Once past Riffle Ford Road bridge, about 4 creek miles from the high I270 bridge, the creek and it’s park are in a more rural than suburban setting. And it remains that way to the mouth with some farms bordering the park in the lower stretches. Along the creek the scenery remains remarkably consistent. Steep clay banks, about 4 feet high, line the creek making it difficult to get out of your boat at times. Atop these banks the wooded flood plains can be rather swampy. Many times a recreational trail, sometimes a state park creation, other times a fishermen or kids’ path, parallel the creek. There are birch trees, a few big tulips and plenty of huge sycamores. But mostly the creek is lined by box elder, sometimes exclusively by box elder for acres and acres! There are some rock outcrops, but only one real rapid, the remnants of an old dam about 2 miles from the mouth. On these last 2 miles the creek takes on a more ‘normal’ appearance with sloped wooded banks replacing the flat flood plain.

There is not much watershed in the vicinity of the big I270 bridge, so the upper creek will rarely be up. I’d look for at least 2.6 on the Dawsonville gauge and even then it will be scrapey. And with all the surrounding development this creek is flashy - up and down in hurry. Now consider that as our national capital’s surroundings continue to expand, much of this development is new, with plenty of freshly cut timber. Combine that with the flashy nature of the creek and you have the makings for some horrific strainers. The strainers up here are not merely a big log or 2 bridging the creek. They’re more like what might have been seen on the East Conemaugh after the Johnstown flood! Good grief! 8-foot high piles containing tons of logs and debris block the creek making for long carries, and then only after clawing your way up a vertical bank of slippery clay.

So, again, why would one want to boat the upper part of Seneca creek, protected corridor or not? Well, in my case it was a desire to introduce my young son to the workings and history of our nation via weekend trips to Washington, DC. And have you priced hotels/motels down that way lately? Plus I’d rather spend the night in the woods along a creek than in the Holiday Inn. Is it legal to camp in Great Seneca Creek State Park? Probably not, but we weren’t bothered and our impact very light. Early in March, 2011 after big rains flooded the Potomac (which we had previously used as a ‘hotel’ camp) we set up along the banks of Seneca under a RR bridge about a mile below the I270 bridge. We used the railroad as a path to slip into the burbs for dinner instead of making a cooking fire. Walking into a large industrial/office neighborhood, the first place we came to that served food was a bowling alley. So along with our sandwiches, sodas and beer, we bowled a few games, in our boating/camping attire no less. And as strange as that was, it wasn't the first time bowling was part of one of our river camping trips. But that’s another story.

Pat Reilly

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