Virginia's Tidewater Potomac Field Guide
The dividing line between what constitutes the Middle and Lower Potomac is subjective, but one thing is certain. Below the point where Chopawamsic Creek empties into the river, at the boundary between Virginia’s Prince William and Stafford counties, the Potomac shoreline is entirely different in character from the shoreline near Washington, D.C., at the upper reaches of the Coastal Plain. Now the mouths of creeks are wide estuaries, where freshwater and sea mix continuously, where the inlets of Aquia and Potomac creeks form Chesapeake Bays in miniature. Above the river, in places are sandstone cliffs that surprise even longtime residents of the region who thought they knew the Potomac.
The defining natural feature of Virginia’s Lower Potomac is the Northern Neck, a peninsula of forests and farmland bounded by the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. The Northern Neck is the northernmost of three peninsulas that together form Virginia’s “tidewater region.” These peninsulas, along with similar land areas north of the Potomac River in Maryland, reach into the Chesapeake Bay. They are sometimes called the Chesapeake Lowlands.
Beyond the Stafford shoreline, the Potomac sweeps east around Mathias Point Neck in King George County, then opens south into widewater where winds and swells rival those of the Bay. Along the Northern Neck peninsula, the Potomac passes the birthplaces of James Monroe, George Washington, then Robert E. Lee in Westmoreland County. Reaching the Yeocomico River and Northumberland County, tributaries such as Coan River, Hull Creek and the Little Wicomico combine to create a county that is nearly as much water as land.
Northumberland, called the “Mother County of the Northern Neck,” at one time included the adjacent counties of Richmond and Lancaster. It traces its first permanent settlement to 1648. Flowing some one hundred miles from fast-growing Stafford County to picturesque Smith Point at the mouth of the river, Virginia’s Lower Potomac is a gateway to a peninsula rich in history and natural beauty.
Did You Know?
Even though it may be a hot day, remember that swimming is not allowed in Great Falls National Park. The Potomac River is fast, with dangerous currents, and is never safe for swimming.