Rappahannock River

Fredericksburg Watershed MapThe Rappahannock River in eastern Virginia is the country's longest free-flowing river in the eastern United States, running for approximately 184 miles, from the Blue Ridge Mountains in the west to the Chesapeake by south of the Potomac. The Rappahannock River offers one of the most scenic and best-protected river corridors in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The Rapidan River, originating from the west side of the state, connects with the Rappahannock about 10 miles northwest of Fredericksburg. Although a great deal of the watershed along the Rappahannock is rural and forested, the relatively recent growth in development in the south suburbs of Washington D.C. is changing the appearance of the area and the local impact on the river.

River Watershed/Conservation Land

Historical Significance

Evidence of Native American sites can be found along the banks of the Rappahannock and the Rapidan Rivers. It is certain that the Rappahannock was the site of early settlements in the Virginia Colony and was later a volatile battle theater during the Civil War. Some historians believe the Rappahannock may have served as a possible boundary between the North and the South during the Civil War. The Battle of Fredericksburg and the Battle at Rappahannock Station both took place along the river, in 1862. An estimated 10,000 enslaved African Americans freed themselves by crossing the Rappahannock River and escaping behind Union lines in 1862. 

Six different archaeological investigations were conducted in the Riverfront Park area between Charlotte and Hanover Streets prior to 2020. These revealed a rich history of activity in the area spanning from the prehistoric Native American presence through the Civil War to becoming a community hub in the 20th century. Construction at the new city park was carefully designed to leave some of the most significant findings intact, below the ground. 

A 1997 study,  "Historic Resources Along the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers," can be viewed here.

Riverfront Park

A new park in 2022, between Charlotte and Hanover Streets, reclaimed a central section of the downtown riverfront and provides a focal point for public activities. This project is the culmination of many years of work to provide pedestrian facilities along the river. Read more about the history of the park's development here. Find current park information here

Impact on Fredericksburg

Bordered on two sides by the Rappahannock, Fredericksburg's image is deeply entwined with the river. Photographs of Fredericksburg often include the river, and it is regularly used as a geographical reference for the city. Although the river once had great local significance as a port-of-entry, it gradually became less of a source of transportation and more of a source of recreation and beauty. The river serves as a primary source of this growing region's water supply.


Although the river is very beautiful and seems calm and serene in most places, it can be very dangerous for those who enter it unprepared and without a life jacket. Educate yourself on river safety and you and those who join you will be able to enjoy it safely for a lifetime.

There are numerous river outfitters in the area who can assist you in planning a trip on the river.

Helpful Links

  • Friends of the Rappahannock - A non-profit, grassroots conservation organization, dedicated to protecting and maintaining the water quality and scenic beauty of the Rappahannock River and its tributaries.
  • VA Outdoor Center - Provides river trips and outdoor instructor for all ages.
  • Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) - VDGIF is responsible for the management of inland fisheries, wildlife, and recreational boating for the Commonwealth of Virginia.
  • Tides for the Rappahannock
  • Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service (AHPS) - AHPS is a web-based suite of accurate and information-rich forecast products that display the magnitude and uncertainty of occurrence of floods or droughts, from hours to days and months, in advance.
  • USGS – Rappahannock River - The U.S. Geological Survey is a science organization that provides impartial information on the health of our ecosystems and environment, the natural hazards that threaten us, the natural resources we rely on, the impacts of climate and land-use change, and the core science systems that help us provide timely, relevant, and usable information.