A Day Trip to Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary


“It has the best of it all…great nature with great history!” That is what my 8 year old son said about our day trip to Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary, and he is not wrong. Mallows Bay was designated as a national marine sanctuary in 2019. It is best known for its Ghost Fleet, the remains of more than 100 ships. Most of the vessels were built as part of the American war effort during WWI. It is also a sanctuary for a variety of marine plants and animals. We decided that Mallows Bay would be the perfect destination for a summer day trip.

What to Expect at Mallows Bay

It took us about an hour to drive to Mallows Bay from DC in low traffic. My first order of business was to find a bathroom. The park provides three porta potties. Our countless outdoor COVID adventures have led to some horrifying porta potty experiences. I was pleasantly surprised that these were fairly clean and that there was a functional and well-equipped hand washing station. However, I was not-so-pleasantly surprised by the wiggly lizard that greeted my daughter and me. Luckily her shrieks of terror scared the little fella away.

Planning for food

We packed a picnic for lunch. I saw only two picnic tables, but we opted to just throw our picnic blanket down in a well-shaded spot. There are no vending facilities, so pack accordingly. It was scorching hot during our visit. Thankfully I packed a ton of water and other drinks to keep everyone hydrated.

The park can be enjoyed by foot or by water. We opted to take a guided kayak tour offered through Charles County Recreation, Parks, and Tourism. All slots are full for the remainder of this season, but mark your calendars for next year! These tours are quite pricey, but my son loves kayaking and is a huge military history buff. I suspected that he would get a lot out of this experience.

Guided Kayak Tour

At the beginning of our tour, a knowledgeable guide gave us the historical background of Mallows Bay. After that, we entered our kayaks using a launch that made entering the vessel less wobbly than I am used to. My kayaking partner was my daughter whose arms are a bit too short to be an effective paddler, so I was her chauffeur.  We were told that we needed to follow the path of our guide because there are areas where there are submerged remains that you can’t see, but are very close to the surface. Then, we would be led on a route that would avoid damaging our kayaks.

While we waited for all of our group to enter the water, we spotted a great blue heron standing regally on a little island in the river. On the other end of that island, we spied an impressively large osprey nest. We could see a couple of tiny feathered heads reaching up to their mother to be fed. According to our guide, the momma was also acting as a sort of “umbrella,” intentionally shielding her babies from the unrelenting midday sun. 


Historical remains

Our guide led us out into the bay where we paddled easily among the vessel remains. I was stunned that these man made wooden structures have endured 100 years of wind and water. In some places, char marks could still be seen where people burned the wood in their efforts to salvage metal. The remaining metal ribs and large spikes looked like rusty skeletons poking out of the water. These broken and battered remains are home to a lot of life. Many vessels have become “flower pots,” named so because trees and other plants grow out of them. We also saw an active beaver lodge. As I maneuvered our kayak along our route, the Queen…I mean, my daughter, used her binoculars to look for birds. We spotted two bald eagles soar overhead and land in a tree on the shoreline.

My family finished our tour feeling very satisfied by the experience, albeit quite sweaty (have I made clear how very hot it was?). We did, in fact, witness a lot of great nature and learned a lot of great history. If you want to visit this park, check out some additional information below to help you make the most out of your day trip to the Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary.

Tips for Enjoying Your Day Trip to Mallows Bay

  • Touring via water is the best way to see the vessels. Guided tours are provided by Atlantic Kayak Company (age 8+) and REI (age 12+). You can also paddle the area on your own by bringing your kayak or renting from the Atlantic Kayak Company (launching from Mattawoman Creek).
  • Follow the prescribed tour routes so that you can avoid damaging your vessel with wooden and metal remains that sit just below the surface.
  • Schedule your trip during low tide. More of the vessels can be seen, which makes for a more enjoyable trip and a safer one.
  • Check the forecast for the day of your visit. We were scheduled on a day that was expected to be in the low to mid 90s, so we packed a lot of water, hats, and sunscreen.
  • One can also experience this park by foot. There four hiking trails you can explore. There are overlooks from whence you can view vessel remains. Winter is reportedly a good time to visit because the vegetation which grows on top of the remains is dead, so you can see a lot more.
  • Late summer is not a good time to kayak the bay because the water becomes overrun with aquatic vegetation called hydrilla, which makes it difficult to paddle in these shallow waters.
  • If you can’t get to the park, you can still experience it virtually.

Have you been to the Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary? Please share any tips you have for families considering making this trek. If you are looking for other ideas for summer outings, check out our guide to 80+ Places to Explore Nature with Kids around the DMV and our Summer Bucket List: 21 Cheap or Free Adventures with Kids in 2021.

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Julie is a proud born and bred Texan, but has called DC home since 2001. She studied at the University of Texas and then moved to DC to get her MPA at the George Washington University. Julie worked for ten years for a Member of Congress, where she loved working to impact public policy. In 2013, her world turned inside out when she gave birth to twins and decided to become a stay-at-home mom. Currently Julie lives in the H Street Corridor with her husband, two kids, and their increasingly grouchy senior dog, Presley. Yes, please: movie dates with her husband, trying new restaurants, exploring DC with her kids, last minute road trips, being outdoors, festivals (of any kind), girls’ night out, and a rainy day with “Pride and Prejudice.” No, thank you: hot and humid summers, mistreating animals, Legos (ouch!), public speaking, laundry, raw fish