Urban Paddling on the James River

by Bill and Mary Burnham

Richmond skyline

In the course of American history, few rivers loom larger than the James. The nation's first permanent English colonists sailed upriver to found Jamestown, and as centuries passed, the river became a life line for Virginia commerce.

Not to mention a playground for adrenaline junkies. Through downtown Richmond, the river has the only urban Class IV rapids in the nation.

The James River drops 105 feet over a seven-mile stretch, creating rapids that range from Class I, the easiest, to Class IV. In other words, there's something for every skill level, whether rafting or kayaking.

Kayaking James River

"I can run Class III or higher 365 days a year, and never leave the city," says Richie Prado, a kayaker who heads from his day job as a sports marketer to run the rapids.

"This river can be challenging to anyone from a beginner to an expert. In one short stretch of river you can have great play on Z-Dam or Pipeline, big water with large wave trains, and technical creek moves, such as Lulu."

Almost daily, whitewater kayakers trade work duds for spray skirts and helmets, and run the Pipeline, Hollywood and Second Break - nicknames for the James River's most difficult rapids past the downtown Richmond skyline.

Playing in the Hollywood rapids

But the river's seven miles of whitewater start out slow. Upstream rapids bear comforting names like Pony Pasture and Choo Choo - perfect for beginning paddlers and rafters.

As spring days lengthen, paddlers leave work and meet at the take-out on the north side of the 14th Street Bridge. From there they shuttle to the put-in and run the rapids in pairs.

A word of caution: This wide river has an incredibly high-volume flow after heavy rains. Even experienced paddlers have lost their lives here. Start out with an outfitter, and never paddle alone.


Riverside Outfitters: Guided whitewater rafting, kayaking and canoeing trips. Transportation to and from the river. Also offer kayak, canoe, tube and mountain bike rentals and multiple recreational tree climbing adventures.

River City Rafting: Guided whitewater rafting & tubing trips. Transportation to and from the river.

(Click to read about hiking along the James River.)