Two kayakers on James River

Outdoor Adventure Guide: James River Park

Richmond, Virginia’s urban oasis is ready for it all.

Smack-dab in the middle of bustling Richmond, Va., James River Park opens up 600 acres of outdoor playground to residents and visitors alike. The park spans the area between Hugenot Flatwater to the west and Ancarrow’s Landing to the east, running along the James River through the heart of the capital city.

The river itself provides both serenity and excitement, with a wide range of Class I-V rapids calling paddlers and anglers of all recreational types and stripes. On land, 40-plus miles of trails wind along the river’s shoreline and twist their ways through forests. Hikers, mountain bikers and trail runners enjoy the dirt. Rock climbers take to the abandoned train trestles of the Manchester Climbing Wall under the Manchester Bridge, the granite quarry wall on Belle Island, or tackle bouldering problems near the Buttermilk Trail.

With so much to do in the park, we had Josh Stutz, Executive Director of the Friends of James River Park (a nonprofit that works to promote, conserve and support this gem of an urban oasis), help us narrow down the best adventures. Here are his six favorites.

Kids climb at Manchester Climbing Wall
  1. Hike the North Bank and Buttermilk Trail Loop. This is an approximately 7-mile loop that crosses the James River at the Boulevard Toll “Nickel” Bridge and Belle Isle, explains Stutz. “It is, at times, challenging and keeps you close to the river through the entire hike,” he says, noting how the hike provides some of the best views of the James River and Downtown Richmond.

  2. Mountain Bike the Buttermilk Trail. The Buttermilk Trail offers some of the most technically challenging mountain biking in the area. “From steep climbs to long rock gardens,” Stutz says, “the Buttermilk Trail will test even the most seasoned rider.”

  3. Kayak or SUP from Huguenot Flatwater. The calm stretch of the James River from between the Z Dam and Bosher Dam is excellent for flatwater kayaks and standup paddleboarding, says Stutz, who explains that the calm water can be accessed from the soon-to-be-completed universal-access boat launch located at Huguenot Flatwater.

  4. Whitewater Kayak the Upper James River. “Experienced adventurers can put their kayaks in at Pony Pasture Park and ride Class I and II rapids most of the way to the Reedy Creek takeout near park headquarters,” explains Stutz. And for those looking for more of a challenge…

  5. Whitewater Kayak or Raft the Lower James. The most experienced kayakers, Stutz adds, launch near the James River Park System headquarters at Reedy Creek for a more technical run marked by rapids (up to Class IV) to the takeout at 14th Street.

  6. Rock-Hop at the JRPS Main Area Near the 42nd Street Tower. Stutz’s personal favorite activity? “Hop in the dry rocks along the river with my kids near the 42nd Street access tower,” he says. “There’s a great spot where, depending on the water level, you can hop slash climb all the way out to the middle of the river.”

Go with a Guide

Riverside Outfitters guides rafting trips for all levels, with kayak and SUP rentals as well as guided rock (plus tree!) climbing outings and courses. Sister company Riverside Cycling offers bike rentals, repairs, sales, and mountain bike coaching. More Info: riversideoutfitters.com

Stutz also recommended RVA Paddlesports, outfitting whitewater rafting trips for all levels, kayaking and SUP lessons, plus rock climbing instruction that takes place on James River Park’s Manchester Climbing Wall. It also offers special trips, like rafting to a James River island to watch fireworks on the 4th of July. More Info: rvapaddlesports.com

Toast to Adventure

Check out Legend Brewing Company and Basic City Brewing. “Both are a short walk from the Manchester Climbing Wall and the Floodwall Trail,” Stutz says of his top après brewpub picks. “Legend has a full restaurant and they are doing a beer to benefit the park system: the Raging James Pilsner.” While Legend’s pub fare is highlighted by unique eats like jambalaya, beer mussels and a beer-cheese Philly, Basic City Brewing’s restaurant serves homemade pies plus “shareables,” like spanakopita and a charcuterie and cheese board. More Info: legendbrewing.com, basiccitybeer.com

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.