Rivanna River in Albemarle County, Virginia

Paddle the Historic Rivanna River

Where to launch a trip down this ever-scenic and popular paddling destination near Charlottesville, Va.

There are plenty of reasons—and no shortage of opportunities—to explore the Rivanna River as it traverses from the Blue Ridge foothills to the Piedmont plain. Much has to do with its mix of pristine characteristics and ample access along Virginia’s first federally designated Scenic River, which runs 46 miles from headwaters above Charlottesville (where its North Fork flows from the eastern border of Shenandoah National Park) to a confluence with the James River near Columbia, Va. The Rivanna, an abbreviation for “River Anna,” named after the early 18th-century Queen of England, flows freely as it courses its way southeast on its long journey to the Chesapeake Bay.

Lined with lush foliage that quickly dissolves any surrounding East Coast hustle and bustle, the Rivanna has become a local paddling favorite for everything from canoes and rec kayaks to inflatables and paddleboards, albeit with mild Class I-II rapids that keep things interesting and require basic river-running skills. Expect wildlife, gentle whitewater, calm pools and natural beauty for an adventurous outing on the water. As the river was an important transportation artery in the 1700s and 1800s, also look for historical remnants of aqueducts, old stone dams, mills, canals and locks dating back to Colonial times. 


May and June offer the best conditions to paddle the Rivanna, when water levels are at their best (they can sometimes drop too low by the end of summer). At the end of April and early May, look for the banks to come alive with the flower blossoms of wild azaleas and bluebells. 

Launch Spots

The two following launch spots are the main ones used by local paddlers: an upper one just below the South Fork Rivanna Dam and another put-in 6 miles down at 117-acre Darden Towe Park. Try the section below each, separately, or combine both trips for a longer, full-day trip of 12 miles, all in the shadow of Charlottesville. Note: Both stretches have Class I-II whitewater, so you’ll need a modicum of skills before floating, as well as all the paddling gear essentials (including a life jacket, most notably).

South Fork Rivanna Dam

This put-in takes you on a 6.5-mile stretch down to Darden Towe Park that’s slightly easier than the river’s lower section, but still requires some basic whitewater skills to get through a handful of Class II rapids.

Darden Towe Park

Put in here for a relaxing, 6-mile stretch of easy Class I-II whitewater down to Milton Landing, with only a 10-minute shuttle. While you’re still close to the urban center of Charlottesville, as soon as you put on, the city disappears and you’re surrounded by the magic of water and wildlife. 


Both stretches of the Rivanna also offer great fishing options from your paddlecraft, especially for smallmouth bass. Also keep your eyes peeled for the dramatic longnose gar, a prehistoric-looking fish that likes to bask in the sun just below the surface. 

Guides and Shuttles 

With the Rivanna’s Class II rapids and sometimes inconsistent conditions, going with a guide (at least the first time out) is a smart option for those with little or no paddling experience. Beyond teaching you basic paddling skills, a guide can also interpret the region’s natural history and identify wildlife and historical sites. Guided trips at the Rivanna River Co., include equipment, instruction and shuttle services. Located right in the middle of the two runs, the company also rents kayaks, canoes and standup paddleboards, including PFDs. Or, you can rent gear for a short paddle from their riverfront shop (just downstream from Darden Towe Park at 1518 E. High St.), which also has a beach for swimming and picnicking.

Refresh & Refuel

If you run the Rivanna on a Saturday in the summer, you might just paddle straight up to a concert. The Rivanna Roots Concert Series, organized in conjunction with the Front Porch Music School, is held every other Saturday from May through September in an open field adjacent to the Rivanna River Co., riverfront store. The celebrations showcase everything from reggae to bluegrass bands and feature local beer and wine, food trucks and more.    

Historical Tidbit 

Paddled by Native Americans in dugout canoes for thousands of years (the Monacan people at the time of European settlement), the Rivanna was also used by colonists to transport agricultural goods downriver to Richmond to be loaded onto oceangoing vessels, using long, narrow, flat-bottomed craft called batteaux. 

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.