Navigating Local Rivers for Fun

Navigating Local Rivers for Fun

By Ken Wilson –

“Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ on the river” – Creedence Clearwater Revival

Rivers we have aplenty in Central Virginia, and spring through fall is prime time for boating, canoeing, tubing and paddling of all sorts. Let’s take a look at two local rivers and some popular ways to enjoy them.

The James
Formed by the convergence of the Jackson and Cowpasture Rivers in the mountains of Botetourt County, the James River is Virginia’s largest, flowing for 340 miles across the entire state to the Chesapeake Bay in Hampton Roads. In fact, the James is one of the longest rivers in the country beginning and ending in the same state. Its watershed encompasses approximately 10,000 square miles—almost one quarter of the state. Originally named the Powhatan River, for the chief of the Powhatan Confederacy in the Tidewater region, it was first called the James, after King James 1 of England, by the English settlers who established Jamestown. The river soon became the Virginia Colony’s major transportation artery, ferrying goods, newly arrived settlers, and tobacco, much of which was sent back to the motherland.

Nelson County residents know that the little town of Wingina, south of Lovingston on James River Road (Route 56), is a good place to put a paddle in the James. Boaters and canoers will find a ramp at the Route 56 bridge. Eleven miles downriver at Howardsville, there is a concrete boat ramp at the James River Wildlife Management Area off of Route 626. The river there is shallow, especially when the weather has been dry—so shallow that the ramp is frequently covered with sand. Expect shallow pools and short riffles (rocky and shallow sections with rough water) here, and a few islands. Look for smallmouth bass, redbreast sunfish, channel catfish, and longnose gar. Ten miles downriver at Scottsville there is another concrete ramp. Check river conditions before setting out at the James River Watch website (

The Rivanna
Running southeast through Albemarle and Fluvanna counties, the Rivanna is formed by two smaller streams, referred to as its North and South Forks, whose headwaters flow from the Blue Ridge Mountains. Forty-two miles long, it is a tributary of the James, running into the larger river at Columbia in Fluvanna County. Named after Anne, Queen of England (think “River Anna”), this exceptionally pretty waterway was Virginia’s first officially designated Scenic River. Like the James, it was a major commercial highway, transporting wheat and tobacco in the state’s early days.

Put in on the sandy bank at Charlottesville’s Darden Towe Park off of Route 20. Two miles downriver at Riverview Park on Chesapeake Street, you’ll find a wooden staircase leading up the bank. The river here is calm with no rapids. The public access at Milton, where Route 22 crosses the river just west of intersecting Route 250, is 3.9 scenic miles downriver past several Class II and III rapids. It’s 10 miles downriver to Crofton (near Lake Monticello) with only one set of rapids, negotiable by beginners. The landings here are owned and maintained by the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries.

Crofton to Palmyra in Fluvanna County is 6.5 miles, with only one spot of rapids. Here too are concrete boat landings owned by the Department of Game & Inland Fisheries. The 16-mile trip to Columbia passes through several Class I-II rapids and one Class II-III drop. This is a day’s trip, and at least one member of the party should be an experienced boater. The view includes hills, farms and high banks. Plenty of parking is available at each of these spots, but overnight parking is not permitted at Darden and Riverview. The Rivanna Conservation Society publishes a waterproof map and guide to the Rivanna River.

Safety Tips
The James River Association recommends careful planning and preparation, including informing a third party of one’s plans, carrying maps of the area, watching weather and river conditions, and not setting out alone. Equipment to be carried includes a Personal Flotation Device (PFD) with an attached whistle, a hat to shield the sun (or a helmet if kayaking in rapids), water shoes or sneakers, waterproof or quick drying clothing, a dry bag with a first aid kit, flashlight, a small knife, bug repellent, sunscreen, snacks, and drinking water—more than you think you’ll need.

The Association further recommends scouting rapids of Class III and higher before attempting them, portaging around big rapids and dams, and quitting the river in the case of thunder or lightning. Capsized boaters should not stand up in rapids, but float through them with feet up and pointing downstream. Boating safety courses are available in the classroom through the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the US Coast Guard Auxiliary, and the non-profit boating organization U.S. Power Squadrons. Online and home study classes are available as well.

A number of area outfitters offer tips, trips and gear. Scottsville’s James River Runners rents equipment for their tubing, canoeing, kayaking and rafting trips—both days trips and overnight excursions—for all age and skill levels. Also in Scottsville, Reeling and Rafting rents tubes, canoes, kayaks and rafts, and transports renters upriver to start their trip. Charlottesville’s Rivanna River Company rents canoes, tubes, paddleboards and solo and tandem kayaks, along with paddles and lifejackets. It provides safety orientation and transports customers, their equipment and their boats to the river. Most trips are self-guided, but canoeing, kayaking, and stand-up paddle boarding classes are also available. 

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