Ready to put your paddling skills to the test? Jump on the James and descend with it through the Blue Ridge Mountains at Balcony Falls.
The James River, which begins near West Virginia in the western part of the Appalachian Mountains known as the Alleghenies, must find its way across Virginia to the Chesapeake Bay. Standing in its way are the Blue Ridge Mountains, and this contradiction forms the geo-hydrologic foundation for a favorite place for recreation-Balcony Falls.
Launch at Natural Bridge Station to extend the trip to 8 miles or at the confluence of the Maury River and the James near Glasgow, VA (Rt. 684) for the most concise, 4.5 mile version of this whitewater experience. The Balcony Falls section of the James has no road access and and involves rapids that are Class III and even Class IV at high water. You will find yourself in a wilderness setting that is exhilarating but also necessarily dangerous, so take extra precautions.
Most paddlers will do this section as a day trip, and on summer weekends the section of the river can be fairly busy. Camping in this section, particularly on river right, is a great idea because the land is owned by the National Forest Service, which permits backcountry camping. Many folks consider the cobble beach camp on river right upriver of the the main drop in Balcony Falls to be the finest camp on the James. Please use it with reverence and a leave-no-trace ethic. Fish for smallmouth bass throughout this section, take a side-hike up the creek just above the Balcony Falls rapid that and find the little stream's falls that actually give this rapid its name, and enjoy the dramatic geology lessons of the gorge.
Of course this trip should involve a good bit of rapid scouting and whitewater playing. It is not a good stretch of river for beginners, but is a great place for intermediate paddlers to test and improve their skills. Please resist the temptation to jump off high rocks into the river or engage in other risky behavior. Shattered ankles, fermurs, and spines have resulted...and evacuation is incredibly difficult here.
After the last rapid in this stretch, you will notice the river getting suspiciously slow and deep. In fact, you have paddled your way into the backwater behind the first dam in the James' descent across the state. The Snowden Dam is an active hydroelectric facility, and it begins a 34-mile stretch of the James from the Blue Ridge to Lynchburg constrained by seven dams. This stretch is seldom paddled, though it can be explored by the adventurous, hard-headed type who enjoys schlepping boats and gear on their back during numerous inconvenient portages. As you approach the takeout on river left at Snowden, make sure to exit the river immediately after crossing under a footbridge and a railroad bridge, and try not to think about the 34 miles of amazing paddling, fishing and camping that disappeared under the backwaters of these dams.
Incidentally, the footbridge that marks the end of this trip carries the Appalachian Trail across the James River. Hikes in either direction are steep but yield amazing perspective on this part of the James River watershed.
James River Trip Resources
Guide to Trip Planning: http://www.jamesriverassociation.org/enjoy-the-james/overnight-camping
Find River Maps from JRA: http://www.jamesriverassociation.org/enjoy-the-james/james-river-maps
VDGIF Guide to Access Points: http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/fishing/waterbodies/display.asp?id=158§ion=maps
Buy River Atlases of Historic Sites from VA Canals and Navigation Society: http://vacanals.org/store/
NOAA Hydrologic Prediction Service (River Levels): http://water.weather.gov/ahps2/?wfo=akq#
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