Explore and sustain the James River Watershed

River Trip: The Fall Line in Richmond


The seven amazing miles of the James River described as the Fall Line offer limitless recreational possibilities, from simply sunbathing to running Class IV whitewater below the high-rise skyline of the state's capital.

Richmond locals and visitors are today blessed by a geographic reality that constrained and frustrated the early colonists, the seam between two major geologic regions characterized by tough granite that we call the Fall Line. In this seven-mile seam created by friction between the American and African continents back in the days of Pangea, the river loses 105 feet of vertical elevation as it falls with finality out of the Piedmont and into the Tidewater, where it will subsist at near sea-level until its waters are forever diluted in the Chesapeake Bay some hundred miles further downriver.

The Falls of the James complete the river's one-way hurry to the Coastal Plain the way an exclamation point ends a sentence. And while this exclamation is a whitewater junkie's exultation in the modern day, it was once a four-letter word to the English explorers seeking passage through the New World to rich trading in Far East. In fact, Captain Newport and his young lieutenant named John Smith placed a cross at the base of these falls in 1607 after unsuccessfully attempting to pull their sailing vessel past the rocks. While their aim in planting the cross was to claim the territory they had explored for the English crown, they were in fact in the heart of a place that would become a seat of rebellion, from Patrick Henry's fiery speech to the Jefferson Davis' Confederate stand, in the coming centuries. The Falls of the James quickly became a hot spot for trading as crops grown in Virginia's interior found their way by batteau or primitive road to Richmond, where they could be put on ships bound for Europe and traded for the manufactured goods unavailable locally to the frontiersman farmer. Soon enough, the vast power of the falling river water was harnessed to drive the most productive center of manufacturing in the southern colonies. Mills making everything from cloth to nails to cannon, a shipbuilding industry, and the sale slaves born in Virginia to plantations of the Deep South would combine to make Richmond a place of prosperity in the antebellum South before being reduced to ashes by the conclusion of the Civil War.

But back to river along the falls, which beyond its endlessly fascinating history offers whitewater rapids from Class I to Class IV, world-class fishing for smallmouth bass and flathead catfish, fantastic rock-hopping, summer-time snorkeling, sunbathing, picnicking, hiking, unparalleled urban mountain biking and trail running, and remarkable wildlife watching. The Falls of the James, complemented by the James River Park System that gives the public access to this corridor, is reason enough for many outdoor enthusiasts to move to Richmond.

River trips on this section are taken by kayak, canoe, raft, tube, and stand-up paddleboard. Novices will need guides on every section due to the many man-made river hazards and potentially confusing routes. The "Upper James of Richmond" from Pony Pasture Access (Riverside Drive) to the Reedy Creek Access (also Riverside Drive) is Class I-II whitewater suitable for intermediate paddlers. The "Lower James of Richmond" Reedy Creek down to the 14th St. Takeout is Class III-IV whitewater suitable only for advanced paddlers. If the river level at the Richmond-Westham Gauge is over 6 ft, only advanced paddlers should venture on the river, and anyone near the river is legally required to wear a life jacket. Over 12 ft. on this gauge and paddlers must be expert and have a high water permit issued by the Richmond Fire Department, which has a highly interested stake because of the number rescue or body-recovery operations they mount each year when the inexperienced, inebriated, or simply brash take risks they don't understand and find themselves stranded, swept away, entrapped, and often drowned.

Quite on the contrary, you, the prudent and informed river user, will find nothing to fear here except perhaps not having enough time to take in all the Falls of the James has to offer.

RICHMOND WESTHAM GAUGE: http://water.weather.gov/ahps2/hydrograph.php?wfo=akq&gage=rmdv2

JAMES RIVER PARK SYSTEM: http://www.jamesriverpark.org/

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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