Explore and sustain the James River Watershed

River Trip: The Upper James Water Trail


From the James River's beginning at the confluence of the Jackson and Cowpasture Rivers and following its dramatically beautiful path through the Allegheny Mountains, is the Upper James River Water Trail, a Botetourt County project that invites paddlers, campers, and anglers to these exquisite mountain waters.

The 340-mile journey the James takes to the Chesapeake Bay begins in the hamlet of Iron Gate, VA where the Jackson River to the northwest and the Cowpasture River to the northeast meet. The Upper James River Water Trail technically follows the river as far as the Arcadia Access (Rt. 614) 43 miles downriver, but most river rats will consider this section contiguous through a larger 63-mile stretch that goes from the headwaters described above through the James' pounding cut through the Blue Ridge Mountains at Balcony Falls and up to the first dam in the main-stem James at Snowden (Rt. 501)

You can choose to put in at the Iron Gate Access (Rt. 220) or upriver on the Jackson in Clifton Forge (Rt. 220 also). Either way, its good to know a little history on the two fascinating rivers that form the James. The Jackson River runs near the West Virginia border for 96 miles from its beginning at a spring near Monterey, VA. Virginia anglers know the James as a legendary trout stream troubled by private landowners' claims to the river based on old King's Grants from our colonial past. Conservationists will think of the massive Gathright Dam that flooded the Jackson River Gorge to create Lake Moomaw in 1979 and the paper mill in Covington, VA that in the past turned the Jackson bile-black with its toxic discharge.

Today the Jackson arrives at the James slightly stained but much more intact thanks to pollution controls. The Cowpasture River, to the east of the Jackson, runs a relatively wild course through farms and forest, and is unvisited by dams and industry. The Cowpasture, a decent trout stream in its own right, was named not for the bovines you will find grazing its banks today but for the bison that early settlers found in large herds in these river valleys. The nearby Bullpasture and Calfpasture Rivers enjoy the same semantic heritage. While you will find no wild bison in these parts today, explorations of the headwaters of the James may yield encounters with such magical denizens as black bear, ruffed grouse, white-tailed deer, bobcat, river otter, mink, brook trout, bald eagle, wood duck, and, if rumor is believed, mountain lion.

The Upper James River itself is reliably described at the Upper James Water Trail Website (www.upperjamesriverwatertrail.com), so let us suffice it to say that should you take the opportunity to visit this region, you will not be disappointed. The James' winding descent through the Allegheny Mountains yields steep granite scenery, adventurous Class I-III whitewater, mature forests, comfortably cool summer weather, a landscape of history involving the "Unfinished Division" of the James and Kanawha Canal system, and an interesting mix of fishing consisting of a the smallmouth bass as standard fare with the occasional giant muskie as a startling angling surprise. Take on a smaller section of this water trail as a day trip or do the whole thing over 3-6 days.

Lastly, make sure you don't miss the friendly, professional service of Twin River Outfitters and the journey back in time offered by a visit to historic Buchanan should you be lucky enough to make it to the Upper James River Water Trail.

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