This is the Life: Summer in Rockbridge County, Va.

All is quiet as Tim and I slipped onto the James River; only the sound of birds calling to one another and the dip of our paddles break the morning stillness. Guiding our canoe down the river and through mild class II rapids, we barely saw another soul on the water. 

Just because we didn’t run into any other people, except the two fly fishermen whose catch we tried not to disturb, doesn’t mean there weren’t other signs of life. We laughed at the ducks showing off for one another and called out every time we saw a soaring hawk. We soon lost count of how many turtles we saw enjoying the peace and quiet as much as we were. While our paddles didn’t always move together, the gentle flow kept us moving at a reasonable pace. 

This is the magic of the Upper James River Water Trail, the best way to experience some of the most remote and scenic stretches of Rockbridge County, Va. Along the 64 miles of the Upper James River Water Trail, a 59-mile stretch of the river and a 10-mile stretch of the Maury River were recently designated a Virginia Scenic River, something you’re sure to appreciate as you paddle along forested riverbanks and take in an environment teeming with wildlife. 

We started our morning off with Charlie of Wilderness Canoe Company who made sure to take care of all our boat and shuttle needs for the day. We’re already thinking about booking an overnight trip with camping on the banks of the river. After carefully explaining all of the landmarks and rapids along our route, Charlie drove us and our vessel out to the Alpine Public Boat Landing for the start of our journey. 

From the moment we put our boat in, we knew this was going to be a beautiful ride even as the clouds threatened rain that may or may not appear. We lucked out as the clouds kept away overbearing heat and crowds but didn’t open up on us. The entire 9.5-mile stretch was filled with mountain views and enough class I-II rapids to keep things interesting. By the time we reached the outfitter, we wanted to keep paddling this peaceful river.

The combination of wild beauty and recreation opportunities makes the water trail an ideal destination for adventurers of all ages and abilities. Calm stretches of the river make for the perfect float on a tube under a hot summer sun. With several outfitters in the area, you don’t have to go through the hassle of finding a kayak or canoe and somehow getting back to your car. Anglers will find this is the perfect spot to get out a rod to reel in a smallmouth bass. Plus, numerous access points and camping spots along the way make it easy to customize your trip length to fit your plans. Request a copy of the water trail map for all the best information on access points, rapids, and amenities.

Experienced paddlers will love the difficult whitewater on the nearby Maury River, a tributary of the James. The six-mile section known as Goshen Pass features numerous class II-IV rapids and is not for the faint of heart. Plus, with so many other great outdoor spots in the area, from the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Appalachian Trail, there is plenty to see and do when you get off the water. 

The charming mountain towns of Lexington and Buena Vista demonstrate southern hospitality at its finest with a diverse range of restaurants, lounges featuring unique cocktails, live entertainment, and cozy lodging for the night. What else could you need for a summer getaway?

Whether you’re looking for a morning on the water or a multi-day excursion across the Virginia landscape, the Upper James River Water Trail has all the amenities and sights to make your visit memorable. 

Ellen Kanzinger is a travel writer and photographer based in Charlottesville, Va.

Places to Go, Things to See: