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Paddle the Upper James River Water Trail

Most Virginians know that the James River flows through the capital city of Richmond and past Jamestown on its way to the Atlantic, but did you know that the mighty James begins its epic journey in the Blue Ridge Mountains? In northern Botetourt County, about 40 miles from Roanoke, the Jackson and Cowpasture rivers merge to form the James River. It is the longest river entirely within the Commonwealth of Virginia. The first 65 miles of it, along with a short stretch of the Maury River just before it merges with the James in Rockbridge County, make up the popular Upper James River Water Trail.

Paddlers on the Upper James River Water Trail are treated to breathtaking views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and lush pastures. Abundant wildlife can often be spotted, including river otters, herons and bald eagles. The first 59 miles of the Upper James is designated as a Virginia Scenic River, a prestigious status given to rivers and streams that “possess outstanding scenic, recreational, historic and natural characteristics,” according the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.

When the river is at normal water levels, the trail includes mostly Class I & II Rapids, which makes it a perfect choice for paddlers of all skill levels including beginners and families with children. Some paddlers will choose to cover more mileage and experience more of the incredibly mountain scenery. Others will prefer a more relaxed pace and simply go with the flow. Some sections of the river are perfectly suited for a leisurely float in an inner tube. The good news is that expert outfitters are available to help plan your ideal river trip. They can even assist with equipment rental and shuttle service.

With approximately 12 public access points it’s possible to plan an adventure that will last a couple of hours or a couple of days. For those seeking a multi-day adventures, some river front camping opportunities are available while many more camping options are available off the river but still nearby.

Sometimes anglers like to keep their favorite spot a secret, but in recent years the people have discovered that the Upper James has great fishing, especially for smallmouth bass, channel catfish and other fish. Some of the tributaries leading to the Upper James offer excellent trout fishing. If you want to take your fishing experience to a new level, consider a guided trip with an expert guide.

The Upper James River Water Trail is one of the most cherished natural assets in Botetourt and Rockbridge Counties. Residents and visitors alike are encouraged to enjoy this treasure through safe and responsible recreation. Plan your visit at

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