Upper James River Water Trail paddling by a mountain

Paddlers on the Upper James Water Trail in West Virginia enjoy breathtaking scenery, as well as opportunities to spot wildlife and historical ruins.

The James is America’s “founding river,” along which America’s first permanent English settlement got its start at Jamestown 400 years ago. Despite centuries of civilization, many sections of the Upper James in western Virginia look as magnificently wild and unspoiled as they did in the 1600s.  

Upper James River Water Trail several kayaks

The Upper James River Water Trail offers paddling opportunities for all skill levels.

Paddlers who make the 3.5-hour drive from Washington, D.C., to the Upper James River Water Trail discover the relaxing music of riffling water, as well as breathtaking mountain views and glimpses of wildlife around every bend. Bald eagles soaring from the cliffs are not a rare sight, and minks and otters can be spotted swimming in quieter pools. 

“Being on parts of this river can genuinely feel like a wilderness experience,” said David Mikula, president of the Mikula-Harris creative firm. “I’m referring to the scenery. The river itself is not ‘wild’ with raging rapids. It’s impressive that all 74 miles of the water trail is officially designated as aVirginia Scenic River.”

A Destination for Paddlers and Anglers

In the past decade, the Upper James in Botetourt and Rockbridge counties has become a destination for paddlers seeking both flat and moderate whitewater, as well as for anglers pursuing musky, smallmouth bass, and channel catfish. (See dwr.virginia.gov/licenses for the required fishing license.) A private camping resort, a town park, and two outfitters (Twin River Outfitters and Wilderness Canoe Co.) provide a variety of campsites along the water trail. 

Upper James River Water Trail sunrise

Take a morning paddle along the Upper James River Water Trail. Along its banks, you’ll find many options for spending the night.

Looking for adventure? Paddling trips can range from day tube-floating or paddling excursions to kayaking or canoeing the length of the blueway over multiple days. When the river is at normal water levels, the trail includes mostly Class I and II rapids, making it a great choice for paddlers of all skill levels, including beginners and families with school-age children. Outfitters can help set up the ideal river trip and assist with equipment rental and shuttles.

History and More

The James begins 40 miles north of Roanoke, Virginia, at the confluence of the Jackson and Cowpasture rivers. It is the longest river entirely in Virginia. The James’ first 64 miles, along with a short stretch of the Maury River in Rockbridge County, make up the Upper James River Water Trail. 

The Upper James River Water Trail from a kayak

The Upper James River Water Trail offers a scenic and peaceful place to paddle.

In addition to glimpsing herons and eagles, the sharp-eyed traveler can spot traces of history on the wooded banks. The James runs alongside the remains of stone locks and diversion dams, ruins from the 19th-century James River and Kanawha Canal. Paddlers also pass under the Buchanan Swinging Bridge, whose stone piers supported a toll bridge in the mid-1800s.  

The James twists south through the mountains to Buchanan, where it bends sharply northeast into Rockbridge County and the town of Glasgow. Although the Upper James can feel like wilderness, 12 ramped access sites with parking make for smooth shuttling. 

Upper James River Water Trail fishing

Anglers flock to the Upper James River in search of musky, smallmouth bass, and channel catfish.

A variety of restaurants can be found in the Lexington-Buena Vista area as well as Natural Bridge and Buchanan, and there are plenty of hotel rooms in nearby Roanoke, as well as in Natural Bridge and Lexington.

For More Information

The Upper James Water River Trail



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