When fall arrives, the Blue Ridge Mountains display practically every shade except blue and the result is mesmerizing. People return to the mountains every year to gaze at this living work of art. This year, instead of admiring the scenery through a car window, try paddling among the beauty on 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 rolling pastures. The tree canopy makes the views lush during the summer and nothing short of magical during the fall. Abundant wildlife can often be spotted, including river otters, herons, and bald eagles. The entire stretch of the Upper James in Botetourt and Rockbridge counties 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 to 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 incredible 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.

The entire Upper James River Water Trail is navigable, and many paddlers cover it all by arranging camping along the way or by completing shorter sections over several days. Other visitors are drawn to the region for the river experience and add in some hiking or biking for variety. Either way, it’s easy to plan a great long weekend of outdoor adventure on or around the Upper James River Water Trail.


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