Places to Paddle: Upper James River Water Trail

By Rich Batiuk

Members of the Potomac and New York/North Jersey Chapters joined together in April 2021 for three days paddling and camping on the majestic upper James River in western Virginia as the currents carried them through the Blue Ridge Mountains.  This was an expedition paddle: participants carried their gear and food down river from campsite to campsite as they paddled though the traditional lands of the indigenous Monacan peoples. The first two-days of the trip included numerous Class I rapids and a few very easy Class II. This section of the river is the most remote of all the trips in the Upper James River Water Trail and was ranked by Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine as one of the best Class I trips in the Southeast. The third day of the trip included several Class I rapids and a moderately challenging Class II rapid as the paddlers experienced impressive mountain views.

As one of the paddlers and the co-leader on this AMC sponsored outing, I found this river to be a wonderful paddling trip, from the incredible scenery to the varied white water paddling experiences to excellent campsites and facilities located strategically along the river.  And the best news is this entire upper river has been designated a water trail, which means:

  • There is an impressive and information rich website dedicated to providing everything needed to plan a day trip or a weeklong paddle down the river
  • A extremely detailed on-line and hard copy map provides a wealth of insights into all the white water sections of the river and what paddlers can expect to see and how to best navigate those waters
  • In-depth narrative descriptions of each section of the river so paddlers know well in advance what to expect from scenery along the river to water conditions
  • Numerous river access points available to the public along with parking
  • Two local outfitters providing paddlers a full range of services, from livery services to reservations for river-side campsites to canoe and kayak rentals and much more.
Photos courtesy of Rich Batiuk, Potomac Chapter Treasurer and Paddling Committee Chair, Potomac and New York/North Jersey Chapters’ certified paddling leader, avid kayaker and fly fisherman always looking for somewhere else new to paddle, explore, and fish

For more information on the Upper James River Water Trail, visit and take time to explore the well-designed website devoted to the water trail. This website has an excellent on-line map of the entire upper James River and the water trail.  Through this website, you can also request a large hardcopy map.

Our outfitters, Twin Rivers Outfitters, provided each of us with an even more detailed set of water-resistant maps of each of the section of the river we were paddling over the three days. With river miles marked both on the map and on trees along the sides of the river, we could follow exactly where we were, how far we were from upcoming white water, if there was a recommended side of the river we should we paddling down and how far were we from our next campsite.

None of this including designation as a water trail took away any sense you were paddling down a wild, natural river with very limited evidence of human habitation. During the spring we essentially had most of the river entirely to ourselves. I would imagine if you are paddling during the summer you will have a lot more company on the water, but there are so many river miles to be paddled, you just can’t help not finding a stretch to call your own.

The upper James River is a great river for a family trip with experience paddling on rivers as well as groups of experienced paddlers. You can find stretches of the river with only Class I waters, but there are sections of Class II waters which will require experience in reading the waters and paddling through some challenging, yet fun standing waves, rapids and drops.  This river has so much to offer—just get outside, grab a paddle and experience it!

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