What better escape from any mid-week workday – or way to spend a weekend – than a summer float. You’re sitting in your kayak, feet hanging over the sides, worrying only about the obscure tan your life jacket will leave you with. Maybe there’s a cooler of beer, maybe there’s a dog – however you experience Virginia’s blueways will stay with you long after summer ends, providing momentary respite from the trials of everyday life.
There are hundreds of miles of accessible, watery thoroughfares across this part of Virginia, winding through valleys and mountains and woodlands. Finding a route that suits your skill level is easy.
The Upper James
The expansive Upper James River Water Trail extends from where the Cowpasture and Jackson rivers converge near Clifton Forge, the river’s source, to Buchanan, 45 miles away. There are eight access points along the way, so you can decide if you want to paddle for one hour or five.
John Mays is one of the owners of Twin River Outfitters in Buchanan, a canoe and kayak rental business situated on the blueway. He points to a portion of the route from Springwood, an access spot on the James located off of Springwood Road near James River High School in Buchanan, to Twin River’s location off of U.S. 11. This run lasts approximately 2 hours and is comprised of long stretches of flatwater for a relaxing float. There are some calmer Class I rapids to sprinkle in a little excitement, and excellent small mouth and muskie fishing along the way.
If you’re looking for a longer, more challenging sojourn, Mays suggests a trip from the Buchanan access point to the Alpine Boat landing. It’s a 4 or 5-hour trip covering a 10.5 mile stretch. He says this portion is more remote, providing true solitude and impressive mountain views as well as a handful of Class II rapids to keep you on your toes.
If you’re looking to end your day on the James with a dip, Jennings Creek is an easy option. Though this spot is on a tributary of the James instead of the blueway itself, it’s no hassle getting there from the main route. From I-81 exit 168, a quick two-mile drive down Arcadia Road takes you to a convenient parking lot right next to Panthers Ford Bridge. Visit this spot and you could make some new friends, as hikers frequent it in the spring and summer due to its proximity to the Appalachian Trail.
Alleghany Highlands Blueway
The Alleghany Highlands Blueway may comprise the source of the mighty James, but it’s an astounding network of rivers and lakes in its own right. The Jackson and Cowpasture rivers along with Lake Moomaw and Douthat Lake make up this nature’s wonderland of mountain vistas, rugged woodland, and waters so clear you can see individual pebbles lining the bottom. Not to mention Douthat State Park, one of the state’s oldest and most revered outdoor getaways, is conveniently nearby.
Twin River Outfitters in Buchanan also services the Alleghany Highlands Blueway. John Mays points to one breezy six-mile trip down the Jackson from Smith Bridge to Petticoat Junction near Covington. This route contains mostly Class I rapids and some easier Class IIs, as well as some of the state’s best waters for fly fishing (though there is a privately owned portion of this route that is closed to fishing). Anglers can try their luck at catching smallmouth bass, rock bass, rainbow trout, brown trout, and sunfish. Reaching the Smith Bridge access point is easy from U.S. 220 in Hot Springs – take Falls Road to North Smith Bridge Road. Petticoat Junction is not far down 220 off of Mays Lane.
Mays also recommends a portion of the Cowpasture near Clifton Forge from Sharon Park to Evans Tract – a five-mile stretch of smoother Class I’s and II’s winding through farmland. Sharon Park is conveniently close to I-64 off of Nicelytown Road; Evans Tract is also right off of I-64 on McKinney Hollow Road. For the more advanced paddlers, one portion of the Jackson from Clifton Forge to Lick Run takes you through a Class II/Class III run called Rainbow Gap. The put-in boat landing is on Verge Street in Clifton Forge; Lick Run take-out boat landing is just into Botetourt County off of Botetourt Road (accessible from 220) on the James River.
Finding a good place to take a dip around the Alleghany Highlands Blueway is no challenge – Lake Moomaw and Douthat Lake both provide mountain beach settings (mountains AND beach, what could be better?) with lake boating options as well. There’s a picturesque swinging bridge straddling the Cowpasture River with a decent area to take a swim as well. To get there, take Cowpasture River Highway (Va. 42) to Va. 632.
The New River
The New River Water Trail is a 37-mile stretch of the well-loved waterway in Giles County. Here, the river winds around cliffs and cuts through mountains, offering spectacular vistas that are second to none. This sentiment is echoed by Paul Moody, owner of New River’s Edge in Pembroke. It could be challenging to find a more passionate New River benefactor than Moody; he speaks zealously of his outfitter’s offerings and repeats their creed several times: “Let the river love on ya.” And there are several ways to love the New River Water Trail back.
From New River’s Edge, he says several trip options are available – one mile to another boat landing in Pembroke, six miles to a landing in Eggleston, or eight miles upstream to McCoy – all ending back at New River’s Edge, nestled conveniently on the banks of the New.
You could attempt to float the McCoy-Eggleston stretch on your own accord – launch from New River Junction off of Big Falls Road. An hour and a half float will cover three miles of river with some more challenging Class II and easier Class I rapids along the way. Take out is at the Eggleston Springs Campground.
The stretch from Ripplemead to Bluff City is regarded as some of the most solid paddling in Virginia. Put in just off of Narrows Road, and the float covers about eight miles of some more challenging Class II waters. Along the way, stop and try your luck at catching some muskie, flathead catfish, or smallmouth bass before reaching the take out boat landing near Bluff City under the U.S. 460 Bridge. Some record-setting catches have happened along this portion of the Water Trail.
If you’re itching for a dip in the New’s waters and don’t mind driving a little, Foster Falls provides scenery and a place to cool off. It’s easily accessible from exit 80 (Fort Chiswell) off of I-81 and parking is no hassle with a small fee. This swimming hole is no secret, however; in fact, it’s where the New River Trail State Park is headquartered.
Franklin County Blueways
The Franklin County Blueway System encompasses the Pigg, Smith and Blackwater Rivers. Included in this network of water trails are Smith Mountain and Philpott Lakes, providing water activities aplenty.
For those looking to paddle, Franklin County Parks and Recreation Director Paul Chapman says one of the most popular stretches is from Grassy Hill to Bluebend Road on the Blackwater River. It’s a leisurely 2 ½ miles and can be done in an hour, so ample exploration or fishing is encouraged. Along the way you’ll pass islands and a few gentle Class I rapids – perfect for more novice paddlers. To access Grassy Hill, turn on to Grassy Hill Road from U.S. 220 and take the first left after crossing over the river. Take out is just near the intersection of Jamestown and Bluebend Roads.
If you’re looking for a longer jaunt on the blueway, Chapman points to a section of the Pigg River stretching from Waid Park to Lynch Park. It’s an easy, eight-mile stretch of some Class I rapids through countryside containing remnants of a foregone Franklin County iron industry. Try your hand at catching some brook trout along the way! Both Waid Park and takeout at Lynch Park can be easily reached from 220, not far from Rocky Mount.
If you’re looking to cool down while taking on Franklin County waters, Chapman says a nice backcountry-swimming hole can be found in Brubaker Park, accessible off of Callaway Road in the Callaway area. If you don’t mind something a little less secluded, Smith Mountain Lake Community Park is a short drive away. With a $2 per person entrance fee, you’ll get a genuine day at the beach in the middle of the state – including groomed white sand and lifeguards on duty.
Utilizing blueways provides one-of-a-kind, quintessentially Virginia-mountain experiences. Months from now, as winter drags on into its dreary, gray conclusion, there are no better memories to relive than ones spent on a river. Fishing with the breeze at your back, canoeing with old friends – get out on the water and create your own escape today. But as always, safety is the number one priority in planning any day on the blueway, so always make sure to check water levels before you embark.