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Rockin’ the River with the RVA Family

Why We love the James River

Want a great mini-vacation that ends tranquilly with your head on your own pillow? Lucky us! We live in Richmond where the James River and its parks offer a myriad of family vacation pleasures – wildlife viewing, history lessons, exhilarating activities, and relaxing locales with beautiful vistas for just plain hanging out. Does this sound like time well spent for your family right about now? Mine too.

First, a bit of background and destination information to get us started. The James River is arguably the most historical river in America. In 1607, it carried the first visitors to the new world upstream from the Atlantic to their settlement at Jamestown. And don’t let those dear friends from the North keep perpetuating the myth that the Pilgrims held the first Thanksgiving. No indeed. The first official Thanksgiving was celebrated on December 4, 1619, on the banks of the James River at Berkeley Hundred. This 1618 land grant of the Virginia Company of London was located about 20 miles upriver from the Jamestown settlement. If you do the math, you’ll find that date in 1619 was one year and 17 days before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock. More fascinating history and other secrets of the James can be found on the James River Foundation website.

So, with the history lesson behind us, let’s get the family out on the water. Perhaps you’d like to do some fishing. For an upstream option where flat head catfish and small mouth bass are the primary prize, rent or borrow a canoe and put in at Huguenot Flatwater Park on Riverside Drive near the Huguenot Bridge. Spend the day casting about, exploring the banks, or paddling to a nearby deserted island for a picnic. Downstream, large-mouth bass are the catch of the day. If you’re new to fishing or would like some company and expertise, local outfitters like Virginia Fishing Adventures and James River Fishing School provide lessons and guided float and wading trips.

Maybe fishing is a little slow for your crew. As the James makes its way over the elevation change of the land, some great river rapids are created in the falls of the James. In fact, many consider this the best urban whitewater in the country. Treat the kids to a guided kayaking, canoeing or rafting trip by Riverside Outfitters or Richmond Raft Company. Options range from easy flat-water canoe trips for families with younger kids to Falls of the James rafting adventures featuring class two to four rapids. Adventure Challenge, another Richmond outfitter, provides small group whitewater kayaking instruction and guided trips.

What else can we add to the itinerary? Anyone up for some two-wheel fun? Serious mountain bikers know about the Buttermilk and North Bank trails, plus some new ones around Forest Hill Park. Family travelers may prefer the flat paths around Belle Island (and especially the bike-friendly suspended bridge leading to it from Tredegar Street downtown), the Pony Pasture, Wetlands, and Huguenot Flatwater trails on Riverside Drive. These areas are also perfect just for walking and exploring, spotting wildlife, and hanging from the vines. But heed this advice: Familiarize everyone with poison ivy before venturing into the parks. It’s easily avoided if you know what you’re looking for.

What about those hot summer days when you just want to cool down? Wading with children in the shallow areas of the Pony Pasture is a recreation tradition in Richmond. Fair warning: It’s crowded on weekend afternoons. Sunning on the rocks and soaking in the pools there is a great way to immerse yourself in the natural beauty this area offers. Very few urban rivers offer a vista so undisturbed by development. Consider bringing heavy-duty inner tubes for a therapeutic float or a boogie board for the rapids. Wear some water shoes, as the riverbed is unpredictable. Always check signs for the river level, and pay attention to life jacket requirements. The website of the Friends of James River Park, at has great advice for families with kids of all ages on safely enjoying the parks and the water.

Other elements to incorporate into your staycation around the river include: having a picnic under the shade trees of Hollywood Cemetery with its lovely view high above the rapids; strolling the gardens and touring the Nature Center at Maymont; or learning more history at the Civil War Visitor’s Center on the river at Tredegar Street.

We’ve only seen the tip of the granite boulder. Published by the James River Advisory Council, the annual James River Days brochure provides an impressive, varied, and comprehensive list of rivercentric activities such as stand-up paddle boarding lessons, eagle spotting tours, evening bat searches, kayak and canoe tours and lessons, family scavenger hunts, history lectures, fishing, biking, climbing and kayaking camps, service opportunities, and so much more. Download the guide from the website or keep your eyes out for it at local retailers, libraries, and recreation centers.

Family travel adventures are closer than you think thanks to our beloved James River, its parks, and the many people who have worked to restore and preserve its beauty and accessibility. So this year, when you hear the classic, Are we there yet? Your answer? Yes, kids, we’re there!

Martha Grigsby Rhodes is a lifelong Richmond resident, the mother of two teenage sons, a freelance travel writer, and a professional family travel advisor.
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