As it begins its journey seaward in the Blue Ridge mountains, Virginia’s James River roars and tumbles. The James River Gorge was cut by its swirling waters.
By the time the river crosses the state to join the Atlantic at Newport News, it’s become a mini-Mississippi, its 4 ½-mile width traversed by barges and U.S. Navy vessels.
Between this tumultuous beginning and impressive end, the river flows through the forests and fields of James River State Park in central Virginia. There, it can run fast and furious in times of high water, but more often it’s broad (100 yards), placid and shallow, a perfect playground for the novice water sports enthusiast..
It’s usually a river of ripples, not rapids, says Park Manager Mark Schuppin. “Most of the rapids through here in normal times wouldn’t even be considered a Class 1 rapid.”
You have to really be distracted – as I was by a bald eagle lighting in a tree – to have a canoe mishap. When I untangled the canoe from the waterside bushes where I’d steered it, getting back into the gentle current was a snap.
Floating enthusiasts of all stripes – tubers, kayakers, canoeists – drift along munching snacks, pointing out sights in the forests alongside, even taking their dogs for a ride. The water is so clear that you can see grass swaying underwater among the rocks.
An occasional angler stands calf-deep in sun-spangled water to cast toward a shady bank. “The smallmouth bass fishing on this section of the river is pretty good,” says Schuppin.
After a livery service drops you off at a starting point, you can float for up to 8 miles. If you’ve had enough exercise after an hour or two, you can pull into one of two takeout spots, secure your craft, and splash around in the tree-shaded water. There are no designated swimming facilities.
At 12 years old, James River is one of the state’s newer parks. A little over an hour south of Charlottesville, it seems far from civilization, a quiet oasis of rolling hills and green vegetation dotted with seasonal wildflowers.
The surrounding countryside, including Charlottesville with its nearly 200-year-old University of Virginia and proximity to Monticello, fairly reeks of history. Bloody battles of the Civil War took place nearby, and a half-hour’s drive takes you to Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, where the Confederacy’s Gen. Lee ended the war by surrendering to the Union’s Ulysses Grant.
The 1,500-acre park itself was once a plantation owned by the Cabell family. From one of its trails, you can gaze across the river at an antebellum mansion that belonged to a Cabell family member.
Park visitors have a choice of lodging, from the hotels and motels, some of them historic, in Charlottesville and Lynchburg (a half-hour drive), to the park’s campgrounds and well-equipped hilltop cabins.
Fifteen miles of looping trails, some with panoramic views of the river, are shared by hikers, cyclists and equestrians. A boardwalk and pier at one of the park’s three ponds accommodate the physically challenged. And a 30-acre impoundment behind it, an effort to recreate wetlands, attracts birds and birders.
Schuppin paid it a visit in the dead of winter. “It looked to me like there was at least two of every type of duck down there,” he says.
Fishing tackle, bait and river shoes are sold on site. Rentals include canoes, kayaks, tubes, mountain bikes, cabins, and even GPS devices to take part in the Virginia parks system’s geocache challenge. (You follow coordinates to discover hidden parks-related trinkets, then record and broadcast your finds.)
The cabins are equipped with the conveniences of modern life – hot showers, heat and air, microwaves – but not its distractions. No phone nor TV. Instead, you have a glowing fireplace to gaze into in cooler months (a load of firewood is included in the fee). In warmer months, you can gaze down into fields and valleys as you rock on the wraparound porch.
Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the cabins are so popular that they’re often available by the week only. Reservations are suggested for them and for the campgrounds – four for the general public and two for campers accompanied by their horses.
The park offers stalls and tethering posts for 35 horses and is a favorite spot for people like Sally Aungier, an officer of the Virginia Horse Council. The terrain is the attraction, she says. “The beauty of the trails, the diversity.
“They vary from flatland with a beautiful river view to pine forest.”
Some visitors use the park as a base for wider exploration. Civil War buffs head for Appomattox Court House National Historical Park. There, the reconstructed site of the surrender, the McLean House, displays artifacts including the pencil Lee used to make last-minute changes in his terms of surrender.
Take another route from the park, and within a half hour, you’re at Satchidananda Ashram-Yogaville in Buckingham. The 600-acre retreat and conference center on the banks of the James was established by Eastern mystic Sri Swami Satchidananda and is open to the public. A striking building shaped and colored to resemble a lotus flower is the center of the campus and houses tributes to the world’s religions.
In Charlottesville, trendy shops and restaurants snuggle side-by-side with historic buildings, and an hour southeast of the park, the city of Farmville is an antiques shopper’s Mecca. After the day’s sightseeing or paddling is over, those visitors who’ve opted to stay onsite in cabins or campgrounds share a special treat. “There’s nothing prettier than camping there and being under the stars,” says Aungier.
James River State Park751 Park RoadGladstone, VA 24553www.dcr.virginia.gov/state_parks www.virginiaoutdoors.com (trails)Info: 434-933-4355Reservations: 800-933-7275Distance from Charlotte: 252 milesOpen: Daily except for Nov. 7-10, Dec. 5-8, Dec. 12-15Hours: Dawn till dark.Parking: $2 weekdays, $3 weekends, free to cabin and camping guests.