Kayaking on the Upper James River is an amazing way to experience the beauty of Virginia from the water. We’re sharing all the details of what you can expect from a kayaking excursion with Twin River Outfitters.
When people think of the Blue Ridge Mountains, hiking and driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway are at the forefront. That’s not all these mountains have hidden away.
One of the best ways to spend a few hours is paddling on one of the many rivers in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
We are not expert kayakers. In fact, I’m not even a very strong swimmer, I call it effortful non-drowning. However, a lifejacket overcomes my absurd lack of buoyancy.
Maybe one day I’ll buy my own kayak and feel comfortable enough on the water to plan and execute my own trip, but for now I prefer to use an outfitter.
Outfitters provide equipment, shuttle services, preplanned routes, and plenty of expert knowledge. They take care of all the details so even a first-time kayaker can feel completely comfortable heading out on the river.
So, on a foggy morning in September, we made our way to Twin River Outfitters in Buchanan, VA to spend some time on the James.
When you book a trip with Twin River you have several options for equipment. We rented sit-on-top kayaks but there were also tandem kayaks and sit inside kayaks as well as canoes. In addition, they provide lifejackets and a drybag. Not all outfitters provide a drybag as part of the standard equipment rental, so this was nice.
What to Bring and Wear
When kayaking, you want to wear a swim suit or quick dry clothing in case you fall into the water. In addition always wear water shoes or river sandals. Most river rocks are smooth from the flowing water but debris and trash are common and less forgiving.
Bring water and any snacks you may want while on the water. I brought half a gallon of water on our trip but only drank about half of that. You should wear sunscreen as well. The river is wide and you will be in direct sunlight for significant stretches on any trip.
Twin River provides a dry bag to store your supplies if you are booking a trip with them, but they also have a shop with items for purchase. Carrie bought a small waterproof pouch for her phone from the shop so she didn’t have to worry about losing in the river.
Kayaking on the James River
Kayaking and canoeing trips on the Upper James Water Trail travel along mostly class I and II rapids with infrequent class III rapids. The James River begins in Botetourt County, where the town of Buchanan sits, and flows to the Chesapeake Bay.
For those of you that are more knowledgeable about kayaking and canoeing and have your own equipment, there are 12 public launches on the Upper James River you can use. If you are planning your own trip we recommend checking out the Upper James River Trail FAQ page.
We’ve been kayaking with Twin River before but it had been many years. We wanted to use them again because we remembered watching their safety video that detailed the specific rapids we would encounter and how to navigate them. It made us feel confident and prepared for the route.
Fun fact: the owners are twin brothers and on our first trip we went from the shop to the shuttle van and were really confused when we saw the person we had just spoken to in the shop in the driver seat wearing different clothes. The conversation that followed was no less confusing until he told us he was a twin.
Twin River has three different day trip options; we chose Horseshoe Bend, the longest and most popular route. Twin River shuttles you out to Horseshoe Bend and then it’s a nine mile paddle back to their shop in Buchanan.
During the shuttle ride we learned that along with day trips, Twin River also offers multiday camping trips.
One of the most popular is a three day glamping trip. They let us check out one of the glamping sites near where we launched our kayaks. Each site includes a canvas tent with two cots, a picnic table, a fire ring, and a covered kitchen area. There were string lights stung up at each site and most had a great view of the river. This is something I definitely want to do in the future.
Horseshoe Bend to Buchanan
After launching we quickly made it to the first set of class II rapids, Richie’s Falls. Earlier we had been shown exactly how to approach these falls and we both made it through without difficulty.
As I waited on Carrie, I saw a huge bird in the distance fly from one nearby tree to another, further away, along the shore. I thought it was a turkey vulture, those are common in this area. Once we were closer to where the bird roosted it took flight again and I saw the white head and tail feathers of the bald eagle.
When I was young, bald eagles were near extinction. A lot of work by conservationists and changes in laws helped them rebound. They were removed from the endangered species list in 2007 and now are found throughout North America. I felt almost giddy when I realized what it was.
The first half of our trip, the eagle flew along the James. It was truly magical seeing it glide on massive wings from perch to perch.
The fog burned off quickly and water bugs danced along the top of the water as the sun slowly rose over the mountains.
On a recent kayaking trip along the New River, I was surprised by the towering walls where the river cut through the surrounding stone. The James River lacks vaulted stone walls and instead meanders peacefully through forest and farmland.
Our trip was at the tail end of summer when the mornings begin to cool but before the leaves start to change.
The water level was at 2.5 feet, the low end of average. Once it tops 4 feet the flow is quickened and at around 6 feet extreme caution should be taken. You can find current water levels around Buchanan from NOAA.
If you kayak this stretch of river, pay attention for structures hidden in the forest overgrowth.
Several pillars are all that remain of decommissioned bridges along the water’s edge. It’s a reminder that the lands in this part of the country were settled long ago.
About an hour and half into the trip we were starting to get hungry and spotted a rocky beach. The water levels may submerge this beach when they are higher, but if it’s available it’s an excellent place to take a break.
It was a nice spot to rest and our bald eagle friend stopped on a nearby tree top to rest as well. We tried to get a good photo of it flying around but our phone cameras weren’t up to the job.
Along the river, there were plenty of spots to swim and fish and despite my lack of skill, I didn’t feel like I was ever at risk of capsizing.
As we neared Buchanan the thick forest faded. Marshy wetland rimmed the river and waterbirds and turtles skittered away at our approach.
Watch for the old swinging pedestrian bridge across the James in Buchanan as you return to Twin Rivers’ shop. You can’t see their boat ramp until you are very close, so the bridge makes a nice big landmark to show you when you are near.
All together it took us about 3.5 hours for the trip. We didn’t feel that we paddled hard even though the river was moving slowly.
I expected the trip to be relaxing and exciting. I was anticipating something like my New River trip, with fast moving water and, at least for me, hard to read rapids.
Our trip was definitely relaxing and exciting. But the excitement wasn’t from the river rapids; it was from seeing the mountains and forests from a completely different perspective.
This easy kayaking trip let me truly escape into solitude with nature. Plus, I saw a bald eagle and it made me happy.
If you want to get on the water and spend a few hours exploring and relaxing, I can’t think of a better way than kayaking on the James River.
After the Trip
We were hungry after we finished kayaking, but we had to hurry to get home before our kids’ school bus dropped them off. Yep, we took a daycation without our kids – it was awesome.
If you aren’t rushing away, there are several places to eat in Buchanan and you should definitely walk across the swinging pedestrian bridge right next to Twin River Outfitters and explore Buchanan for awhile.