Filled with history and modern fun, the James River is Richmond's defining natural feature, its lifeblood and a focal point of recreation and civic life – so much so that readers of Outdoor magazine named Richmond as Best River Town in America in 2012.
With nearly 2 million visitors in a typical year, the James River Park System is the region's top tourist destination, and with good reason. Outfitter REI once named it among the best river parks in the country, and great experiences abound on the water. There's tubing, kayaking, paddling, rafting and swimming – and on land, you can mountain-bike or hike the trails.
But the James itself is a fascinating story. So let's go beneath the surface – and above it – to learn more about this natural gem.
The long way
The James is Virginia's largest river, running roughly 350 miles from northern Botetourt County to the Chesapeake Bay. The James is also one of the longest rivers in the U.S. that lies within one state.
Its tributaries – streams that flow into the James – total more than 15,000 miles, according to the James River Association, a conservation group. Its watershed – the land basin in which water drains into the James – covers about a fourth of the state.
Right here, Richmond
Shortly after landing at Jamestown in 1607, Captain Christopher Newport led a group of English explorers up the river. But they stopped in what is now downtown Richmond – and with good reason: Their vessels were blocked.
The placid, tidal water they had been navigating had turned into roaring rapids, or falls. So Newport planted a cross and claimed the land.
A big downer
In the space of 7 miles – from just below Bosher's Dam to the west to around the Mayo Bridge downtown, where the water turns tidal – the James drops 105 feet. This stretch is called the Falls of the James.
Of course, we've turned that obstacle into an opportunity. Today, white-water paddlers and rafters from all over enjoy the renowned rapids.
Before the English
Long before the English settlers arrived, nomadic hunter-gatherers had frequented the falls for thousands of years. At the time of Newport, the area's main inhabitants were the Powhatan Indians below the fall line and the Monacans above the falls in much of central Virginia, according to the James River Association.
James, you say?
There is evidence that before "James" took hold, the waterway was called the Powhatan Flu (a Latin term for flow) and the King's River. English settlers ultimately named it after their monarch, King James I – who's also the namesake of Jamestown and James City County.
Pick a color
The rapids create that famous white water, but where the James runs peacefully, it can look blue ... or greenish ... or brown.
The water looks blue when it is reasonably clean and is reflecting the clear, bright sky. The greenish look is created by tiny waterborne algae. And the water runs brown when it is full of sediment, or dirt – after big storms, for example.
Still in recovery
The James in Richmond was virtually an open sewer in the 1970s, polluted with human waste and industrial chemicals. Tough federal and state laws in that decade put the river on a comeback course, and work to make the river cleaner continues today.
The James remains far from pristine. But on most days, the river is clean enough to swim and wade in, and thousands do so in summer. (Rain can wash dog waste and other pollutants into the river, so wait a few days after a storm before swimming.)
The bay? Here?
You could say that locally, the Chesapeake Bay actually begins in downtown Richmond.
From the Mayo Bridge, you can look upriver and see the impressive rocks and rapids. But if you look downriver, you see slow, tidal water.
The bay is an estuary, an area where fresh water flowing from land meets salt water from the sea. Scientists consider the bay to consist of its main part near the coast as well as its tidal tributaries, so that would include the James up to Richmond.
Monsters, Part I
Huge but docile fish called sturgeons – these toothless bottom feeders can top 10 feet – swam with the dinosaurs. In the early 2000s, some experts said the fish were virtually extinct in the James, victims of pollution and other problems.
But in recent years, scientists found evidence that sturgeons, which live in the ocean most of the time, continue to return to the James to spawn.
Monsters, Part II
Top-of-the-food-chain predators called blue catfish have exploded in numbers and size in the James. The fish can top 100 pounds, and they eat anything they can get in their gaping mouths.
Anglers love the big fish, but some scientists fear that the bug-eyed bullies are driving down numbers of struggling species, such as American shad and river herring.
In 2015, cameras sensitive to heat and motion photographed coyotes at night in James River Park near the Huguenot Bridge in South Richmond. Other animals along the James in Richmond include deer, raccoons, bald eagles, hawks, beavers, otters and mink.
Like a road, the James has potholes. Called rock potholes or rock pools, these divots dot the boulders along the James' landscape. They are created by the grinding of pebbles and sand caught in a crevice of a boulder and pushed around by rushing water over thousands of years.
Potholes create little wild places called microenvironments. They provide homes to small fish, tadpoles, dragonfly eggs, snails, crayfish and aquatic plants.