Very Richmond #3: Hollywood Rapids


Belle Isle is one of the most well-known public hangout spots in Richmond. If you live in Richmond and you’ve never heard of it, you ain’t trying. Spending a lazy afternoon on the rocks watching the river go by with your friends — perfection.

Hollywood Rapids in fall -- not in full rage

Hollywood Rapids -- at less than full rage in the fall

If you are a big-time paddler, going to Belle Isle via the James River is a must. But unlike most of the visitors, you don’t want to touch the island, just a chance to blast through the Stripper and into raging white water of the Class III to IV rated Hollywood Rapids.

Since the 1970s — when breaks in the dams around the island were made and long after the Virginia Electric Power Company had abandoned the island hydroelectric plant — the rapids have been a destination for white water enthusiasts.

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Raft companies take people down the James almost year-round

The rapids are right in the center of the most popular people-watching spot on Belle Isle, and paddlers often attract crowds. The name comes from famed Hollywood Cemetery, situated on top of the hills above Belle Isle on the north bank of the James.

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Hollywood Cemetery in all its glory, overlooking Belle Isle

There is no truth to the rumor that if you don’t survive the rapids, the cemetery is where you end up, but people have died in Hollywood Rapids. If you visit Belle Isle, respect the power of the rapids. Most paddlers will tell you, scout out the rapids first. Belle Isle has countless safe places to stop, and there’s no shame in taking portage around Hollywood Rapids.

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When Hollywood is low, getting back in to surf is possible, as this kayaker did right after posing for me.

Great fact: the James represents the only white-water located in the heart of an urban area. Belle Isle is downtown, and it doesn’t get more urban than that. Hollywood Rapids is very Richmond.

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