Hiking in the James River

Richmond skyline seen from the middle of the James riverIn late Summer 2007, I took several long hikes in the James river between the Powhite Parkway Bridge and Belle Isle. I hopped on rocks normally submerged along the various paths I took — available due to a period of drought and low water levels in the river.

Those hikes left a lasting impression on me and helped fuel my appreciation for the James. The discoveries I made on those hikes continue to drive my quest to explore the river.

I tried to stay relatively dry. My goals were to see as many spots as I could — things that one would never get to see from the shoreline or at normal river levels.

The visual from the middle of the river is so much more appealing than seeing the river from a bridge, shoreline or beach. At that time, I had not become a paddler. I’ve since purchased two kayaks, and I think these hikes had something to do with that inspiration.

When the water is as low as it was (below 2 feet), it is clear and slow-moving. Many little pools are formed. Fish and other aquatic life get trapped. Rocks, grasses and driftwood are exposed. Many man-made obstacles like levees, dams, pipelines, pillars from old bridges, etc., are also revealed.

My son crossing a pipeline at Boulevard BridgeI took my son with me on one of the hikes. Mitchell was four years old that summer. He was so happy as he explored on his own, playing and asking occasional questions about nature and the river. We do our best to keep putting our kids in the river and encouraging them to appreciate the outdoors.

I made slideshows from the 100s of photos I shot and posted them on the expired Discover Richmond website that I maintained for Media General at that time. Someday these too will be deleted, but until then, have a look:

Being able to take time to enjoy myself and explore was a great asset to me in that period of my life, and I still try have as many adventures as I can.  I was able to transfer much of what I discovered and photographed into articles, slideshows and video for my job.  Often, I would find something I needed to know more about, do a little research and end up writing about it for the website. I miss that outlet — getting paid for my adventures.

The photos in the gallery below are from those three hikes. I don’t have the larger originals, but click any of the photos for a larger size. I have several that I’m proud of.

8 responses to this post.

  1. […] See the full story and photos at Richmond on the James […]


  2. […] and shallow pools of water to explore when the water is low. I fell in love with this area during a hike in late summer of 2007 when the water level was absurdly low. The rocks looked so unique, smooth and odd — a complete […]


  3. Phil, I saw your photos on Discover Richmond in 2007 and loved them. I’m hoping to do some of these hikes this summer. Do you have any tips? Waiting till the river is below 2 feet is good to know since I recall it staying between 3 and 4 for the better part of last summer.

    I’m guessing staying closer to the south side would be easier once you get east of Belle Isle. Did you have to get to shore to go around dams? Do you think our large dogs could handle it? They’re used to swimming and playing on the rocks at Pony Pasture, and we have front-clip harnesses so we can pull them up by their chests if the current is too strong for short legs.


    • Thank you Melissa, I appreciate the DR acknowledgement. In the latter stages of summer, the James tends to get down to 2-3 feet at times. Ralph White always talks about the pools that form when the river gets too low to flow to its banks or over every pocket — that’s when I did these hikes (August-October). West of Belle Isle, you’ll find more rocks on the south bank all the way too the Powhite Bridge. From North Bank Park, there are plenty of chances to cross to Belle Isle, if it is really low. My favorite was crossing the VEPCO levee that is breached on the western tip of Belle Isle — I walked to the middle of that wall over rocks from North Bank and walked on top of it all the way to Dominion’s property before crossing on rocks back toward Belle Isle.

      As for your dogs, I don’t hike with dogs and would not want to give you recommendations when I don’t know what I’m talking about. Put it this way — I never swam on those hikes (cameras!), but if I had to, the water was slow and shallow.


      • Thanks Phil! We’ll definitely try it this summer. Our only problem with the dogs is ladders or big jumps/climbs, but if the river’s low I guess we can just get in whenever we need to get around. Thanks for the tips, I’ll check out that levee.

  4. […] and the cold. If you feel like me take a look at a series of photos (from 2007) by Phil Riggins on Hiking in the James, as in literally hiking the James by walking from rock to rock. He breaks the 100s of photos into […]


  5. Damn I meant to give this 5 stars and it registered 3. Nice job will be sharing on H&H if you don’t mind. My daughter (age 6) and I just spent Saturday on Belle Isle and I promised her that come summer we would climb all over the rocks in the James.


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