Pipeline Rapids: Downtown Richmond’s best kept secret?

Pipeline Rapids, viewed from the Manchester BridgeI think the Pipeline Rapids walkway is the downtown Richmond’s best kept secret. It’s been open to the public for almost five years, but seemingly few take advantage of it. Unless you go when there is an event like Dominion Riverrock on Brown’s Island or a paddling event, it’s often just you and the raging James River in a setting mixing the wild and natural river and the urban landscape of the bustling city.

Great Blue Heron rookery in early spring at Pipeline RapidsI love the sound of the water as it roars through Pipeline Rapids. There’s a chance a train will add to the noise. When it’s quiet enough to hear, the birds take over your ears. In the spring, the area has fascinating views into the world of a Great Blue Heron rookery.

Environment beat writer Rex Springston of the Richmond Times-Dispatch loves this spot. I’ve seen him here on several occasions, and he has often found the most unusual migrating species here: Blue crab, fish that looked like eels, scads of fish and of course, the heron. It’s a wonderful place to watch nature and escape the city for even just a few minutes.

The metal catwalk at Pipeline Rapids, under the CSX ViaductThe walkway is so named because there is a large city water pipeline running the length of the path. Both the pipeline and the metal catwalk on top of the pipeline are located directly under the busy double track CSX railway viaduct. The area surrounding the Pipeline is part of the James River Park System and under its care.

When water levels are up, just watching the river rage is enough — sometimes its too loud to hear the person next to you. When the river is low, giant granite boulder are exposed, giving visitors more vantage points.

In full view from the pipeline walkway are Bailey’s Island and Devil’s Kitchen Island, in the center of the river. They are a worthwhile visit too, if you get the chance. A spur line of the Norfolk Southern Railroad crosses over these islands (walking on them is trespassing) past the far eastern end of the path and the 14th Street (Mayo’s) Bridge can seen under the tracks.

New bike rack and staircase at Pipeline RapidsThe city is still working to improve and enhance the area. There is now a bike rack and although the ladder at the eastern end of the catwalk is still an obstacle for some, there is a new wooden staircase.

TO GET THERE: Pipeline runs along the river at the Riverside on the James condominiums, is easy to access from the Canal Walk at South 12th and Byrd streets or from the east end of Brown’s Island.

Pipeline Rapids is a great place to watch white water rafters, kayakersPADDLERS: The Pipeline Rapids, a hazardous eighth-of-a-mile stretch considered Class IV, are considered as treacherous to paddlers as the Hollywood Rapids at Belle Isle. There are several large boulders in the midst of the Pipeline Rapids. A friend of mine lost his father at Pipeline on a kayak trip, so please use all safety precautions. Normally the rapids in Downtown Richmond are Class II-III. Many intermediate paddlers prefer to take the Second Break Rapids, which run toward the south side of the river.  The entire area is a great (and safe) place to watch white water kayakers and rafts up close, mainly on the weekends.

Great Blue Heron fishing in the James at Pipeline RapidsBIRD-WATCHING: Plenty of Osprey, blue heron, ducks and geese. The islands in the area are wild and there are multiple trees with nests in the area. Heron like to fish in the shallow waters below the rapids and among the islands in the middle of the James, often hidden from view.

FISHING: Upstream of the Mayo Bridge, where the falls begin, catch smallmouth bass, channel catfish and sunfish. In the tidal area below the falls, the catch includes large blue catfish. Rockfish and others migrate through in spring, and they like to make their runs up the more shallow banks of the river instead of the raging rapids in the middle. A license is required.

HIKERS: This area makes a great loop with the Canal Walk, or an out-and-back from Brown’s Island.  If you start at Brown’s Island, walk under the Manchester Bridge toward the river. There is a rocky trail down to the river, and follow it east along the sandy shoreline. The trail picks up under the viaduct.  From the east, the pipeline walkway starts under the viaduct just west of where the train tracks cut through the doorway to the floodwall (below the Vistas on the James condos, or behind the Alcoa property).

TRASH IN, TRASH OUT: I have done river cleanups in this area, and anywhere you go on the James there will be some washed up trash. The water usually moves too fast to do much cleaning. Please make sure you respect the river by not allowing anything to be thrown or dropped in.

Watch out for the residents of PipelineWARNING: The area is known to have a few full- and part-time “residents.” I snuck a photo of this guy napping the sun, which I admit, made me jealous. You might encounter a person’s overnight campsite or what looks like all of someone’s possessions stuffed into an old dirty bag.  Those guys know to stay clear during the day, so you make sure you stay clear at night. Park closes at dusk anyway, so protect yourself.

19 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Effie Erhardt on June 18, 2020 at 9:05 pm

    I had two relatives who worked for the railroad. One was The Atlantic Coastline Railroad. My dad was an engineer. It would be so exciting when crossing The Boulevard Bridge while looking over to see This *Million Dollar Masterpiece! Now one can view from the Powhite Bridge!
    I have a medical visit at one Very Special Office, twice a year. There are different pictures of this RR bridge on their walls! The receptionist shared with me information on the photographer, who took picture closest to her. Amazing True Story!
    Let’s not forget Broad Street Station, now The Science Museum of Virginia! This is where the ACL Trains used to stop, when coming to Richmond. ALL Aboard!


  2. […] trails.  Richmond’s true colors are shown where the skyscrapers are visible beyond the rushing Pipeline Rapids, a rushing water system just downstream of the Federal Reserve. “It all starts downtown, where […]


  3. To the last Picture that made you “jealous”:

    In which way? Like grudging? Then just lay down!

    Or in the meaning of fearful?

    I NEVER EVER have understand what DANGER get’s from an PEACEFUL SLEEPING HUMAN.

    I NEVER EVER had understood why Parks are closing when the get most Valuable – at Nighfall!

    I NEVER EVER had understood why Humans are used like Cows to melk every Night high Amounts of money out of them!

    A Human that not gives Revenues every Second is worthless andd theirefor “dangorous”?

    Why not invent an Breath Tax?


  4. […] seeks to foster new opportunities for contact. One place where this is already possible is on the Pipeline Trail, a walking trail on top of an actual large pipeline running parallel and in the river itself. […]


  5. […] I knew CN as a kid and then ran into her mom at a Wedding I photographed in August who told me CN was getting married and took one of our business cards. Before I got home that evening, I received a call from CN and we booked her Engagement session at Pipeline Park in Richmond, VA.  […]


  6. […] and lastly, to join in on Cee’s Wednesday Which Way challenge, here are two phone photos I grabbed while walking part of Richmond’s pipeline trail (more about this nature trail here) […]


  7. Posted by Earlymorningwalker on June 26, 2014 at 10:15 am

    Can anyone help me on where to park to find the Pipeline Walkway? I found the parking lot for the Great Ship Lock but only saw pay parking spaces back toward the Canal Club after that. Would love to find a good parking place for this that I don’t have to worry about my car being towed away. Thanks


  8. Looks pretty awesome : ) I’m going to have to check it out tomorrow and maybe try to make it into a loop with the floodwall on the other side of the river. I love the weird urban/forested mix Richmond trails have : ).


  9. I live in Arizona now, but the pipeline area is the thing i miss most about richmond! Im gonna have to go back and visit soon


  10. […] Ralph White led a tour of the great blue heron rookery with the Richmond Audubon Society at the Pipeline Rapids walkway on Saturday and had plenty of knowledge to share about “sex on the James” and the […]


  11. […] think the Pipeline Rapids walkway is the downtown Richmond’s best kept secret. On any given visit, it’s often just you and the raging James River in a setting that mixes the […]


  12. Posted by anonymous on September 20, 2010 at 8:12 pm

    Maybe people keep it a secret for a reason because it’s a special spot to them and others. So it would be nice if people wouldn’t attract other people to it, let them find it on their own. The reason it’s such a good spot is because it’s not overcrowded with people and trash which comes along with most people going to the river and not respecting it! Have RESPECT for it, and for people’s special spots there!!!


  13. Posted by Dana on May 31, 2010 at 11:04 pm

    Yes! The pipeline is such an under-utilized gem in Richmond! I’ve lived downtown for 5 years now and run by it nearly daily and have not gone out there till recently. Amazing views…of rapids and wildlife! Definitely worth checking out. Saw a heron catch a fish right beside us as we were sitting on a rock. Priceless!
    LOVE the blog!!! Thanks! 🙂


  14. Posted by Anonymous on April 23, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    I love this blog. It’s such a wonderful source for learning about some of the history of this city, and the ways Richmonders have been using the river and the amazing natural landscape it provides here for work, sport & play for years. I remember spending many summers of my youth basking in the sun and drinking bud lights on Pony Pasture and on the Grateful Dead rock on Belle Isle. Now, I get to enjoy those same spots with my kids (minus the bud light, of course) and we are enjoying discovering all these hidden nooks and interesting places to visit that you’re kind enough to share with us!

    p.s. how about linking some maps to your blog?


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