Posts Tagged ‘North Bank’

Snorkeling the shallow waters at Texas Beach

What can you find under the water?Richmond’s North Bank Park is one of the best places to visit the James in late summer. The shallow waters and calm sands of Texas Beach are a great setting for an afternoon of exploring.

For one, Texas Beach is never as crowded as Pony Pasture, Belle Isle or even the Main Section, which is located across the river on the south bank. Two, the people there generally are more laid back. We observed some college-aged kids kicking back playing guitars, people with dogs and a couple of groups that brought their own folding chairs and beach towels.

When the river levels are low (it was at 3.3 feet that day), a new world of opportunities opens. With no recent rains, the water is clear and the bottom is easy to see. The shallow pools and slower rapids make it safer, including for little children. We brought our masks to see what was going on under the water.

Read more in Snorkeling at Texas Beach at


Taking the path less traveled on the James River

James River Railway Bridge, viewed from below Grant's DamI’ve taken many trips down the James River from Pony Pasture to Reedy Creek, but I almost always follow the normal paths that generally track the southern banks of the river. When the river levels are low, that is sometimes the only floatable path.

Since the water levels in the James are a little higher than normal for late August, I decided to stick to the north bank of the river once I reached the James River Railway Bridge (AKA the Atlantic Coast Line Railway Bridge or Belt Line Bridge). I needed to explore a little and see the river and the scenery from a different angle.

Some of the rapids in this area may be the results of quarried or blasted rockI’m often a guide for friends and family that have never been on the river, and I try to keep it easy, predictable and safe.  I also find that I seek consistency and predictability in my life and sometimes it is good to break away from the routine. 

But when I kayak alone, I usually get a rush from trying the unknown of a new course, even if it isn’t a tremendous challenge. So with reluctance, I skipped Choo Choo Rapids, Cooper’s Rifle and Mitchell’s Gut – the prescribed path for most paddlers.  I love that course, but I was pleasantly surprised by the little drops and tight runs between the rocks and trees along the way.

Entrance to Lower Arch blocked by trees and overgrowthInstead of shooting down Choo Choo, I took the channel through what used to be Grant’s Dam past the entrance to the Lower Canal. Someday the overgrown area where it passes under the CSX railway line on the north bank will be cleared all the way to the Pumphouse, giving  paddlers access to the Kanawha Canal through George Washington’s Lower Arch and creating a new river access at the Pumphouse.

I found plenty of scenery and views of the riverscape that were new to me. According to the Falls of the James Atlas by Bill Trout, much of the river in this section had been altered by man to create and maintain Grant’s Dam, which was built to direct water into the Kanawha Canal at the Pumphouse.

I love the area between the Powhite Parkway and Boulevard bridges.  It is so natural, wild and remote, yet right in the middle of the city. You can feel so free there among the honking geese and hunting osprey — only to hear an Amtrak train streaking its way across the arched railway bridge or a freight train roaring through the trees on either bank of the river.

Crude log table on a sandy island west of the Boulevard BridgeAs I passed under the Boulevard Bridge along the north bank, it again occurred to me how isolated that section of river is, despite the thousands of cars that pass over that area every day by the bridge.

Even though the area south of the CSX tracks is part of the North Bank Park, one would have to hike a long way to reach that area legally, due to the fences that block access along the tracks and the only allowed access is by the walkway tower at least a half mile down river.

Creating an access at Pumphouse would form a needed second access and a loop to the trail.  Plans for bike trails in the area are already in the works.

Trash collected from the James RiverAt the end of the trip I’d collected more trash than normal — likely due to the fact that I’d taken the path less traveled by most everyone.  It was that much more satisfying snagging a few odd bits of river trash, like an inner tube and a broken piece of a styrofoam pot. Sadly, I also found an empty woman’s purse — a sign that not everyone on the river has the best intentions.

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.

Snow on the James at North Bank

This sign is familiar to many mountain bikers, but rarely covered with snow

 A walk down at the North Bank Park section of the James River Park System in Richmond is a good cure for winter cabin fever. Especially when there is snow to enhance the visuals. 

It is pretty difficult for me to get to the James when it snows. Unsafe roads, family and job responsibilities all come first. I would love one day to be camped out somewhere during a snow storm to see the wild areas of the James river in Richmond for a peaceful and naturally beautiful event.

CSX rail with a frozen canal to the right, seen from the walkway at North Bank

This nature walk was three days after the storm, but I chose North Bank thinking that there might be less chance that the snow was spoiled by too much foot traffic and for the fact that the sun would help enhance the photos. The south bank of the river is mostly in shadows this time of year, especially at Winter Solstice. 

I can’t say this was my favorite walk at the James river. I wanted to make it all the way to Foushee’s Mill, hoping to see that ancient granite structure draped in white. I wanted something dramatic to photograph, but the river levels were too high and snow was too deep in spots. At least North Bank is naturally beautiful. Maybe the unique perspective of seeing snow on the trails and listening to the peace and quiet being broken by geese and ducks that may have been wondering if they needed to relocate further south was the break from the Holiday Season and winter that I needed.

A great blue heron stands watch at North Bank

Icy snowy channel at North Bank

Best walks to see fall foliage in Richmond

Autumn is one of the best times to be outdoors in Richmond. The humidity and heat are gone and the air is cooler. It’s the perfect time to go for a walk and watch the leaves turn color.

Trees in Forest Hill Park, another good place to see fall folliage

Trees in Forest Hill Park, another good place to see fall folliage

The Virginia Department of Forestry says that the peak of fall colors for the Richmond area will be in early November, so you have time to plan your walks. Of course, I have some suggestions.

Monument Avenue is the only street in the country to be designated a National History Landmark. Besides the iconic statues and grand homes, the thing that accents the avenue so well are it’s magnificent trees.  Walking in the median is probably the best vantage point and the area between Confederate generals J.E.B. Stuart and Robert E. Lee is probably best if you want to make the most of your time. 
Jefferson Davis statue on Monument Avenue

Jefferson Davis statue on Monument Avenue

While you’re there: Monument Avenue [slideshow] is located in the Fan District, and you can make you walk that much more enjoyable by heading down any street in The Fan — a neighborhood known for post-Victorian architecture and tree-lined avenues.

Confederate monument at Hollywood Cemetery

Confederate monument at Hollywood Cemetery

The outdoor art museum that is Hollywood Cemetery is always a good place to visit, but the fall is the most visually appropriate. Seeing the fall colors contrasted with the gray granite statues and monuments throughout the rolling hills of the historic cemetery makes the visit a must for a walker interested in Richmond’s past.

While you’re there: Hollywood Cemetery [slideshow] is in Richmond’s Oregon Hill neighborhood and a walk through the streets toward the James River overlook or the nearby Virginia Commonwealth University campus are worthwhile.

I’m partial to the James River Park System, and there are three parks of note for long walks when you’re seeking Autumn leaves in a natural setting.

Pony Pasture [slideshow] and The Wetlands [slideshow] are a great walk and the views of the wild river here are tough to beat. The bonus here is the interior of the trails to The Wetlands. There are many hardwoods and plenty of winding trails to satisfy your color-seeking desires.

Leaves along the millrace at the Main Section of the JRPS

Leaves along the millrace at the Main Section of the JRPS

The Main Section (42nd Street to some) has one long primary trail along portions of the banks of the James. The hardwoods here are dominated by Sycamore, which tend to drop their leaves earlier than most, but the views across the river more than make up for the missing leaves.

What you’re seeing across the river is North Bank Park. It is much more rustic than the other two JRPS properties I mentioned, but its location on the north bank of the James means the sunlight is less interrupted and/or blocked by the hillsides above the parks along Westover Hills and Stratford Hills, as this is the time of year the sun is in the southern hemisphere. 

While you’re there: Watch out for mountain bikers, especially in North Bank and if you choose to walk along the Buttermilk Trail in the Main Section. has some good information on fall travel, including one of my favorite’s, Pocahontas State Park. As for biological answer to why leaves change color, the Department of Forestry has a good answer:

Most leaf colors are already in the plant leaf.

  • Chlorophyll gives leaves their familiar green color.
  • Carotenoids produce yellow, orange, and brown colors.
  • Anthocyanins add color to red apples, blueberries, cherries, strawberries, and plums. They are water soluble and appear in the watery liquid of leaf cells.

Both chlorophyll and carotenoids are present in the chloroplasts of leaf cells throughout the growing season. During this time, chlorophyll is produced and broken down and leaves appear green. As days get shorter, chlorophyll production slows down until it stops. The green color is no longer visible, and other pigments present (carotenoids) with the chlorophyll are then revealed. During autumn, bright light and excess plant sugars produce anthocyanins within leaf cells.

For more on this year’s fall foliage, see Andrew Freiden’s story at

The Carillon in Richmond's Byrd Park

The Carillon in Richmond's Byrd Park

Field research: Paddling up Lower Canal

I recently wrote about paddling up the Lower Canal between Tredegar takeout (putting in canal at Hollywood Cemetery) and Pumphouse Park  in Richmond. It could be done with some work if CSX granted permission, though my photos could leave some doubt due to a lack of water in the canal this fall.

View of canal below Hollywood Cemetery on North Bank Trail

View of canal below Hollywood Cemetery on North Bank Trail

First, let’s ignore CSX’s rights to the canal. Second, let’s also ignore the low water levels in the canal. That isn’t the case year-round. The above image shows the canal just west of the end of the Lower Canal as it drops through a sluice at Dominion Virginia Power. The paddle from here is flat and scenic. The train tracks would be to your left the entire trip.

After passing through wooded and secluded sections below the North Bank Trail and North Bank Park, the canal widens as it approaches Maymont. This trip was made by multitudes of Richmonders in 1800s as a means of travel headed west toward Lynchburg.

The canal widens as it reaches Maymont (see the Blue Heron, at left)

The canal widens as it reaches Maymont (see the Blue Heron, on the pipe)

After passing Maymont, the beginning of the Lower Canal is nearby at the historic Lower Arch. This would be the end of the paddle before re-entering the James. George Washington himself famously visited the Lower Arch while it was under construction in 1786. Washington was honorary president of the James River Company that founded and built the visionary canal system.

Lower Arch. There is an opening at left through second arch.

Lower Arch. There is an opening at left through the second arch, which is damaged. (Water is green in photo).

Sad thing here, as illustrated by the above photo, is that the breach in Grant’s Dam (which provides us Choo Choo Rapids) cuts off the major supplier of water to the canal at the Pump House.  It was nearly dry the day I visited, and quite overgrown. The area near the Lower Arch is cut off from foot traffic as it is CSX property. More study needed in this area.

Through the Victorian age and into the 1920s, the trek west on the Lower Canal was made by city dwellers on their way to the Victorian Gothic-styled Pump House for dances and parties for the city’s elite. It would be great to relive that, even if it was just in a canoe or kayak (trading suit and tie for a PFD). The canal was also used to transport goods, including rocks from the many granite quarries along this stretch, including Maymont and the hillsides west toward Williams Island.

The City of Richmond is trying hard to bring back the glory of the Pump House. It has been rumored that it one day may be the new home for the James River Park System visitor’s center.

City of Richmond plans for canal rides at Pumphouse Park someday.

City of Richmond plans for canal rides at Pumphouse Park someday.

I also know the plans seem to be slowly, slowly moving toward one day being able to take batteau or canal boat rides west from the Pump House on the Kanawha Canal toward the Powhite Parkway bridge and the Settling Basin, just below Windsor Farms. I’d love to be able to take my family on that trip around locks and under the James River Railway Bridge (my favorite man-made feature on the James).

Most of my information on the history of the canal comes from the Falls of the James Atlas by Bill Trout and from park signage at Pumphouse Park.

Paddling up Kanawha Canal = Boon to Richmond?

My son and I went for a paddle on the Appomattox River in Petersburg in summer 2008. I’d heard that you could park your car at Old Ferndale Park (or for  greenhorns, Appomattox Riverside Park) and paddle up a canal for a mile or two, ride down the Appomattox and take out at Old Ferndale. A circuit! Great idea, and it worked like a charm.

Peaceful Appomattox river canal in Petersburg/Dinwiddie county

Historic Appomattox river canal in Petersburg/Dinwiddie county

I really enjoyed the light workout and peaceful paddle up the canal, and got to see plenty of serene beauty and history, including the old towpath, a few ruins and remnants of the days when people shipped themselves and their goods by canal. 

Of course, the convenience of parking the same place you end up, with minimal portage or walking is ideal. It got me to thinking about doing this on the James river.

Could we paddle up river on the canal in Richmond? The biggest problem is CSX rights to the canal and the busy train tracks. Legally, it would be a tough challenge, and CSX is very strict on property easements.

Let’s skip all that for a moment. If you takeout at the Belle Isle pedestrian bridge on the north bank (or park there for starters), there is a long portage up the hill, under the Robert E. Lee Bridge and along the dirt path to the North Bank trail. Long walk, I know, but there is a reward. 

Just think of the scenery and excitement along that path. Yes, you can hike or walk the North Bank Trail, but what fun is that when you often can’t see the river or the train tracks. No one gets to see it but the CSX guys. I’d love to get a look at all that forbidden territory.

If access were granted, you could paddle the approximately two miles up the canal to Pumphouse Park. There is access under the train tracks and back into the river.  Any other point along that path and you’d have to cross the train tracks, which we’d want to avoid.  Check the map below for an idea of the space and travel distance [full map]:

Follow the orange line on the north bank along the canal

Follow the orange line on the north bank along the canal

In this circuit, you could hit Choo Choo Rapids, Cooper’s Rifle, Mitchell’s Gut, First Break, Approach and Hollywood before the takeout. 

I don’t have a huge circle of paddling friends that I shoot out ideas with all day, but of the individuals that I do know, most have said that would be a welcome option. People with high authority in city departments have commented that although it sounds nice, CSX wouldn’t allow it. 

One even said that the canal could be paddled all the way to Bosher Dam, almost the full distance of the Falls of the James. He even said the canal is in decent shape, except a few points could use some dredging due to property run-off and silting — a problem the good people on the Appomattox are trying to combat as well.

Problem is, the tracks are built along the southern towpath of the Kanawha canal — the river side, in-between the canal and the river banks. There is little access to cross the tracks. Still, it could be done, and with little effort on CSX’s part.

It works on the Appomattox because the land was granted to Petersburg by (then) Virginia Power.  There are no train tracks to worry about, just a lazy tree-covered canal and relative peace and quiet.

What, you don’t care for long paddles or long walks carrying your equipment? Fair enough, but there are plenty of people who do (including the paying crowd, ‘Adventure Games’-type people), and plenty of cities that aren’t as lucky as we are that we have so many glorious access points to a river like the James. 

Even more important to acknowledge is the fact that we have this fantastic wild river with up to Class IV rapids right smack dab in the middle of our fair city. Most people have to drive hours to get rapids like we have, and park in tiny crowded lots or camp overnight or go with a tour group just to get on the river.

We … don’t.