The Best River Towns in America: Richmond, Virginia

How once polluted Richmond became the unlikeliest river-recreation mecca in the country

Downtown Richmond during the Dominion Riverrock festival.     Photo: KC Johnson/Image Machine LLC

The Stats

Richmond, Virginia
Population: 204,214
(metro area: 1.2 million)
Median Age: 32
Median Annual Salary: $38,266
Median Home Price: $218,900
Unemployment Rate: 6.9 percent
Votes Received: 46 percent

“Who would believe that the city of cigarettes would become the city of mountain-bike trails and triathlons?” asks Ralph White, manager of the James River Park System. We’re hiking to the James River, mere minutes from downtown, under an overstory of sweet gum and sycamore. Inner-tubers, snorkelers, fishermen, and sunbathers use this trail to access a beautiful stretch of the fall-line river, which for more than a century held the dubious distinction of being one of the most polluted waterways in the country. “Nobody wears a noseclip anymore,” White says. “When I first got here, all the boaters wore them. Not now.”

Our destination is 42nd Street Island, a popular swimmers’ hangout where I plan to do some rock hopping. But we’re held up by an eyesore on a pedestrian bridge that crosses a set of railroad tracks: the word POOP scrawled in barely dry white paint. White, a 68-year-old James River crusader, frowns. He has a graffiti obsession. In 1981, while leading a group of African-American fifth-graders down the trail, he turned a blind corner to find racist tags.

Since that incident, White has made the elimination of graffiti his own art form. He worked with local Pleasants Hardware to devise the precise paint match—rock gray—for the turtleback granite boulders that make up the island. “This is the most important thing we do,” White says. “Sweat the small stuff and the big stuff will take care of itself.” As White considers climbing back up to his truck to fetch his paint, a shirtless tattooed kid scrambles toward us. I wonder if this is the artist himself, taking offense at what White’s about to do to his painting. Rather, the kid praises him. “This is my favorite place in the world,” he says. “Thanks for making this happen.”

THIS SUMMER, WHEN OUTSIDE opened the campaign season on Facebook for the greatest river town in America, I figured I’d end up writing about Missoula, Montana, or Hood River, Oregon. I’ve got the Rocky Mountain superiority complex when it comes to rivers; I knew Richmond was a candidate, but I didn’t seriously consider the possibility of eastern time zones.

But RVA mustered an intrepid volley. When I arrived to vet the town, the vote still undecided, the good citizens made it their business to persuade me that Richmond was worthy. I was barely dry from a morning of stand-up paddleboarding when I was whisked to a voting drive at Hardywood brewery, fueled by eight percent beer. Even the airport-shuttle driver bent my ear about the vote count. Waiting for my flight home, I read about myself in the Times-Dispatch.

And what I want to tell you is that the city’s residents are absolutely justified in their zealotry. Richmond is as metropolitan as it is Waffle House; the former Confederate capital is home to six Fortune 500 companies, including Altria Group. But it’s also wild: the James forms a surprisingly rugged seven-mile central ribbon for a dedicated community of boaters, fishermen, bikers, and runners. It’s not Boulder coiffed—you can find some impressively tangled pawpaw groves and unwelcoming copperheads in the 600 acres of urban wilderness. Still, urbanites check the river’s cubic-feet-per-second levels on their smartphones, and everyone seems to know someone who commutes by kayak. The foodie scene is blowing up. Musicians like Andrew Bird play every night of the week. And while Richmond reportedly boasts the third-highest number of tattoos in the country, it also claims one of the healthiest per capita ratios of marathoners. “When you gotta live somewhere seven days a week during high season, you better make sure you like it,” says Matt Perry, 42, a New Jersey Yankee who ditched his job at Capital One to partner at Riverside Outfitters, which provides gear and guides for kayaking, rafting, SUPing, and mountain biking. “People say living in Richmond is good because it’s two hours from everything”—the mountains, the ocean, Washington, D.C. “That’s cool, but it’s also one minute from itself.”

So what happened? In the '80s, the city had a major pollution problem, thanks to tobacco plantations and chemical plants. By 1975, the river was so toxic that they shut it down to fishing for 13 years. Crime was on par with Detroit.

These days the murder rate has dropped 75 percent. Downtown neighborhoods have undergone revitalization, and Virginia Commonwealth University, once a commuter school, has evolved into a world-class institution. And what’s happened on the James is nothing short of miraculous. That process began in the 1960s, when speedboat builder Newton Ancarrow became the river’s unlikely Rachel Carson after watching raw sewage eat the paint off his new boats. It continued when the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, paving the way for the James’ 13-year shutdown and the city-funded reconstruction that followed. “This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act,” says Bill Street, executive director of the James River Association. “The James is arguably the most improved river in the country.”

ON THE RIVER THESE days, the water is clear enough to sight-fish for carp, and a key indicator species, the American shad, is back. Even Atlantic sturgeon have returned. Depending on the season, a paddler can find Class I–V whitewater within the seven-mile fall line.

“When I paddled the James when I was 12, it was the filthiest river I’d ever been in,” Olympian and world-champion canoeist Jon Lugbill, 51, tells me on an hour-long trail run across the river to Belle Isle, a former Civil War prison. Lugbill made the Wheaties box in 1986; he’s now executive director of Sports Backers, which organizes Dominion Riverrock, a sports and music festival that attracts 65,000 people to the James. “What makes Richmond better than other urban areas is that our outdoor access is wilder,” he says.

That goes for the riding, too. When I ask Brandy Adams, race director for the Thule Urban Assault, what her favorite thing is about Richmond mountain biking, she replies, “Snakes, eagles, poison ivy.” That afternoon I taste dirt. For me the sweetest glass of tea is the 20 miles of singletrack sandwiched between the James and the canals and railroads bordering both sides. Adams and I are spinning with ghosts of emaciated Union soldiers on Belle Isle, home to the second most horrendous prison camp of the Civil War. The prisoners were the original Belle Isle outdoorsmen—the Confederacy didn’t bother to build them barracks, so they lived in Sibley tents or, worse, under the cold stars. Now the island features a skills park with a pump track and obstacle course beneath the overpass of the 301.

The best way to finish off a ride or trail run is in the river. And in Richmond you don’t just go swimming or fishing. You go snorkeling. For native blue crabs. Some local rats I spotted while running, Pat, Chris, and Andy, are kind enough to take me out. We’re hunting blue crabs to use for catfish bait approximately three minutes from my hotel room. We can see catfish the size of torpedoes and male blue crabs up from Chesapeake Bay, erroneously looking for love in the fresh water. A CSX coal train creeps and idles on the trestle above us. The glass-and-steel skyline of the capital of Virginia rises beyond. The engineer leans out and peers down as if to check the rapids or his favorite catfish hole. I wave, and he waves back.

From upstream a bobber of color chugs downriver—a red whitewater kayak captained by a guy with a black CSA beard. In his teeth is a cigar the size of a flashlight. The paddler teases the foam with his bow, backs up, and slips and jigs through the channel. When he clears the rapid, we can clearly see, duct-taped to his boat, an orange FOR SALE sign. He disappears downriver, toward Rocket’s Landing and the former tobacco warehouses that are now luxury lofts. The sign is a more effective conduit to a sale than Craigslist, at least here in Richmond. I have no doubt he’s selling up.

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