Focus on Water: Living Wild in the Wake of Captain John Smith

Kayaking the James River in Richmond, Virginia.

Kayaking the James River in Richmond, Virginia. Photo © Sdreelin/Flickr.

Vibrant greenways, rugged trail systems, and urban swimming holes—these features make river towns in America wild locations to visit. But this year’s #1 “Best River Town in America” ranked by Outside magazine is Richmond, Virginia, a mid-size city along the James River that is part of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.

Outside judged towns by their cost of living, cultural vibrancy, job prospects, environmental stewardship, and access to the outdoors. Richmond’s top ranking marks both the James River’s comeback and an introduction to the region’s new water trail.

A Comeback Story

Flowing through the heart of Richmond, the James River boasts a community of boaters, fishermen, bikers, and runners who all seem to know someone who commutes by kayak. For decades, the James had a reputation as one of the most polluted rivers in the country—where raw sewage ate the paint off new boats. However, Outside credits the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, which “paved the way for the James’ 13-year shutdown and the city-funded reconstruction that followed.”

This year, we mark the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act and Bill Street, Executive Director of the James River Association, believes “the James is arguably the most improved river in the country.” Outside magazine details its comeback, which has made the water clean enough for the return of carp, American shad, and Atlantic sturgeon.

America’s Founding River

The James River is part of the nation’s first national water trail, the 3,000-mile-long Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, which follows the historic routes of the English explorer’s voyages on the Chesapeake Bay. Originally designated by Congress in 2006, it was expanded in 2012 to include the Upper James River Component Connecting Trail, which crosses nine counties and connects at the Falls of the James in Richmond. Both the Captain John Smith Chesapeake and Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trails allow outdoor enthusiasts to visit the 54 national park sites throughout the Chesapeake Bay region. To learn more about how this new water trail protects the natural landscape and preserves cultural and historic sites visit www.smithtrail.net.

Learn More and Take Action

NPCA is a founding member of the Choose Clean Water Coalition dedicated to protecting and restoring water quality throughout the Chesapeake. Learn more about how NPCA is protecting national park landscapes in the Chesapeake. You can also take action to help protect the Chesapeake Bay from pollution by telling the Environmental Protection Agency you support strong federal clean-up measures.

About the Author

NPCA Cheapeake Field Representative Ed Stierli

Ed is the Chesapeake field representative for the Mid-Atlantic region and does grassroots outreach to connect communities with national parks. Passionate about connecting youth with the outdoors and conservation, he also leads the “Freedom to Float” campaign and is an active hiker and paddler. Find him on Twitter at @edstierli.