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North and South Forks, Rivanna River, Virginia

by PSF

Trip Overview

Despite living in Cville for a number of years I had never explored much of the river that runs through town. So this summer I decided to kayak the entire length of the Rivanna River from its headwaters in northern Albemarle county (or at least as far up those headwaters as I could travel in a kayak) to its confluence with the James near Columbia in Fluvanna County. I broke up the trip into four single-day floats. This turned out to be a beautiful series of paddles. The Rivanna is surprisingly underdeveloped given its proximity to Charlottesville, and most of the trip is spent paddling through what feels like the wilderness. I highly recommend this relatively easy, scenic, and peaceful float. Wildlife abounds, especially birds. I saw nearly a dozen bald eagles, a falcon, maybe two dozen herons, plus fish, turtles, and deer over the length of the river. There is plenty of good info on the river from Darden Towe park in Cville to the confluence with the James--see here, for example: https://www.dgif.virginia.gov/waterbody/rivanna-river/ -- but I couldn't find much info online kayaking the two forks above Darden Towe, so I thought I'd pass this along. What exactly constitutes "The Rivanna River" above Darden Towe park seems to be somewhat disputed, as there are two major forks that used to have independent names but are now both labeled as the Rivanna. I kayaked both forks just to satisfy my curiosity. I did this in segments on Saturdays from mid-May to early June, 2019. We had a decently rainy spring so the river was flowing well. Only on the North Fork did I occasionally have to get out and tow the boat. I used my 9-foot recreational kayak because it's light and maneuverable in shallow water, but whatever sort of kayak/canoe you have will be fine. This is a scenic trip, not a heavy whitewater excursion. The North Fork comes together as a coherent stream at the confluence of a few creeks north of Earlysville, Albemarle County. I found the highest navigable access point to be the bridge on Buffalo River Rd. (Rt. 604) in Earlysville where it crosses the river. See attached screenshot for coordinates. This isn't a boat ramp and there is no parking, though you can park along the roads nearby and walk about 1/4 mile back to the bridge. On the north side of the bridge there is a gradual, grassy/weedy slope down to the water. I put in here and set off. On the day I went there was decent flow, but I still had to get out and walk over rock gardens a few times and duck under some downed trees. There is no development along this section of the river, and it feels like going back in time. After about two miles I reached the Advance Mills dam, which is not well marked as a hazard, so be careful! It's pretty obvious as you approach but there are no warning signs. I portaged around the dam on river left, which was about 20 yards. You can also portage on river right, though this involves going over some tricky rocks. From here, the river cuts a winding channel through about four miles of very scenic uplands. I crossed under Dickerson rd. and then under the tall Rt. 29 bridge. From the put-in to this point took me about 2.5 hours. This is an important decision point: beyond 29, there isn't an easy bail-out point for another 10 miles or so, so be aware that you'll be on the water without easy rescue for about three hours. Downstream from the 29 bridge is scenic, peaceful, and undeveloped for many miles. This was a lovely stretch of water, passing farmland and dense woods. The birdwatching in this stretch is great. There's enough of a current to make progress without paddling, but it is slow. Luckily it's very shaded, so it's pleasant even on a hot day. Eventually I reached the Proffit Rd. crossing, and continued another hour or so until I reached the confluence with the south fork (comes in from the Left) above Darden Towe park. From here the flow increases a good deal, and the river continues past a few houses and Pen Park. Smooth sailing from there to Darden Towe park, where there is a nice concrete ramp on river left. This is a good take-out point. But it was a nice day so I continued on down under Rt. 250 and floated on to Riverview park another two miles downstream. From the put-in to Riverview was around 21 miles total (though I didn't use GPS because I'm a luddite, so this is a guesstimate), and took me approximately 6.5 hours including portages and some breaks for stretching and nips off the flask. Didn't see a single other human aside from some cars on bridges until I hit Darden Towe. Great day on the water. The South Fork is a bit different but just as pleasant. It forms at the confluence of the Mechums and Moormans river near Free Union. I put in on the Mechums just upstream of the confluence by climbing under the bridge on Free Union Rd. (Rt. 601). See attached screenshot for coordinates. There is a nice roadside parking spot on Ridge Rd. (Rt. 648) just beyond the bridge if you want to leave your car here. Getting under the bridge was tricky and requires some athleticism-- I climbed over the concrete siderail on the southern side of the bridge and slid down a steep rocky embankment, kayak in tow. There is a more gradual, grassy path on the Northside of the bridge but it's clearly private land, so trespass at your own risk. I put in here and set off. The flow on the upper part of this fork is much more substantial than on the North fork. I didn't have to get out an walk at all. The surrounding land is notably steeper, with more exposed rock formations than the relatively flatter, sandier northern fork. (Check out this William and Mary Geology professor's blog about a similar trip for in-depth explanation of the interesting geology of this portion of the river: https://wmblogs.wm.edu/cmbail/paddle-trip-report-1-foothills/). The river winds smoothly for a few miles before crossing under the Rheas Ford Rd. bridge and becoming the wide, flat water Rivanna Reservoir. From here It's a solid 2.5 hour paddle along flat water past some beautiful houses to the Rivanna Mills dam at the end of the reservoir. A number of other paddlers were out on this stretch of the river. There is no shade on this stretch of the river. The portage around the Rivanna Mills dam is tricky. On river right, just before the dam, you can get out at the concrete ramp at the end of Woodburn Rd. and walk over the road to Berkmar Drive, and then put in at the Berkmar Dr. bridge. This is about 1/4 mile of walking. I chose to take out on river left before the dam and climb a steep wooded hillside (about 50 yards), walk down Millers Cottage Lane, and then put back in via a footpath through the woods on the right. This was bout a 150 yard walk total. Millers Cottage Lane is marked private, so this was probably trespassing. Evidently a boat ramp on this side of the reservoir is in the works but there's no progress on the ground so far. From here, I crossed under Rt. 29 and continued on for about two hours of pleasant, scenic paddling until I hit the confluence with the North fork (comes in on the left) above Darden Towe park, and glided on down to Riverview once again. Total time on this fork was about 5.5 hours and approximately 15 miles (again, just a guesstimate). On later, separate Saturdays I did the rest of the river: From Riverview park to Palmyra, and then Palmyra to Columbia. The Rivanna is truly a beautiful river, and I regret not doing this trip earlier. Hope this helps! Maybe I'll see you on the river.
  • Duration: 2-3 Day Trip
  • Sport/Activity: Kayaking, Canoeing
  • Skill Level: Beginner, Intermediate
  • Water Type: Flat/Sheltered Water, River/Creek (Up to Class II), Rock Gardens

Locations on this Trip