The James River Park System is the best natural asset going for us in the Richmond area. The hot summer months are a great time to cool off in the river.

(Yes, don't lie Henrico, Hanover and Chesterfield county residents -- you all know you spend plenty of time leaching off of the city folk's parks.) 

Before we get started, you know about the city of Richmond's 5-foot ordinance at the James River, right? When water levels are over 5 feet (according to the Westham Gauge), you are required to wear a life jacket (we recommend them for children at any level). When water levels are at 9 feet or above, no one is allowed on the river without a permit. Safety first!

We also suggest shoes or sandals to protect your feet (flip-flops are OK, but don't lose them), plenty of water to drink (yes, its hot out there). There is no food available in the JRPS, so consider bringing a snack. Remember: Whatever you bring into the park, clean up after yourself and carry it back out.

Now, on to out list (from west to east, as the river flows):

Huguenot Flatwater

Where: Directly underneath the Huguenot Bridge on the south bank.

What you’ll see: Fisherman and floaters. There might even be a few small fishing boats with troller motors (from the fishing club just west of the park).

Why go: Huguenot Flatwater has very calm water, but almost no rocks for sitting. Great spot for paddling or inner tubes and jumping in for the occasional dip. The banks are higher east of the bridge and the water is deceptive, so be careful. There are two parking lots, a boat ramp and multiple trails through the riverbanks, it provides a relaxing place to hike, boat or swim. There is a sandy beach on the north bank, if you have a water craft to help you get across.

Tip: Huguenot Flatwater is a great starting point for a float to Pony Pasture. Bring your tube, hop in and go.

Riverside Meadow Greenspace

Where: Just east of the iconic Z-Dam and Williams Island on Riverside Drive.

What you'll see: The Z-Dam, a beautiful view of Williams Island (which is part of the JRPS as a nature preserve) and down river to Pony Pasture Rapids. DO NOT SWIM anywhere near the Z-Dam (above or below). Williams Island provides a portage around the dam for boaters and floaters. There will be fisherman below the dam, often standing on rocks. This area is a rest spot for fish between Pony Pasture and Z-Dam.

Why go: When Pony Pasture is too busy, getting away from the crowds.

Tip: Expect to walk a while (there is no parking) and plenty of goose poop. No restroom.

Pony Pasture Rapids/The Wetlands

Where: Located on the southbank two miles downstream from the Huguenot Bridge on Riverside Drive.

What you’ll see: Giant granite boulders covered with families and friends of all ages (especially on the weekends). Expect the takeout steps to have plenty of people sitting and wading around too (especially little kids). At the adjoining Wetlands, lower numbers of people, less rocks, calmer waters (beyond the rapids). There will be more people with dogs and plenty more trees for shade.

Why go: A typical day at Pony Pasture (read how it got that name) involves jumping from rock to rock all the way across the river or sitting in the shallow water to enjoy a relaxing cool down from the summer heat. On the weekends, the parking lot (with more than 100 spots) fills quickly.

Tip: If you want a rock, get there early to claim a rock. If you have a lot of people, come early to get a parking spot too. This park also has the only public restrooms with toilets in the JRPS.

Main Area West/Atlantic Coast Line Bridge

Where: The trail head is located in the 5300 block of Riverside Drive on the southbank. Very few parking spots, all on street.

What you'll see: A 10 minute hike down hill and across the train tracks will lead river-goers to some of the best granite boulders, vantage points and adventures you can find on the James. The piers of the old railroad bridge provide some adventure climbing and some people jump off them, but all at your own risk.

Why go: There aren't many deep swimming holes (besides the piers), but plenty of cool spots to relax. This area is for the more hearty river goer. There are ways you can hike the pipeline that runs through this area and when water levels are low, makes for a nice spot to let the James cascade down while you sit.

Tip: The hike back up is hard, so don't be a wimp and leave your trash down by the river. There are no trash receptacles down there, only at the trail head.

Main Area/42nd Street/Reedy Creek

Where: Riverside Drive at 42nd Street. The 42nd Street parking lot is only open on weekends, on-street parking is limited (respect the neighborhood folks).

What you'll see: At 42nd Street, there is a tower over the train tracks. From there, cross the small creek/millrace to the islands and pick a great rock. You can float down toward Reedy Creek and easily hike back with your tube and do it again.

Why go: The Main Area has some of the best granite rocks and spots to chill in the JRPS, as long as the river levels are below 6 feet. Pick a spot and wait for all the kayakers and whitewater rafts to float by. There are plenty of island spots closer to Reedy Creek as well, just watch out for poison ivy and try to stay on trails.

Tip: Great place to pack lunch/dinner for an entire day's outing, but bring plenty of sunscreen (not much shade), H2O and remember to take it all back out when you leave.

North Bank Park/Texas Beach

Where: 1941 Texas Avenue near Maymont. Hey, a spot on the north side of the river! Take the trail from the parking lot, cross the bridge over the train tracks and follow the trail to a spot to your liking.

What you'll see: Long, rustic trail leads to many isolated sandy beaches and sunbathing rocks (the James River drops plenty of sand here as it slows for the VEPCO dam). Plenty of tree cover and shady spots, except when you venture out toward the rocks further west of the tower. Plenty of people chilling, lots of dogs off leashes (likely). Occasional fisherman.

Why go: Considered one of the bet spots for snorkeling in Richmond. Plus, North Bank is not a spot for cruising, you need to work to get out there. Often, people tend to choose North Bank to get away from all the rest of Richmond.

Tip: If you're up for hiking, just keep going west on the trail until you start seeing all the boulders and find a super isolated spot.

Belle Isle

Where: Get there by way of the pedestrian bridge under the Robert E. Lee Bridge from the north side or the pathways from Riverside Drive at 22nd Street on the south side.

What you'll see: Plenty of boulders to sit on, which provide little spots for calm water in between. Very little shade.

Why go: Maybe the best spot for people watching, but consider the surroundings. When water levels are lower, there are enough spots to relax. Not always the best spot for families because irresponsible people break bottles, curse and misbehave on occasion.

Tip: The class III Hollywood Rapid is not for swimmers and must be avoided. Watch out when the river is high and don't swim. The First Break Rapid on the west end of the island provides good swimming spots.

Tredegar Beach

Where: Under the CSX Viaduct on Tredegar Street at Brown's Island.

What you'll see: There is a rope swing under the CSX Viaduct and the sandy beaches at Tredegar Beach are usually are a big destination on weekends.

Why go: The area has become its own draw and is a great place for people watching.

Tip: The rope swing is not legally approved, play at your own risk. Stay perpendicular to the beach and don't go downriver (the dam down river is unsafe for swimming).

Pipeline Rapids

Where: 12th and Byrd streets.

What you'll see: The pipeline catwalk, a small sandy beach and some rocks, when the river is low. Plenty of Great Blue Heron. Fishing, kayaks and bird watchers.

Why go: Pipeline has a couple of rocks to jump from, but scout everything out first. Take caution if you explore toward the islands in the middle of the James River.

Tip: The rapids there are class III and not safe for swimming, so everything needs to be below the rapids and take precaution.

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Phil Riggan loves Discovering Richmond. Follow him on twitter @RigganRVA.

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