James River Pipeline Walkway catwalk and river

Home for us is now central Virginia, not too far from the state capital of Richmond. As you might imagine, the state of the world here in 2020 precludes us from doing all the exploration we’d like to, plus summer is here and it’s pretty toasty! But high on my list of spots to check out was the James River Pipeline Walkway, so I made it out there for a quick visit recently.

Admittedly, a park whose central feature involves a stormwater pipeline doesn’t sound too appealing. But the end result is pretty amazing! Open to the public as a park since 2005, the walkway is essentially a narrow metal catwalk atop a pipeline carrying stormwater from the downtown streets to a holding area downstream. The pipeline and walkway lie beneath a trestle of the CSX railroad–keep an ear out for a train overhead! Train or not, the bridge helps keep the walkway nice and shaded.

View from James River Pipeline Overlook
Near the parking area there’s a small observation deck, from which you can see the railroad trestle and pipeline/walkway underneath.
James River Pipeline Walkway catwalk and ladder
A set of wooden stairs descends to a metal ladder to access the pipeline catwalk.
James River Pipeline Walkway catwalk
There’s not much room for two-way traffic on the catwalk, so you may have to squeeze to the side to let others pass.
Old railroad bridge and building across the James River
The pipeline runs along the James River, just above water level. It makes for some gorgeous scenery.

It’s fascinating to find a relatively secluded and natural spot in the midst of a city–the park entrance is literally blocks from the Virginia State Capitol, but feels miles away once you get out along the river.

There’s also plenty of history around here–the pipeline runs along the stretch of river where Christopher Newport and John Smith first arrived at what would later become Richmond in the early 1600s–heading to the parking lot you’ll pass a replica of the cross Newport erected to mark the spot.

Rushing water in the James River rapids
And it gets you close to the Class III rapids for which the James is famous!
Great blue heron on boulder in James River
Watch for wildlife! Across the river from the pipeline are Bailey’s Island and Devil’s Kitchen Island, both of which are home to colonies of wading birds like the Great blue heron above.

On this visit, I only took the catwalk to the end of the railing before turning back–it keeps going along the top of the pipeline to Brown’s Island, where you can find the Canal Walk and footbridges back over to downtown.

UPDATE Jan 2021: I recently acquired a drone, so of course I had to take it to the Pipeline Walkway for a test run. Check it out!

Directions: The James River Pipeline Walkway is a part of Richmond’s James River Park System. The park is open during daylight hours, and admission is free. The entrance is located downtown, not far from the state capitol. Free (but very limited!) parking is available near the Pipeline Overlook–at the intersection of E Byrd Street and 12th Street, continue south and east on 12th, and turn right just before the floodwall gates. To reach the pipeline, walk east along the floodwall and look for the sign.

Kid-Friendly? For school-aged kids, absolutely–they’ll be thrilled with the adventure of the metal catwalk over the river! Preschoolers might have trouble with the ladder, and the catwalk railing is solid but has gaps that could be a safety concern.

Accessibility? The overlook deck area is accessible, but the catwalk is not.

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