Good News for the Great Outdoors; In-River Kayak Park Coming to Roanoke

The great outdoors is about to get even . . .  greater. The City of Roanoke announced plans to build an “in-river” kayak park in the Roanoke River, the first ever in the state of Virginia. The $2 million dollar project will create man-made rapids and features in the Wasena Park area.

The concept of in-river parks was first floated when Roanoke Outside hired world-renowned kayak park builder S2O Designs, which was started by former Olympic kayaker Scott Shipley, to conduct a feasibility study of the Roanoke River. The study identified several locations at which an in-river park could be built, with two being viable: Wasena Park and Explore Park, both of which were incorporated into master plans.


In-river parks are simple modifications to a natural river that often take the form of dam modifications and in-stream modifications such as the addition of rock structures to an existing river to create play-waves and turbulent whitewater. These are made with natural and native materials and plantings and are designed to mimic and restore the natural aquatic and riparian zone habitats. Although often referred to as kayak parks, an in-river park is simply a park built within the river banks that enhances the river experience for all types of users; they create safe routes for tubing, waves for kayakers (and even surfers), rocks for sunbathers, and they oxygenate the water which is good for aquatic health.

Michael Clark, director of Roanoke Parks and Recreation, mentioned that the process of building this park is going to be very thoughtful and intentional. “Sustainability is one of the Department’s core values, and it’s in the forefront of everything we do. There is certain permitting associated with building in a waterway, and of course, the project will be conducted responsibly with respect to any and all wildlife regulations. We must be very mindful and thoughtful while building this park.”


These in-river parks are valued not only for the tremendous amount of river play that they accommodate, but also for the economic impacts that they provide a community. Parks such as the Clear Creek Whitewater Park in Golden, CO, and the Vail Whitewater Park in Vail, CO, create millions of dollars of economic impact per year. These impacts are all external to the in-river park, which is free to use. Instead, these impacts are to local businesses such as hotels, restaurants, gas stations, grocery stores, and even property values.

The question many people are posing is regarding the timeline. “We’re not going to just wake up to a new kayak park.” Clark said. “This project is grant funded, so the project has to start by the end of 2024 and must be completed by 2026.”

Regardless of timeline, this new park is great news for our region. It will make a positive economic impact, create more opportunities for outdoor play, and hopefully produce more environmental stewards for our river; the more people we have using the rivers, the more advocates we’ll have keeping it clean. It’s a win-win-win!  “We’ve been championing this project for the past several years,” says Pete Eshelman, director of Roanoke Outside. “If a genie ever granted me three wishes for the region, one of them would have immediately been used to make this project happen. It is truly a transformational, game-changing venture.”