I can proudly say I’ve been a Virginian for, let’s just say, a very long time. Yet, it wasn’t until the pandemic began that I started to explore much more of the Commonwealth.
Of course, I’d been to Richmond before – on school field trips and the like. I’d been inside the Virginia State Capitol. When all four of my kids were very small, I brought them to Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden to walk, crawl, and toddle across the well-manicured grounds.
These last two years, I’ve visited Richmond many times, both with my kids and on my own, in an effort to get to know my state’s capital city, including its miles of hiking trails. As we all look to get our kids outdoors, I’m excited to share five must-do local family hikes.
Once known as Broad Rock Island, Belle Isle was first explored by Captain John Smith in 1607. It has a storied history, too. Over the years, this 54-acre island in the James River has been home to a fishery, a nail factory, a rock quarry, a hydroelectric power plant, and a Civil War prison camp.
Today, Belle Isle is best known for its massive river rocks that allow visitors to cool down along the mighty James. Families can stroll a 1.8-mile gravel loop along the well-shaded perimeter of the island for a look at historic artifacts, like an old mill and the remains of the power plant.
This hike begins with a walk over the rapids of the James River along a suspended footbridge under the Lee Bridge. A clockwise loop allows you to start with historic ruins, including a quarry pit turned pond, which is now home to yellow-bellied slider turtles, as well as sunfish and catfish.
Near the end of the hike, look for a place on the rocks to stop for lunch or a well-deserved snack. My kids and I enjoyed watching the helmet-clad water adventurers navigating super-size inflatable rafts across the thrilling whitewater rapids.
Another top family hike that allows for scenic views across the James River originates from the North Bank section of James River Park. Located on Texas Avenue in Richmond, I can only assume this is how Texas Beach got its name.
There are many highlights on this urban hike, but a favorite of mine comes very early on in the form of a dozen or so colorful wildlife- and nature-themed murals that bring a metal stairwell on the other side of the Kanawha Canal to life. Look for brightly colored frogs, turtles, and flowers.
In a few more steps, the unnamed path parallels the James River. Hop-scotch across large flat rocks to reach and explore a small island or settle in on a stretch of shaded, sandy beach for a snack. Dam-fed waterfalls and wooden foot bridges are perfectly placed for easy-going day hikers.
Up on the left, you’ll see Foushee’s Mill. This former gristmill was destroyed by flooding in 1819, but historic remains and a placard tell its story. Once you reach the train tracks at the 1.6-mile mark, it’s time to re-trace your steps. A walk along the tracks can be dicey and dangerous.
Beaver Lake Trail
Get out of the city and set your GPS for Pocahontas State Park in Chesterfield. Here you’ll find more than ninety miles of hiking and mountain biking trails that criss-cross this forested state park. At nearly 8,000 acres, this is Virginia’s largest state park.
The blue-blazed Beaver Lake Trail is a good pick for kids and families. This hike starts at the visitor center and is marked for hikers only – as in, no mountain bikes allowed. A short spur trail leads to the Beaver Lake Trail for an easy counter-clockwise hike around 24-acre Beaver Lake.
But first, stop at the wooden fishing pier. My kids and I loved taking in the west-facing views across the lily pad-strewn lake. As you begin to walk around the freshwater lake, you will cross bridges and wooden boardwalks. Benches every half-mile allow you to re-fuel and re-hydrate.
Mid-hike, my kids stopped to take off their shoes for a splash in a refreshingly cool stream. Near the end of the hike, we passed a scenic spillway. It’s as close as you can get to a waterfall, and you’ll find this image on the park’s iron-on patch. We also started to collect patches during the pandemic.
Some consider 106-acre Larus Park to be a hidden gem. It’s so hidden that some Richmonders don’t even know about this public park, which is fifteen minutes west of downtown Richmond. There are four hiking trails, named simply Red Trail, Green Trail, Blue Trail, and Yellow Trail.
It’s easy to create your own hike at Larus Park, and you may end up doing so, since the markers can be a challenge to follow at a few points. My advice is to snap a photo of the trail map at any of the trailheads or trail junctions. I’m pretty sure you will thank me.
A friend of mine and I completed this hike on a cold morning in January. We started at the Stony Point Road entrance and got our first steps in on the Yellow Trail. From here, we cobbled together sections of all four trails to complete a lovely 2.7-mile loop hike.
This forested hike took us across footbridges, down a wooden staircase, and over gently flowing streams. The biggest challenge with this hike was parking. The lots are very small. You may need to settle on street parking in the adjacent neighborhood of single-family homes.
Buttermilk, North Bank, Belle Isle Loop
There’s no question that the Buttermilk Trail at James River Park is a very popular trail. Unfortunately, you need to park at Reedy Creek, which is essentially in the middle of the Buttermilk Trail. My daughter and I found this to be very odd, so we chose to design our own hike.
It was a longer trek – 6.5 miles instead of 4.5 miles – but we were able to see so much more since we created a loop hike instead of an out-and-back hike. From Reedy Park, we set off to the west for a clockwise loop that included water crossings, rock scrambles, and wooden bridges.
The hike then took us across the Boulevard Bridge and onto the North Bank Trail, which runs alongside Maymont. Keep your eyes peeled for black bears – inside the public park. We enjoyed walking through a towering bamboo forest, which is part of Maymont’s Japanese Garden.
As we continued on, we passed three cemeteries before stopping at Bubba’s Bench for views of the James River, as well as the city skyline. The highlight of this hike for us was crossing Belle Isle to the dry rocks section on the far east end of the Buttermilk Trail. Very Gram-worthy, indeed.
Hiking with kids can be so rewarding, particularly when you can get your steps in on trails that inspire and fill your children with awe and wonder. If there’s any silver lining to the pandemic, it’s that it’s gotten us outside as a family, to smell the fresh air and to hike the nature trails. For this, I am truly grateful.
Erin blogs about hiking and getting outside at Go Hike Virginia!
Photography: Erin Gifford