Urban Hiking: Richmond's Belle Isle

by Bill and Mary Burnham

Richmond skyline

This 54-acre island in the middle of downtown Richmond is also in the middle of the James River! Accessible by an impressive, concrete suspension pedestrian bridge, this island has a slightly eery past, made moreso by the occasional homeless encampment you might see today.

Evenso, it's worth exploring, especially if you find yourself in downtown Richmond and want to get some exercise. Just getting there is a bit of a thrill. The only access is via a pedestrian bridge suspended beneath the Lee Bridge which take vehicles across the river.

Hiking along the James River

The pedestrian bridge drops you onto a flat field that has been the site of a Powhatan fishing village, a Colonial horse track, a notorious prison for northern soldiers, an iron plant, and a 20th century steel plant. The one-mile loop takes you past the ruins of the iron works and the site of the open-air prison.

A signboard describes a gory remembrance of war:

"Big guns on the hill deterred riots in the over-crowded prison encampment to your left. Few escaped, most died of starvation, dysentery and disease. In total about 1,000 men perished. The cemetery, now empty, was to your right where trees grow today."

Ironworks ruins

More narrow trails explore the interior woodlands and circle the island to more ruins, of a 20th century hydroelectric plant and a Civil War-era quarry where prisoners cut huge slabs of granite.

A remarkably intact brick wall remains of the 19th century Belle Isle ironworks, famous throughout the south for its nails, wire and horsehoes.

Mules hauled the crab iron through the wide arched door. The James River powered the machinery, European immigrants and black slaved the labor.

Kayaking James River

Off the northwest shore are the Hollywood Rapids, part of seven miles of rapids known as the fall line, the only urban Class IV rapids in the nation. Here you can watch kayakers play and see the famous Hollywood cemetery on a hill across the river.

(Click to read about paddling this river.)

The park closes at dusk, and with all the ghosts that must live here, few would want to linger longer!

Contact: Belle Isle is part of the city's James River Park System

Read more about visiting Richmond.

Hiking Virginia guidebook

Getting there: From Main Street in downtown Richmond, follow signs for Belle Isle and the Valentine Museum. Park in the lot just past the museum on Tredegar Street and cross the footbridge.

Map: DeLorme Virginia Atlas & Gazetteer: Page 58, D2.

We wrote the book!

The Burnhams' award-winning hiking guide includes details, mile-by-mile cues, history and maps on 45 hikes in the Old Dominion. Hiking Virginia.