Belle Isle is one of the most well-known public natural areas in Central Virginia. If you live in Richmond and you’ve never heard of it, you need to get out more! Spending a lazy afternoon on the rocks watching the river go by with your friends — perfection.
At 54 acres, Belle Isle is the second-largest island in the James River within Richmond city limits and one of the most historic sites in the city. Native Americans fished in the river there long before the English arrived. Captain John Smith was among the first Europeans to visit in 1607, and William Byrd I acquired the island in 1676.
William Byrd II, the founder of Richmond, called it “the broad rock island.” Sold by the Byrd family around 1776, the island soon became one of Richmond’s first industrial centers, with a nail factory there by 1814 and later a full-scale ironworks that operated until 1972. Granite was quarried there in the 19th and 20th centuries.
During the Civil War one of the most notorious prisoner-of-war camps in the South was located on Belle Isle. The remains of a Confederate gun emplacement still are visible on the western end of the hill. From 1904 to 1967, the Virginia Electric Power Company operated a power plant on the island’s south bank. In 1995, Belle Isle was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a nationally significant historic site.
Belle Isle is now one of Richmond’s most popular city parks, with hiking and running trails, bouldered quarry walls for rock climbing, historic ruins and “broad rocks” from which to view the river, especially the roaring rapids at its midpoint.
If you are a big-time paddler, going to Belle Isle via the James River is a must. But unlike most of the visitors, you don’t want to touch the island, just a chance to blast through Stripper rapid and into raging whitewater of the Class III to IV rated Hollywood rapid.
Since the 1970s — when breaks in the dams around the island were made by flooding from a hurricane and long after the Virginia Electric Power Company had abandoned the island hydroelectric plant – the rapids have been a destination for white water enthusiasts. The rapids are right in the center of the most popular people-watching spot on Belle Isle, and paddlers often attract crowds. The name for the rapid comes from famed Hollywood Cemetery, situated on top of the hills above Belle Isle on the north bank of the James.
One opportunity that has been suggested is to play in the “hole” beside Hollywood Rapid. There is a very large hole in a granite boulder on the north side of the rapid that many swimmers jump into. I’ve been told that when the water levels are below 3.5 feet (Westham gauge) that it is safe and easy to exit the vertical hole. Take your goggles or mask and be sure to have swim buddies if you try this one out.
In contrast to the north bank of the island, the great expanse of granite bedrock and huge boulders on the south side of Belle Isle are more of an acquired taste, but the sun shines just as brightly and the setting is every bit as satisfying to the adventurous soul.
Turtles sun in the marsh along Southside rocks at Belle Isle. It is a great place to explore and see nature. One could find a great blue heron, river cooters, raccoons and many more signs of wildlife. The area is for the more hearty river-goers, not the party scene on the north side of Belle Isle, but you are just as likely to find people sunning or picnicking on a warm day. There are endless rocks, holes, nooks, creeklets and interesting driftwood.
In 1989, the Richmond Renaissance (now known as Venture Richmond) “James River Discovery Program” resulted in the clean up of Belle Isle and Tredegar Street and provided for a pedestrian bridge underneath the new Robert E. Lee Bridge, which was completed in 1989.
The $2.3 million, 1,040-foot pedestrian bridge was constructed in 1991 and is suspended on steel cables under the Lee Bridge. The James River Corporation was the primary private contributor to the construction of this bridge along the with the Virginia Department of Transportation. The views of the downtown skyline and the James River are tough to beat.
Belle Isle is also a major connector for the James River Trail loop. There are several options for mountain biking on Belle Isle, including a loop that goes to the top of the rocky hills in the center of the island. The new Lost Trail on the east end of Belle Isle is a technical run on sandy soil — a great place to hone one’s bike-handling skills.
Parking at Belle Isle might be difficult, but there are many options if the Tredegar Street lot is full. Combined, the upper and lower lots only handle about 50 cars. Try the Oregon Hill overlook, parking up the hill on 5th Street or on the Southside in the area around 22nd Street.