Recently at a restaurant I overheard a couple discussing their options for the weekend. They didn’t want to “just sit at home” or “just go to the pool.” They wanted somewhere new to take the kids. I don’t think they were from Richmond, since they talked about nearby theme parks in phrases like, “What about this Kings Dominion place?” and “I think it’s called Water Country.” I could tell by their defeated tone their hearts weren’t really into any of their suggestions, and each was hoping to hitch a ride on the other’s enthusiasm.
The quarry pond at Belle Isle.
The couple moved on, but I was left thinking…I wonder if they know about Belle Isle?
I’m a Richmond native, but I was almost eighteen before I visited Belle Isle. I was a West End kid, and most of my friends and relatives lived even further west of the city than I did. My parents took my brothers and me on our yearly trips to the Coliseum for the circus and Disney on Ice, and school field trips brought me to the Science Museum and Maymont, but that was pretty much it. My life revolved around Regency Square, Deep Run Park, and all the creeks, woods and playgrounds I could find in between. The world beyond Boulevard (Willow Lawn, really) was a whole other country.
I’d always loved mountain biking as a kid, and one day in high school a friend told me he’d heard about a place (an island, actually), in the city that was supposedly full of mountain biking trails. I knew practically nothing about the James River. The little bit of knowledge I did have came from a few cursory trips to Pony Pasture and whatever could be seen on the occasional excursion across the Willey Bridge. Still, I was skeptical. My friend had to be confused. The notion that, not only was the James River large enough to contain an island, but an island so large that we could ride our bikes on it, sounded crazy. I took a little convincing.
“So you’re telling me there’s an island in the river?”
“The James River?”
Sunbathers on the Belle Isle rocks. Credit: Wikipedia
“And it’s in the city?”
“And on this ‘island’ you can go mountain biking?.”
I didn’t get out much back then.
We drove downtown, parked (nervously eying the elevated railroad tracks above), and there it was! An actual island! An ‘isle’, to be more exact (the difference being that an isle is a small island and typically has no inhabitants – I looked it up later). But to me it looked huge and, like my friend said, more than capable of holding any number of mountain biking trails.
Since I was only eighteen, I’m sure I made some kind of attempt at acting cool, but inwardly I gawked. It was a picture-worthy sight (at a time when the bar for pictures was a little higher), but back then we couldn’t whip out a camera phone to snare every memorable moment the way we do now; if you wanted a photo you had to plan ahead (which I never did). But I’ll always remember the first time I biked across the suspended foot bridge, the way it evoked a sense of flight, making me feel like I was approaching the island by plane, the rumble of the bridge traffic above an evaded thunderstorm.
The first thing I saw, tucked away just left of the bridge, like a stranger hiding behind a door, was a creepy, rusted-out structure that looked like a bandstand for the undead. Placards reached up from the ground telling the grim history of the island. Canoes and kayaks slalomed through white water that looked to be more boulder than river.
The view across the James River from Belle Isle. Credit: Wikipedia
All afternoon we scrambled up hiking trails steep enough to warrant the use of a grappling hook. There was an abandoned hydroelectric power plant that, when approached, made you feel as if you were discovering an ancient ruin (and made visitors respect, if not always appreciate, the daredevil graffiti artists who’d tagged it). Sheer stone cliffs, as grand as those anchoring curves along Skyline Drive, rose out of a peculiar green lagoon that would send even the least ambitious archaeologists and treasure hunters running for a snorkel. And, as promised, the hilltop forest was a maze of single track trails perfect for mountain biking.
It was one ticking crocodile away from being Never Never Land.
I hope the couple knew about Belle Isle, and if not, that they discover it soon. It’s an amusement park without an admission fee, and, like an amusement park, it can’t be fully appreciated in a single day. After nearly two decades and countless miles of hiking and biking, climbing and running, rock-hopping and dog walking, I’ve learned it will probably take a lifetime.