I probably owe you an apology, dear reader. When Andy and I first discussed my writing for Richmondoutside.com, Laurie and I were relative newcomers to the Richmond area, having lived here for little more than a year. The idea was that I was to write about places to walk and hike as I gradually discovered them as a newbie. Well, I’ve been here more than five years now and there’s a place that I’ve been going to quite regularly for the past four years that I’ve yet to tell you about it.
It’s probably due to a bit of selfishness, I guess. You see, every time — but one — that I’ve walked in Lewis G. Larus Park, I’ve encountered only one other person. That doesn’t necessarily mean that no one else was on the park’s 106 acres, but it is definitely an indicator of how little the park is used. Sure, you can hear traffic from Chippenham Parkway on the eastern edge of the park, and there are houses visible along the western boundary, but it is this lack of human encounters and sense of solitude so close to downtown Richmond that has selfishly kept me from telling anyone about it.
The place kind of has the feel of being the poor relations in the city’s park system. Richmond has owned the land since the late 1970s, but it wasn’t until 2006 that there was a sign identifying it as public property. There’s no real parking lot at the main entrance, just a place to pull off the pavement so that you don’t black the back entrance to Fire Station #25 on Huguenot Road. Larus doesn’t have a “Friends of” organization like many other Richmond parks do, such as Monroe, Bryan, and Libby Hill. Finally, whereas Battery, Byrd, Gillies Creek, and other parks have their own web pages on the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Community Facilities website that describe their many attributes, Larus is lumped together on a single page with every other park and is identified as having only one amenity, an exercise trail.
The city may consider it just an exercise trail, and it could be used for a light cardiovascular workout, as the main route does lose and gain a couple of hundred feet in elevation as it goes in and out of a small creek valley and some of the side trails have some short ascents along them. However, the trail system has no circuit routes and it’s not very extensive. Unless you’ll be shuttling with your car to hike from one park entrance to another (other trailheads are next to the Sabot at Stony Point School, the Virginia Urology building near Stony Point Fashion Park, and Old Holly Road near the James River), you’ll have to do some backtracking. You would probably walk a little more than three miles if you were to do all of the trails with as little backtracking as possible.
However, as I said, I come here primarily for the solitude — and the appreciation of a bit a green space within a large population center. From the Huguenot Road parking area, the trail enters an evergreen plantation and goes beside a carpet of running cedar, a plant that has always intrigued me. It resembles tiny hemlock or pine trees and, in fact, the small, evergreen club moss can trace its origins back more than 300 million years to when its ancestors grew to be over 100 feet tall. Sadly, the plant is becoming increasingly rare as poachers gather it to use as greenery in Christmas decorations.
The trees that tower above are loblolly pines, adapted well to poorly drained and heavy soils. Growing straight and tall, with scales that become larger and smoother as the tree ages, the loblolly can be identified by its deep green needles that grow in bunches of three. Pitch pine needles also grow in bunches of three but are more of a yellow-green. The needles of the Virginia pine are in bundles of two.
Later this summer, there will be two trailside treats growing in the park — blueberries and pawpaws. Many people use the names huckleberry and blueberry interchangeably, but they are two distinct plants. The branches of blueberries always have small warts and each berry will have more than 100 seeds. A huckleberry contains fewer than a dozen seeds and its twigs are wart-free. Usually growing in moister soils, the pawpaw tree can grow to 40 feet tall. The best way to enjoy the pawpaw’s fruit is fresh off the tree. Cut it open, scoop out the flesh, and be sure to discard the seeds, which are poisonous. Some people say the creamy white-to-orange flesh has the consistency of custard or yogurt and tastes like a very ripe banana with hints of mango and pineapple. Enjoy, and eat away. Pawpaws contain three times as much vitamin C as an apple, twice as much riboflavin as an orange, about the same amount of potassium as a banana, and lots of amino acids.
I’ve unburdened my guilt; take advantage of my apology and go visit the solitude of Lewis G. Larus Park. Just be sure to go during the middle of the week, because — that single instance when I saw more than one person? It was on a Saturday during New Year’s week and I encountered more than two dozen people, most of them walking their dogs.