My Top 5 Places to Hit the Trails in Greater RVA

October 6, 2017 · 3 minute read
I started trail running the summer before my sophomore year of high school. The premise was simple- strap on a pair of running shoes, and hit the trails. Back then I didn’t even wear trail runners (running shoes with additional support and tread for trail running), and you’d be hard up to find me wearing even a shirt or watch. I soon found that I loved trail running’s physical challenge, its escapist setting, and the camaraderie of those who shared my passion.

VCU OAP leader Joey Parent on the Forest Hill Park Trails. Credit: Hunter Davis

As a guy who now likes to run really really far, especially in the woods, I am fortunate to have relocated to an area with such an abundance of public trails. The absolute awesomeness of Richmond’s trail system sealed the deal for me when I was debating the pursuit of a job opportunity in the area over three years ago. Since that time, I’ve become well-acquainted with what the Richmond region has to offer, especially the James River Park System (JRPS). I couldn’t hope to list all of the area’s trail runs I frequent, let alone all that exist (and there’s more to come!), so here’s a list of my top 5 favorite places to trail run in Richmond.

5. Poop Loop: Affectionately called the “Poop Loop” due to the nearby Richmond Wastewater Treatment Plant, the mountain bike trail at Ancarrow’s Landing isn’t for just our fellow two-wheeled users of the JRPS. Its layout, tight singletrack, squiggly course, and variety of surfaces and obstacles make it a great ultramarathon training grounds where you can run any number of 2.5-mile laps to match your training schedule. It’s also close to the blooming Manchester neighborhood. Adding on the Slave Trail to connect with the rest of the JRPS provided me a truly epic circuit when I was training for the Bel Monte 50-miler.
4. Dogwood Dells Trail System: Although relatively small compared to many of the trails on this list, this park offers excellent elevation change for its size, perfect for doing hill repeats. There’s even an asphalt roadway closed to traffic that runs parallel to the trails, which is ideal for those doing hills who want to gain the vert on an artificial surface but save their knees on the return trip. Connect to nearby trails through the Byrd Park Pump House or Texas Beach. As with the Poop Loop, watch out for the cyclists who share the trail.

Runners on the Northbank Trail. Credit: Jesse Peters

3. Pocahontas State Park: Dead in the center of Chesterfield County lies an 8,000+ acre mecca for trail runners and bikers. When I first moved to the area I was shocked by the sheer mileage of trail within the borders of the park, over 80. For comparison, Raleigh’s Umstead State Park, my old stomping grounds, is roughly 30% smaller but only has about a quarter of the trail mileage. Reach out to experienced veterans of the park’s offerings to find the best trails to suit your needs.

2. Gillies Creek Trails: Perhaps I’m biased by its location (a stone’s throw from my house), but I believe the Gillies Creek Trails are the next big thing in Richmond recreation. Stemming from the namesake park, much of the mileage of this system of “social trails” (unofficial, singletrack trails maintained by foot and bike traffic passing on through) runs along the concrete creek channel; however, there’s enough looping combinations of trails and roads to get a longish non-overlapping run in, as I do most mornings. The hilliness of this area and the accompanying bluffs and deep-cut tributaries reminds me of the mountain runs that got me started in the whole business.
1. River Loop AKA Lizard Loop AKA Downtown Loop: I don’t know where its various names come from, but any loop through the JRPS that crosses both the Nickel Bridge and Belle Isle Footbridge (or the new Tyler Potterfield Memorial Bridge) meets the criteria for my favorite trail run in town. Very few metropolitan areas can claim any contiguous 6.2-mile looping route of 95% trail, let alone one as scenic and technical as this loop that combines the popular Buttermilk and Northbank Trails. Richmond’s two signature trails combine for a thrilling, heavily-switchbacked run that includes man-made features such as canals, cemeteries, historic structures, tough stair climbs, and the city’s distant skyline. This is in addition to the natural wonders such as the scenic James River, rock outcroppings, edible paw paw fruit (in September, usually), deer, and perhaps even an elusive coyote. Which is to say nothing about the other recreational opportunities including biking, bouldering, rock climbing, bird watching, whitewater etc.