Richmond offers plenty of recreational choices for anyone who wants to get outdoors. Its network of trails is extremely popular and has helped bring several beneficial economic events to Richmond, including Dominion Riverrock, XTERRA and more.
The oldest, the Buttermilk Trail, has been a part of the James River Park since the early 1980s. But the city did not commit to building trails that could officially accommodate mountain bikers until the late 1990s.
The popularity of those early trails prompted the JRPS to appoint its first trails manager in 2003 (Nathan Burrell). Citizens helped to push for more trails and volunteers did much of the work. But for all the people out riding trails in Richmond, park usage statistics show that mountain bikes are in the minority. According to numbers provided by the city’s parks department, walkers and runners outnumber mountain bikers three to one on the Buttermilk Trail. Only one in four users on North Bank is a biker.
“Everything we do is an effort to manage the growing number of people going out on the trails,” said Mike Burton, the city’s trails manager since 2013. “Even though they are the minority users, mountain bikes are always on our mind as we plan trail work.”
Burton said all of the JRPS and trail crew staffers are trail users and mountain bikers, which helps illustrate their dedication and determination to continue to maintain the popular trails network. He said the majority of the work they do is done to just keep the trails open.
The city maintains more than 42 miles of trail, including single track, connector roads, and trails entering parks. This includes more than 20 miles of trail in the James River Park at North Bank (opened 2005), Belle Isle (1999), Ancarrow’s Landing (Poop Loop trail, 2014), Pony Pasture, The Wetlands, and Huguenot Flatwater. The crew maintains trail in other city parks, including Forest Hill (rebuilt 2009), Byrd (Dogwood Dell, 2011), Powhite (1995-99), Larus (2005), and Bryan.
“We are known for having a challenging network of trails in the center of an urban area,” said Burrell, who is now the James River Park manager. “We offer a wide range of skill sets throughout the trail system.”
Burrell said building a facility like the skills park on Belle Isle (which opened in 2012) was an effort to offer a more beginner-friendly training area for new and young riders. The trail crew has also been working to introduce more trail that caters to different types of riders.
“You could spend your life building technical trails, but we only have a staff of two,” Burton said, referring to Andrew Alli, the other full time trail crew staffer. “Every time we add new trail, we also add more maintenance, and there is so much demand for the trails we have now.”
For those interested in learning more and giving their input about the trails network, the city will host a forum Wednesday, Feb. 1, from 7-8:30 p.m. at The Carillon in Byrd Park. Hosted by the City of Richmond and the James River Park trail crew, the event is expected to be an open discussion about the Richmond trails network.
Representatives from the mountain bike, trail runners, and hiking groups are scheduled to be on the panel. The forum will be moderated by Brantley Tyndall, community outreach coordinator for Richmond Sports Backers’ Bike Walk RVA. Topics will include:
A Q&A session will allow the public to voice their ideas & concerns. In advance of the forum, submit your questions.
The trails crew is constantly looking for ways to add new trails, but as the network increases, maintenance also increases, which creates the need for more help from volunteer groups, like RVAMORE and the James River Hikers.
In 2016, the trail system received nearly 1,500 documented hours from volunteer groups, a figure that Burton said was very low because the hours for many projects were not tallied. Project managers occasionally forget to share signup sheets or volunteers forget to sign in, missing a chance to document their efforts.
Without volunteers, Burrell said Richmond’s trails network would not exist. For 2016, the parks department used $22 per hour to calculate the value of volunteer time (less than a national figure of $23.56). Often a volunteer project would include a member of the park staff and anywhere from five to 20 volunteers, depending on the work needed to accomplish.
Other projects earned more than 4,900 hours for park maintenance and another 2,850 from long-term volunteers and interns. All totaled, the park counted 9,270 volunteer hours, which equates to about 4.85 permanent employees (considering the average permanent employee works approximately 2,000 hours per year), according to parks department documentation.
“Our job is to be stewards of the land,” Burton said. “Most trail work includes preventing erosion and making it more sustainable.” Once the crew works on a section of trail, the hope is to avoid having to revisit the site to continue to make repairs.
Burrell said the three key factors to trail sustainability include: environmental (immediate and long-term impact to surroundings); economic (cost of the trail work); and social (which involves many factors, including removing poor sight lines, tight trail corridors, dangerous junctions — anywhere trail users could get hurt from collisions).
That often means that can’t justify building technical features and alternate expert trails in the city network because mountain bikes are still the minority users in the park. Where necessary, there are a few sections of trail where hikers and bikers are separated, such as in Buttermilk Heights (including the area near the stone porch switchback), the Netherwood Quarry (east of 42nd Street, includes a ramp for bikes or stairs for hikers), and another on the North Bank Trail.
Burrell said the crew tends to choose permanent materials when they do build new trail features. “We try use the existing materials within the park as much as we can. Rock features play into the natural features of an adventure recreation park. We have a finite amount of land to work with and we have to manage it as best we can.”
DISCLAIMER: Phil Riggan is a member of rvaMORE and other volunteer groups in the city.