When I moved to Richmond four years ago I immediately discovered the trails by the James River and found meaning in hiking there. A Monday-through-Friday routine quickly formed in which I hiked to the river from my home in The Fan — 11 miles beginning before dawn. It was a fantastic way to start my day as I trudged early into the darkness with a goal of witnessing the rising sun over the James River and the city of Richmond as I crossed the suspension bridge leading to Belle Isle.
Armed with my hiking sticks, my IPod and headphones, listening to my recorded book in the solitude, at one with nature, the only companion an occasional Canada goose, I was at peace with the world and myself.
For twenty months I continued this routine alone. I had discovered something incredibly special, but I wanted to share it with someone else.
Try as I did, however, I could find no one who would go hiking with me. The reasons were many, but the answer was always the same. My feet hurt. It’s too hot, too cold, too early, too far or too dangerous.
My 13-year retirement has been successful in part because I have adhered to these three principles: 1. Every day have a mission to accomplish. 2. Do something for others. 3. Do something unimaginable.
The unimaginable part has come home in spades, as I now am leader of a 1,250 person-hiking group. I finally found someone who will hike with me.
Ours are serious hikes, five to ten miles, many on the trails of the James River Park System, but also all over historical Richmond. We’ve become as much a history club as a hiking club as we explore and learn together the rich history of this city.
Of all the hikes, however, my favorite is the one I started with four years ago. I schedule it once a month. We make a big production of it, calling it IHWDATJRH-HWHOTTBTJRSEIWD or “I hiked with Dennis and the James River Hikers – Hiking With History on the trails by the James River so early it was dark”.
Each of the twenty James River Hikers who has completed the journey has been formally knighted into The Most Noble Order of the IHWDATJRH-HWHOTTBTJRSEIWD.
The journey begins at the southeast corner of Riverview Cemetery where there is plenty of parking on the grass, and the river is visible from your car. Here’s what we do. I invite you to explore it yourself.
Step down onto the trail and head east downriver onto the switchbacks that deliver us to the backside of Hollywood Cemetery. Continue to the pedestrian suspension bridge leading to Belle Isle and circumnavigate it around its western tip. Pause at Hollywood Rapids, and take in the scene and sound. Explorer John Smith witnessed this spot in 1607 and described the roaring turbulence to his friends back in England as “Louder than a scolding wife’s tongue.”
Continue around to the bridge that takes you to the south side of the river. The foundation of that bridge is the same that supported the railroad and the traffic that transported to Union enlisted prisoners of war to Belle Isle during the War Between the States.
Just after crossing to the south side of the river, make a turn downhill back to the river where you’ll find a covered pipe trail that will lead you west and upriver. When the river level rises to seven feet, this pipe will be underwater so you’ll then need to take the high trail along the train tracks. Check out the massive logs and trees that liter the riverbed to your right and visualize how those same trees were floating downriver just a few months ago when the river was over flood stage of 12 feet.
Take the stairway and then the bridge up and over the train tracks. Pause at the top before you do to view Hollywood Cemetery across the river and then look left where you’ll see your car parked at Riverview Cemetery. Then look upstream to Boulevard Bridge; that’s where you are headed.
The train track beneath you is where the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus train parks when they are in town.
Next you’ll join one of Richmond’s favorites for serious mountain bikers, Buttermilk Trail. You’ll find a port-a-potty there and another at the Reedy Creek parking lot a mile and a half further up the trail.
When you get to Boulevard (Nickel) Bridge take the trail straight ahead and beneath the bridge. Then circle back around to your left as you get on Boulevard Bridge. About 70 percent of the way across the bridge is where we have our apple core-throwing contest. A bull’s-eye is for your core to land on the combo of rocks from which a few shrubs grow.
After crossing the bridge, turn left and walk to the 1882 Victorian Gothic pump house, the second level of which was an open-air ballroom where late 1800’s debutantes in hoop skirts danced the evenings away.
A path behind the pump house leads to a normally open gate on the edge of the very active double train tracks. Use much caution there when crossing, and make your way to the path that borders the tributaries along the river. Then head back east toward Richmond and be prepared to explore a most beautiful nature-blessed part of Richmond that few have ever witnessed.
Eventually you’ll get to the Foushee-Ritchie Mill constructed by Dr. William Foushee in 1819. That’s the same Foushee who was Richmond’s first Mayor, whose namesake Foushee Street from which 1st, 2nd and 3rd east and west streets radiate and who was the doctor at the bedside of Thomas Jefferson’s mentor George Wythe at his death.
Soon you’ll walk across a live railroad bridge and have your own mini experience reminiscent of the epic scene in the movie “Stand By Me.” Soon you’ll rejoin the trail that will lead you back to the starting point at Riverview Cemetery.
Many believe this is the best hike we do. It’s long, it’s all about the river, nearly all of it is on trails, not roads, it includes intriguing history, it takes you to places even experienced Richmond hikers have never seen, and much of it is a fabulous presentation of nature’s beauty.
We completed our 8.8 mille journey in 4 hours 12 minutes. How about join us next time and experience it yourself?
You’ll find all the details at our site: http://www.meetup.com/James-River-Hikers/