OK, what I would like you to do, before you read any further, is think about the theme music from that classic television show, Twilight Zone. Now, if you’ve been there, think about hiking the trails of Forest Hill Park, especially the lower areas around the lake.
Aha, it fits, doesn’t it?
While the history of the park goes back more than two hundred years, it’s the time from around the 1920s to the 1940s that adds the bit of eeriness to the place. During the 1920s and 1930s the local trolley company operated a popular amusement park complete with carousel, roller coaster, dance hall, and other attractions. The economic hardships of the Great Depression forced the company to close the attractions in 1932, but one of Franklin Roosevelt’s federal programs, the Works Progress Administration, put men to work turning trails into cobblestone pathways and constructing buildings from local materials to provide a place for ice skaters to warm up in the winter and a gazebo as a gathering place during special occasions.
Yet, the park once again fell into disrepair during World War II and, even though people still visited, it wasn’t until just a few years ago that the city dredged the lake to restore it to its former depths and local mountain bikers volunteered many hours to rehabilitate and create a trail system.
It’s the main 2.3-mile route that encircles the lake (sometimes in view, sometimes not) to take you through the best parts of the park, going by old stairways that lead to nowhere and wide, cobblestone roads that don’t connect with anything else.
Of course, the park has its fair share of natural features, too. Dozens of songbirds, including house wrens, cardinals, and chickadees, can be heard and seen flitting about in the forest populated by paw paw and beech trees (all, sadly, with the inevitable initials and lovers proclamations). Growing among the understory are Asian day flower, trumpet flower, English ivy, and (beware) luxuriant growths of poison ivy.
One of the highlights for me is Reedy Creek, the stream from which the lake was created. I’m always amazed and delighted to come to the place where the creek, just a few scant yards from the traffic on Forest Hill Avenue, widens as it flows around huge boulders, almost making me believe I’m in a mountain canyon rather that within a heavily populated Richmond neighborhood.
As a bonus, Forest Hill Park is adjacent to James River Park, providing easy access to its many miles of pathways.
Getting there: Take the Nickel Bridge (VA 161) over the James River, turn left at the first stop light onto Forest Hill Avenue, go about .5 mile, turn left onto W. 42nd St., continue two blocks, and turn right into the park.