The James River Park System comprises over 600 acres and encompasses a range of unique urban leisure destinations, attracting nearly 2 million visitors each year.
Inside the park boundaries, you’ll see expert whitewater kayakers navigating Class III and IV rapids while rock climbers scale an old train trestle under Manchester Bridge. Hikers, runners, and mountain bikers take to the North Bank, Buttermilk, and Belle Isle trails, and on summer days, Texas Beach offers secluded areas for swimming and sunbathing.
Photographer Caroline Martin has spent the past year documenting the parks system and those who value it. Like many Richmond residents, she began to really explore the park at the start of the pandemic. “It was amazing to realize that I didn’t have to travel out of town to do all these great outdoor activities,” she says.
Swimming at Texas Beach: (Above, left to right) Rose Joyner, Jayce Jones, Teri Ryan, Jared Bookbinder, Gavin Joyner, Anna-Lisa Todd and Ricky Alexander enjoy the water at Texas Beach. “To hang by the river is to take care of myself for my soul,” says Rose Joyner. “It’s an activity I was recently exposed to through friends, and I can’t believe I’ve lived in a city with such amazing river spots and never explored them. Just hearing the sound of the waves, looking at the trees, being at peace, and knowing it’s free and accessible anytime has brought me so much joy.
Walk the Pipeline Trail: The Friends of James River Park call it “downtown Richmond’s best-kept secret,” and when you first venture onto this trail, it’s easy to see why. After all, where else in Richmond can you walk through an active part of the city’s sewer system while rapids swirl beneath your feet? The trail can be accessed at the flood wall west of 14th Street or from the southeast corner of Brown’s Island. In the spring, watch the herons catch their lunch in the river.
Climbing the Manchester Wall: Sarah Hood-Rectant (above) and Nathan Woods climb the Manchester Wall, a former train trestle located under Manchester Bridge. Hood-Rectant, who has been rock climbing for about 10 years, loves the sport because it gets her outdoors and it’s challenging. “The James River Park System is right in my backyard, with Belle Isle and Manchester within easy walking distance of each other,” she says. “It allows me to climb easily and accessible when I want to.”
Hiking the North Bank Trail: The 2.7 mile North Bank Trail connects Boulevard Bridge to Tredegar. It’s the favorite spot of Adam Dovens and his wife, Jess Dovens, who grew up in the Rockies where outdoor activities were commonplace. “Hiking brings a quiet serenity with it,” she says. “I have stood among the painted gardens of France, the rugged shores of Greece, the sacred hills of South Dakota, the fearless nature of the Rockies and the calm nights of the Blue Ridge Mountains and learned that peace will come if you ask that.
Shore Fishing: With its mix of calm water, rapids and plunge pools, the James River offers excellent fishing opportunities within the city limits. Anglers catch smallmouth bass, pumpkinseed and catfish, which can grow to gargantuan proportions. A Virginia fishing license is required and James River Park provides an online guide to fishing the James.
Run the Rapids: Kayakers flock to the Class III and IV rapids that are found in the Lower James River, which runs through downtown Richmond. Christina Spohn learned to paddle when she moved to Richmond about five years ago. “To be able to see the ducks and the fish and watch the water rush and ebb all the way down the channel of the river is really unique,” she says. “We are so lucky to have the James River to challenge our skills, keep us humble and give us a way to connect – and most importantly beat the heat!”
Relaxing at Texas Beach: Located on the north bank of the James River, Texas Beach features shallow, calm waters and secluded beaches. It is a popular place to relax and rejuvenate, especially in the summer when the shade of the many trees can provide respite from the heat. “It’s my peace of mind. I love coming to Texas Beach on my days off,” says Jamell Davis (above). recharged after I arrived here.
Biking the Buttermilk Trail: Shannon Orcutt rides the Buttermilk Trail as she competes in the seventh annual King of the James, an urban adventure triathlon sponsored by the James River Outdoor Coalition. Participants ride the Forest Hill Park Trail Loop, bike the Buttermilk and North Bank Trails, and paddle kayaks through the James River Falls in this challenging endurance race. The event raises funds for the James River Park System and projects such as the addition of a universal ramp to Huguenot Flatwater, outdoor classrooms, and trail maintenance and cleaning.
Rock Hopping: Prior to the construction of the pedestrian suspension bridge under the Lee Bridge in 1988, the only way to access Belle Isle was to hop across the rocks on the south side of the island when the river level was low. Today, rock hopping is still Natalie Kowalski and Dave Bieler’s favorite activity. “I moved to Richmond for work and didn’t have a community when I arrived,” Kowalski says. “My first day in the downtown office, my colleagues took me to the Pipeline Walk. I still know the rock that made me fall in love with this city. The rocks along the river remind me that I am home and everything will be fine.