Belle Isle is a 54-acre park in downtown Richmond. Operated by the City of Richmond Department of Parks and Recreation, the park is a popular oasis for locals for a variety of activities. This park is part of the James River Park System.
Walking and Biking Trails
It offers a mile-long level walking and jogging trail around the perimeter of the island. Some more technical hiking trails criss-cross the island and are a local mountain biking favorite because of the proximity to downtown.
Kayaking and Canoeing
Kayaking and canoeing is easier in the First Break rapids on the west end of the island. Farther east (downriver), the Class IV Hollywood Rapids provide a more technical challenge.
The north side of the island features a rock face overlooking the quarry pond.
Swimming and Sunbathing
The western, eastern, and northern sides of the island provide the best swimming opportunities in the James River. Multiple exposed rocks become sunbathing and picnic spots on warm days. Precautions should be taken as the rocky terrain and swirling currents could be dangerous. Additionally, rocks, glass bottles, cans, and other underwater obstacles make water shoes or other foot protection a good idea.
Location and Directions
The park is located in the middle of the James River and accessed via a footbridge suspended underneath the Lee Bridge. Parking is available on the north side of the river in a free lot on Tredagar Street.
Belle Isle was originally known as Broad Rock Island. It was first explored by Captain John Smith in 1607. In the 18th century the island was occupied by a fishery. In 1814, the Old Dominion Iron and Nail Company completed a nail factory. During the 1860's, the island was inhabited by a village complete with a school, church, and general store.
The island served as a prison for Union soldiers during the Civil War. Between 1862 and 1865, the island was home to about 30,000 POW's and as many as 1,000 died. The nail factory was re-opened after the civil war and remained in operation until 1972.
The Virginia Electric Power Company built and operated a hydroelectric power plant on the island between 1904 and 1963.
The original Lee Bridge was built over the island in 1934 and replaced by the current version in 1988. Belle Isle was formally made into a park in 1973.