Remarkable Outdoor Spaces to Explore in RVA
When in Richmond, you’re never more than a quick walk away from green space. Our beautiful capital of Virginia is deeply in touch with its natural side, whether it be wooded wetlands or manicured pocket parks. And, quite literally, the focal point is the James River which runs (and sometimes rages) through its center. Here are a few of the best parks to visit that I recommend to visitors and residents alike.
James River Park System
This series of parks is situated along several miles of the James River. It includes 550 acres of shore line and islands where visitors can hike and bike trails or take to the water for swimming, canoeing, and kayaking the Class IV rapids. Some of the more popular attractions in the James River Park System include Pony Pasture Rapids on the southside (for kayaking, fishing, and tubing), Belle Isle (for hiking and sunbathing on the rocks), and Floodwall Park (for unique views of the city skyline).
Claiborne & Lora Robins Sculpture Garden
This Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ public garden is a local outdoor favorite for art lovers. It’s an ideal location for picnics, meet-ups, or for just lounging in the shade beneath the trees. Visitors will find 3.5 acres showcasing the works of many artists, including Dale Chihuly, whose vibrant modernist sculpture, Red Reeds, looms large above a pretty pond, and Richmond-based sculptor, Paul DiPasquale, who contributed a bronze statue of the Roman god, Neptune. There’s also a cascading waterfall, styled gardens, and colorful seating throughout the grounds. The garden is also part of the Richmond Garden Trail, a collection of eight sites scattered throughout the city.
Located in Richmond’s Northside, Bryan Park is a 262-acre park that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s become one of the best places for frisbee fun and farmers’ markets. But first a little history: In the summer of 1800, this land was the planned site of Gabriel’s Rebellion—a giant uprising by enslaved men in the region. Details of the uprising were leaked; consequently, the uprising was thwarted before it began. Yet, it remains a significant moment in the U.S. civil rights movement. Today the park is home to several ponds, soccer fields, shady walking trails through the woods, and a disc golf course. On Saturdays, the park draws crowds to its bustling farmers’ market, RVA Big Market.
Libby Hill Park
Hands down the best park for watching the sunset. Perched high on a hill overlooking the city, this seven-acre park is located in Richmond’s oldest neighborhood, Church Hill. The city of Richmond is actually named after William Byrd II of Richmond-upon-Thames in England, who warmly likened the vista to his hometown. Libby Hill Park was one of the first five city parks designed as “breathing places” for residents in the 1850’s. Besides truly amazing views, Libby Hill Park offers several benches for watching the sun set over the city. For similar views of the skyline, you might also check out nearby Jefferson Park.
Truly one of Richmond’s most beloved parks, the sprawling Byrd Park is home to the WWI memorial, the Carillon. Many find it perfect for leisurely strolls and jogging, with hundreds of acres of rolling green hills, three peaceful ponds, and the picturesque Carillon bell tower rising above it all. The ponds are used for fishing, paddle-boating, or just to stroll around. The field in front of the WWI memorial is a gathering spot for picnics and Frisbee games. The park also boasts a tennis complex, softball fields, an exercise trail, the Dogwood Dell Amphitheater, a playground, a very active dog park, and in winter, some of the best sledding hills in Richmond. Enjoy people watching on the trails, frequented by runners, dog-walkers, cyclists, and parents with strollers.
At Maymont you’ll find impeccably maintained gardens throughout the 100-acre estate. You’ll also be transported to the English countryside while actually being firmly planted in the heart of the Virginia capital. While there, don’t miss the magnificent Italian Gardens and the oldest public Japanese Garden on the east coast. One of Richmond’s most popular visitor sites is the Maymont Mansion, the historic home of William Byrd. The mansion now serves as a public museum, exhibiting the lifestyle of the wealthy of that era, and as a venue for several beloved annual/holiday events. If you crave the opportunity to go spotting for local wildlife, the Robins Nature Center features exhibits on the ecology of the James River. The Maymont Farm, a children’s petting zoo and wildlife habitat, also gives visitors the opportunity to glimpse and interact with various animals.
Pump House Park
The imposing structure that anchors Pump House Park was at one time Richmond’s primary water pumping station. The Victorian Pump House was built in the 1880’s and has fallen into disrepair in recent years, though plans are in the works to renovate it. The surrounding area is perfect for a quiet stroll on one of the trails in scenic woodland, past historic canals, and alongside a rocky section of river. It’s really like being in a park that time has forgotten.
The 30-acre Chimborazo Park, located on the edge of Church Hill, is a Historic Landmark. This is one big reason it’s the best park for history buffs. The park marks the center for military activity during the Civil War. It was home to one of the largest military hospitals in the Confederacy. After the war, the buildings were repurposed to create a Freedmen’s community (a settlement for recently emancipated enslaved people). Today, the park is the site of the Richmond Medical Museum, which is dedicated to the interpretation of the former hospital. If you visit, be sure to take a stroll on the winding carriage roads and bring your family (including your dog, if you have one)! There’s a dog park, playground, and replica of the Statue of Liberty.
Forest Hill Park
For those who love to frolic in the forest and alongside a river, just south of the James River is Forest Hill Park. This expansive green space has a long colorful history. The land has served as a quarry, a protected estate, and an amusement park. Today, visitors enjoy hiking and mountain biking through the park’s winding woodland trails. There’s also a playground, tennis courts, and picnic shelters.
The best park for an urban escape is definitely Scuffletown. Located in Richmond’s historic Fan neighborhood (derived from the way its streets “fan” out from Belvidere Street), this pocket park is tucked away behind the buildings on Park Avenue, Strawberry Street. Stafford Avenue, and Stuart Avenue. It truly feels like a hidden oasis among the bustling district. Though petite, the park packs on the charm with lush landscaping, picnic tables perfect for enjoying takeout, and a community garden. The lucky visitor may even get to enjoy an impromptu concert in the park.