Belle Isle Trail: A Refreshing & Historical Hike Along the James River in Richmond

It can be challenging to find a satisfying hike in an urban setting, but the popular Belle Isle Trail in Richmond’s James River Park goes the extra mile for visitors.

Belle Isle Trail-Historical Building

This mostly shaded gravel loop trail clocks in at 1.8 miles and engages visitors with historical buildings, rock scrambles and a suspension bridge.

Trail Stats 
Length1.8 miles
DifficultyEasy
Trail TypeLoop
Elevation Gain55 feet
Duration45-60 minutes
TerrainMostly gravel
Dog-FriendlyYes
FeeFree
Driving DirectionsClick Here

Belle Isle

A rather large parking lot sits adjacent to the suspended footbridge that crosses the James River and runs beneath the Robert E. Lee Bridge (for cars).

However, on weekends, this parking lot can fill up by mid-morning, so you may need to seek out open parallel parking spots just a few blocks from this lot.

Belle Isle Trail-Robert E Lee Bridge

As you walk across the suspension bridge to Belle Isle, a small 54-acre island, look for kayakers paddling below in the James River.

You may even see helmet-clad groups in large inflatable rafts navigating the rapids on thrilling whitewater rafting excursions.

Belle Isle Trail-James River Whitewater Rafting

Once you cross the bridge, stay right to walk along the James River. You’ll reach several spots along the way to exit the trail and climb onto the river rocks. 

James River Rocks

You may want to hike in swimsuits, but watch the rapids. As in, this area is not meant for swimming. We did have fun wading though. Be sure to bring towels.

Belle Isle Trail-James River Rocks

From the river rocks, enjoy views of the Robert E. Lee Bridge and the city skyline. It’s easy to see why Belle Isle is a popular locale in Richmond.

A spot on the river rocks is a great place to enjoy lunch or a well-deserved snack before continuing along the perimeter of the island.

Quarry Pond

Continue on the wide, shaded gravel trail, passing more rapids as you go. Shortly, you’ll reach Quarry Pond on the left-hand side of the trail.

Granite blocks were once cut and taken from the 19-foot-deep quarry pit. Until cracks were inadvertently created that continually let in water from the river.

Belle Isle Trail-Quarry Pond

This quarry site was abandoned and Quarry Pond was created. Today, sunfish, catfish and bass, as well as yellow-bellied slider turtles, call this pond home.

Historic Sites

As you proceed, you’ll see remains of a hydroelectric power plant, an old mill and a storage shed that served the needs of the Old Dominion Iron and Nail Company.

As you round the final curve of the trail, you’ll notice a bike skills park, then a historic cemetery, a final resting place of various historic military figures.

You may also learn along the loop that Belle Isle once served as a prison for Union soldiers during the Civil War.

Belle Isle Trail-Suspended Pedestrian Bridge

Cross the suspension bridge over the James River and you will return to the parking lot where you started.

From here, walk a block or two past the parking lot if you’d like to rent kayaks or stand-up paddleboards to enjoy on the river in summer.

Wrap-Up Notes

For a longer hike, walk the suspension bridge then cross Belle Isle by way of the .5-mile Belle Isle Connector to hook up with the Buttermilk Trail.

This out-and-back trail meanders along the James River to the Boulevard Bridge. Turn around anytime you like, but the full hike clocks in at 6 miles.

Belle Isle Trail-River Rocks

For a shorter hike, walk the path .5-miles to the river rocks for an afternoon of wading in river pools. Re-trace your steps for a one-mile out-and-back hike.

Bring a picnic lunch to eat on the river rocks or make the short drive to the trendy Shockoe Bottom neighborhood.

Walk the cobblestone streets, then stop for a bite at a family-friendly restaurant, like Bottoms Up Pizza. For a second hike, try Forest Hill Park or Larus Park.