James River Park: Hike a Riverside Loop in Richmond (Buttermilk, North Bank & Belle Isle)

Sometimes, I do a good job planning a hike. Sometimes, not so much. The latter was the case in Richmond over the weekend, though the hike ended well.

My 14 y.o. daughter and I were spending the weekend in Richmond. I had already hiked Belle Isle and Texas Beach, so this time I wanted to hike the Buttermilk Trail.

On AllTrails, the Buttermilk Trail has 800+ reviews and a 4.5-star rating. I thought the trail was just okay, but it’s a cinch to take this hike from average to awesome.

We hiked the length of the Buttermilk Trail (2.5 miles, one-way), then added the North Bank Trail and Belle Isle Trail for a 6.5-mile loop hike at James River Park.

Trail Stats 
Length6.5 miles
DifficultyModerate
Trail TypeLoop
Elevation Gain532 feet
Duration3.5-5 hours
TerrainMostly dirt & rock trails, some gravel
Dog-FriendlyYes
FeeFree
Driving DirectionsClick Here

Reedy Creek

We parked at Reedy Creek, a popular lot for those accessing the public boat launch for kayaks and canoes. There’s room for maybe a dozen vehicles.

This parking lot puts you in the middle of the Buttermilk Trail. There are no lots on either end of the Buttermilk Trail. It was kind of unusual.

From here, we weren’t sure which way to go: east or west. We opted to go west, but if I were to do a shorter hike, I’d opt to go east. More on that down below.

Buttermilk Trail 

From the parking lot, look for the large trail kiosk toward the front of the parking area. To go west, start at the trail kiosk and begin your shaded walk in the woods.

Before you begin, note that this trail is shared with mountain bikers. We only saw one, but keep your head on a swivel. It’s popular with trail runners, too.

The forest is dense and the trail is too far from the James River for views. There is nice terrain, including rock scrambles, wooden bridges and water crossings.

At the 1.5-mile mark, the Buttermilk Trail ends. Turn left to cross over the Boulevard Bridge. If you turn right, the trail ends at the river (not recommended).

Here I was conflicted. I had hoped we could cross over the Boulevard Bridge and connect with the trail that leads to Texas Beach. Unfortunately, that’s not possible.

The bridge goes over the trail, the train tracks and the canal, dropping you off at the North Bank Trail. There’s no way to cross over to the trail to Texas Beach.

Savor views across the James River from the Boulevard Bridge. To the west, you can see the Powhite Parkway Bridge. To the east is Robert E. Lee Memorial Bridge.

Once you cross over Boulevard Bridge, stay to the left to hook up with the North Bank Trail at the 2.1-mile mark. You’ll see a water fountain and a porta-potty.

North Bank Trail

A large kiosk marks the start of the North Bank Trail. In a few steps, you’ll walk east alongside Maymont. Keep your eyes open for the black bears.

As the North Bank Trail parallels Maymont, you’ll also find yourself walking through a towering bamboo forest. This is part of Maymont’s Japanese Garden.

By the 3.2-mile mark, you’ll be walking alongside three cemeteries, including Mount Calvary Cemetery, Riverview Cemetery and Hollywood Cemetery.

A bench appears at the 3.9-mile mark. Bubba’s Bench, to be precise. Here you can sit and savor the semi-obscured views of the James River, even the city skyline.

By the 4.4-mile mark, your time on the North Bank Trail will come to an end as you loop around to access the Belle Isle footbridge for pedestrians.

Belle Isle

This footbridge guides you under the Lee Bridge (for vehicles) and over the James River to 54-acre Belle Isle, a popular river destination with sun-seekers.

As you exit the footbridge, stay on the gravel trail to the left. You will pass a former oil house on the right and a bike skills park on the left.

You’ll then cross over a footbridge with views of Dry Rocks. Be sure to snap lots of photos. Once you cross over, you can hopscotch across Dry Rocks, too.

At the 5.6-mile mark, you’ll reach a staircase leading up to the Buttermilk Trail. Take this trail west to proceed on to Reedy Creek. But first, Buttermilk Spring.

Buttermilk Spring was used in the 1800s by farmers – in the days before refrigeration – to keep milk cans cool. A sign marks the spring at the 5.8-mile mark.

Continue walking on the shaded trail, over bridges and across rocks, until you reach the parking lot at Reedy Creek at the 6.5-mile mark. Your hike is complete.

Hike Options

If you find yourself in the Reedy Creek parking area and have time to go only east or west on the Buttermilk Trail, I suggest you go east.

In less than 1.0-mile, you will reach Dry Rocks. Scamper across the large exposed rocks, then cross over to Belle Isle.

At Belle Isle, you’ll find Quarry Pond, as well as plenty of rocks alongside the flowing James River where you can laze the day away in the sunshine.

Wrap-Up Notes

This hike in the James River Park System took us about three hours, including time spent taking in the views and snapping photos all along the way.

We liked this longer loop hike near and along the James River. I recommend this option over the Buttermilk Trail alone, especially if you like water views.

As I noted above, I also suggest Texas Beach (3.2 miles, out and back) and Belle Isle (1.8 miles, loop). You’ll also find more Richmond hiking trails at Larus Park.