Belle Isle (AREA 1-H)

Park Parcel Map, Boundary and Features:Exhibit CE 0012
Map Title:   Property Known As Belle Isle
Common Park Name:  Belle Isle

Description of Location

Belle Isle is located in the middle of the James River, just to the west of Richmond’s Central Business District, south of Oregon Hill and Hollywood Cemetery.  US Route 1, Jefferson Davis Highway, crosses over Belle Isle via the Robert E. Lee Bridge, the 6 plus lanes of which are elevated almost 100 feet above Belle’s eastern half, running roughly north-south.

Existing Conditions

Belle Isle is a 56 acre parcel of rugged wildness in the heart of the city, which provides outdoor adventure activities, river access to the public, history, and spectacular views of the James River corridor and some of its most dramatic rapids and rock outcroppings.  

Parking and public access to Belle Isle from the north shore of the James (close to the City’s CBD) are not on park property.  A parking lot on the north side of the James River lies underneath railroad tracks and can accommodate approximately 80 vehicles.  A short path west leads to an immense pedestrian bridge, almost 1,150 feet long, suspended dramatically underneath the Robert E. Lee Bridge that allows bike and pedestrian access to Belle Isle. 

The Belle Isle park parcel is limited to the island proper, which is longer than it is wide (3,325 feet by 1,100 feet) with its main axis oriented, as is this portion of the James, in a west southwesterly direction.  The upstream, or western portion of the island contains high ground, about 50 feet above the floodplain which encircles the island. The eastern portion of the island, in the broad flat area beneath the Lee Bridge and further to the east, is only about 10 feet above the floodplain.  The western portion is elevated, rocky, wooded, and contains steep slopes and shear rock faces; quarrying was extensive at this end and the large quarrying pond near the western point is a big fishing and rock-climbing attraction. 

A gravel and crushed rock service access road, about a mile long, loops around ¾ ths of the island (not the eastern end).  Several hiking/biking trails pull off of this loop road, leading to  the top of the island; various historic spots; rapids, boulders and beach areas, several viewpoints; and the broad (mostly dry) granite riverbed section between the southwestern shoreline of Belle Isle and the 42nd Street Park and RR Overpass area.
(This area stays dry because a large dam runs diagonally southwest from the western tip of Belle isle.)  There is a large buildup of large drifted old trees, litter and debris in the water pooled to the west of this dam.

The shoreline of Belle Isle consists of large boulders and rocks on its north and west shores.  The shoreline if the eastern third of the island is low and wooded, with smaller rocks and large areas of sandy and muddy terrain.

The rapids most of the length of the northwestern shoreline are large and powerful, considered class 4 and class 5 by experts.  They are magnificent to watch, and often the large rocks along the shore are crowded with spectators and sunbathers.  Kayakers, rafters and other water adventurers brave portions of the rapids.  Swimmers wade and play at the western end of the island and near the rapids. 

Belle Isle attracts walkers and visitors from the CBD at lunch time, and large crowds of  diverse people in the afternoon and evening, on weekends, and during the summer months.  Its value to the City park system, and as a stand-alone, wilderness area surrounded by rapids, only a short walk from the City center and other tourism attractions, make in one of the most valuable natural resources in the capitol City of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Buildings and Structures

The important structures outnumber the buildings on Belle Isle. There are numerous historic sites, including the boundary berms of a notorious Civil War Prison, and an  associated cemetery;  the foundations of a water-powered iron plant and several metal buildings from a twentieth-century steel plant; the shell of a hydro-electric plant, with its power feeder canal and related intake structures; walls of several granite quarry operations and a related pond; the site of an old racetrack and remains of an earlier fishing village. 

Moreover, the Lee Bridge bisects and dominates the middle portion of Belle Isle, with its enormous support columns and towering superstructure.  It seems to float over the meadow, running north-south like a lofty, linear, minimalist cathedral.  Just west are a few stone and brick Civil War era structures, tucked into the hillside of the rising Belle Isle promontory hill. Nearby is more recently build triangular brick building, once intended to be an education center but proven to be so poorly designed (and ugly) that it stays vacant and locked.  There are temporary portapottys in several parts of the park, and several information kiosks and interpretive signs throughout the park. 

Near the lower end of the southern shore of Belle Isle is the vehicular Service Access bridge for Belle Isle, a contemporary cor-tan steel and wood structure built upon the old granite pylons for an old Railroad access spur.  Its strong bold design compliments the panorama of rugged, rounded bedrock of Petersburg granite which constitutes the broad floodplain channel between the southwestern shoreline of Belle Isle and the 42nd Street Park and RR Overpass area.


CE0015 shows a large VDOT easement for the Robert E. Lee Bridge.  There may be other, older easements on the property


There are no services at Belle Isle although organized tours of the park take place regularly.

Conservation Values

Natural Resources Values:  Belle Isle abounds with extraordinary natural resources.  It is a huge, tall, wild island in the center of the James River, America’s First River.  It is comprised of more than 7,500 feet of river shoreline on the James River , including class 4 and 5 rapids, excellent recreation watercraft activity, fishing and swimming areas. It provides magnificent views of the river, rapids, far shores, wildlife and migrating birds, and often, bald eagles in their daily travels up and downriver.

It offers a great walking and biking loop road around the island, and numerous side paths and trails, the most important of which are fully handicap-accessible!

It provides access for extensive exploration: to the top of the plateau, to the old hydroelectric plant; to old industrial structures, to the dry granite riverbed on the island’s south side; to fishing in the quarry and rock climbing nearby, to team-building on the “Ropes Course”, to the Civil War structures and sites, to the wooded areas, the picnic areas, and the many quiet areas, with benches and vantage areas. It also attracts birdwatchers, geologists, mountain bikers and runners. 

Belle Isle’s many natural resources are made even more valuable by its close proximity to Richmond’s downtown businesses, historic and tourism attractions (including the Riverwalk canal and National Park Historic site and facility at Tredegar) and its phenomenal access, under a landmark bridge, by a high, wide-open suspended pedestrian bridge.  Natural Heritage resources unknown.   

Scenic Values: Extraordinary views of the James River corridor from the pedestrian bridge.  Excellent views of the rapids, Hollywood Cemetery, the downtown Richmond CBD skyline, mirrored by the running James.  Views of the River westward and its dry southern channel.  Ciews of the historic structures on the island, the quarrys and the pond, and even the big views beneath the Klee Bridge of the Belle Isle meadow and old industriual buildings.  Outstanding in most aspects.

Landscape Values: Rugged island in the middle of the Fall Zone of the James. Immense granite backbone and exposed riverbed on southern side.  Rugged shoreline, great rapids.  Exposed geology, weather and water-rounded rock, channels, flumes, etc.  Wooded and steep in many places.  Most of time, seems huge and timeless, dwarfing the transitory and ephemeral visitors.  An island wilderness, steadfast in time and the river, changing only very slowly.

Historic Values: Listed above, many important structures and history from the civil War, and structures remaining from the late 19th and 20th century industry and technology .
Surely warrants further in-depth research and exploration.

Other BLD Materials

  1. BI I –H: Pictures & Captions: 19pages, 75 pictures with captions
  2. BI I - H: Appendix H: GIS coord points, photos, captions and/or descriptions
  3. BI I-H  GIS map with major features identified, 75 GIS photopoints

Note This Belle Isle GIS Map includes photopoints for the Manchester Climbing Wall.  Please see the Main Area Section of this BLD