It’s Memorial Day weekend, which means river time! Popular spots to sunbathe and swim on the James River like Belle Isle and Pony Pasture will be hopping Monday. But first up, a few things to know:
- The safe level for swimming in the James is 5 feet and under. Be sure to check jamesriverpark.org before you head out to find out the river levels.
- Over 5 feet is ideal for whitewater rafters looking to ride the rapids.
- Life jackets are required when the water levels are over 5 feet. Life jackets are always a good idea, especially for kids.
The North Bank connector is now fully open, connecting the Buttermilk Trail from the Belle Isle parking lot all the way through Maymont to the Nickel Bridge.
Before the trail update, trailgoers would have to exit the James River Park around Kansas Avenue and move through the Maymont neighborhood to get back on the trail.
Now mountain bikers, hikers and joggers can do the whole route while staying on the trail and in the park.
“We found a parcel of city-owned land between Texas Beach and the Hampton Street entrance,” said Michael Burton, trails and greenway superintendent.
The North Bank connector — as Burton and friends call it — is less than half a mile long. It took roughly three months to complete — from late January to April. Many volunteers from RVA More, a local group of trail enthusiasts, turned out to help build the trail by hand — up to 65 volunteers at a time.
The North Bank connector had to be built completely by hand because it was too steep and far inland to bring in equipment.
“We did a lot of digging and clearing, lots of contour design,” Burton said. “We’re super pleased with how it turned out. It’s a better trail experience and makes it safer.”
Trailgoers can now take the North Bank Trail from the Belle Isle parking lot straight to the Nickel Bridge, cross the bridge and loop back along the Buttermilk Trail across Belle Isle to get back to the parking lot near Tredegar. The full loop is 5 to 6 miles total and can be biked, hiked or run.
With Riverrock having just wrapped up, the trails are in especially good shape, Burton said, making Memorial Day the perfect time to hit the trails at James River Park.
Is the river clean enough to swim in?
The short answer is: yes.
But try to avoid swimming in the river for 24 to 48 hours after a major rainstorm. That’s when the E. coli bacteria levels are the highest.
“The overwhelming amount of the time, it’s safe to swim and a great way to get out and enjoy the river,” said Jamie Brunkow, a spokesperson with the James River Association.
The JRA monitors the levels in the river at a variety of checkpoints throughout the season.
“We released a report last year and 88% of the samples we collected were in the good range for swimming conditions,” Brunkow said.
The latest report will be released after Memorial Day. Swimmers can check the latest water quality reports at theswimguide.org.
Bryce Wilk, a 33-year-old park ranger, is the new superintendent of James River Park. He took over for Nathan Burrell, who has been promoted to facilities maintenance manager.
Originally from New York, he said he “fell in love” with Virginia when he went to college to study biology at the College of William & Mary. Since then, he has been a park ranger at Lake Anna and most recently the manager of Pocahontas State Park.
“Virginia is the heart of America. I majored in biology and minored in history. Virginia marries the two together,” Wilk said. “The James River has the best of both worlds.”
He said he was drawn to the job by the enthusiasm of the volunteers.
“So many people are passionate about the James River Park,” Wilk said. “I thought this must be the greatest place to be.”
Wilk lives with his wife and their mini-pig named “Devito” in a rental in the Richmond’s Montrose neighborhood. They are currently house-hunting.
An avid trail runner, he completed the Richmond Marathon in the fall and enjoys running the trails in the James River Park.
His favorite is the North Bank Trail on the new connector and doing the full loop to Belle Isle.
“The James River is this great wilderness in the middle of downtown,” he said. “There’s no place else like it.”