Belle Isle State Park is not the most visited park in Virginia. It’s not the largest. It doesn’t have the longest history. And it is certainly not the closest to the state’s metro areas.
All the more reason to plan a visit now — before the Northern Neck’s best-kept secret gets out.
Belle Isle’s 739 acres meander through farm fields, past warm season grasses full of marsh hawks. Eagles are here, as are herons, skunks, rabbits and plenty of deer. At the southwest end of the park is the Rappahannock, the broad and mighty river that thunders down the western shore of Virginia, giving the necks their distinctive shape. To the north of the park is Mulberry Creek, and to the southeast, Deep Creek — both ideal for launching canoes and kayaks. Don’t own one? Belle Isle staff will rent visitors a canoe or kayak complete with a life vest.
There are people here; visitors can see cars are parked at a few of the 28 campsites. The staff runs a small camping store, which supplies ice and other necessities. A camper or two may pop into the new visitor center to pick up a map. But otherwise, Belle Isle is so serene the visitors can hear the tall grasses swaying in the wind.
“This is not the place to come and have a big party,” said Timothy Schrader III, the park’s manager, who has lived on site for 20 years. “It’s pretty quiet.”
In 2012, just 41,000 people visited Belle Isle, according to Gary Waugh of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. That’s on the lower end for a state park, Waugh said. First Landing in Virginia Beach logs more than a million visitors a year. Pocahontas State Park, just 30 minutes south of Richmond, averages between 200,000 and 400,000.
The quiet may be because Belle Isle, a member of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrails Network, is a relatively new state park, having opened only 15 years ago. The state purchased the land as it strove to follow the Virginia Outdoors Plan, which had a goal of maintaining a state park within an hour’s drive of every resident in the commonwealth.
Belle Isle fulfills that goal for the residents of the lovely, sparsely populated Northern and Middle Neck peninsulas. But it is about two hours from Richmond and the Hampton Roads area, and about three hours from Annapolis and the District of Columbia.
That distance didn’t bother Mike Boczar, a Virginia state trooper who visited Belle Isle on a recent summer day with his wife and two teenagers. Boczar, who is from the Richmond area, said he was looking for a place relatively close to home. He found Belle Isle on a map.
“Every year, I go someplace else, and I mean it, the people who work here are the nicest, friendliest people, no attitudes,” Boczar said.
Boczar’s family was the first to spend the night at Brewer’s Point, a site away from the cluster of campsites with water and electricity that are popular with those using RVs and campers.
Brewer’s Point sits where Mulberry Creek meets the Rappahannock. It has space for four tents as well as communal picnic tables. Campers must canoe to the site or hike 1.5 miles to get there. But the reward is absolute seclusion, the sound of the river lapping the shore and the pines and cedar trees swaying in the breeze. And it only costs $11 per family.
“Really, the goal is to get people to come off the river and camp here,” Schrader said. “It’s a primitive experience. It’s not going to be for everyone.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is Bel Air, a mansion that sleeps six. Though built in 1942, it feels like an antebellum home. The master bedroom boasts a four-poster bed, and the well-appointed downstairs features a library and dining area with sprawling views of Deep Creek and the Rappahannock. There are laundry facilities, a Jacuzzi tub, televisions in the rooms and bikes available to borrow. Roughing it, this is not. But, at $1,700 for a week in the high season, it’s probably not supposed to be.
The Bel Air Guest House rents for about half the price of the mansion. Both are available for nightly rentals after Labor Day and until Memorial Day the next year. No more than six guests are allowed in the mansion, and no more than eight are allowed in the guest house. With those numbers, everyone has plenty of room.
Belle Isle hosts about 12 weddings a year at the mansion.
The park also runs several educational programs, including many on Indian heritage. There are hikes, full moon canoe trips, geocaching, story time and Civil War history programs. Every second and third Saturday night in the summer, bands play jazz and blues at the amphitheater. The Friends of Belle Isle pop popcorn and sell sodas. Children can compete in sack races or play tug-of-war.
Schrader, an avid runner, also organized a 5K race in September. And he and his staff have added so many new trails they recently had to make a new map to mark all of them.
With such improvements, Belle Isle probably won’t be a secret for long. While it may be hard for longtime visitors to share their once-cherished spot for solitude, a gem like Belle Isle should be enjoyed far and wide.
Article originally published in the Bay Journal on October 17, 2013.