Chesapeake Insider

Nathan Burrell


When it comes to the James River Park System, few people know it as well as Nathan Burrell. Currently the park’s superintendent, he has worked there for 15 years, beginning as an intern working with only one other person on staff to manage 600 acres in the middle of Downtown Richmond. He has worked as a seasonal ranger, a trails manager for the park and the entire city, and now in his current position as superintendent, Nathan says the park is on his mind while he is managing it during the day and it is on his mind as he sleeps.

Can you please tell me about the James River Park System?

James River Park System is a 600-acre natural area of parks in the middle of Richmond, VA. It spans the entire fall line from the top of the fall line at Bosher Dam seven miles, through Richmond, down to the bottom of the fall line just below the 14th Street bridge. The park itself is made up of the ancestral banks of the James throughout the city as well as many islands in the river. The park is predicated on the ability to come and enjoy the outdoor recreation. We are definitely an adventure recreation Mecca here in Richmond. We have class IV and V rapids in the middle of our capital city. We have got 40-plus miles of hiking and biking trails here in our capital city. We have got three outdoor rock climbing sites here in our capital city. We have got not one, but two nesting pairs of bald eagles here in our capital city. The park is all encompassing from nature appreciation to adventure recreation to just an escape from the everyday humdrum of an urban environment. We like to say the park is a little bit of wilderness in the heart of the city.

What activities do you like to do and where do you like to do them?

When I’m off work my family is usually out in the park, whether it’s my wife and the kids or the kids and me, we’re all together or it’s just me by myself, I love it all. For me it depends on the time of year, it depends on the river level, and it depends on who is with me. There is a different experience every time you come into the park. Personally, I am an avid cyclist. I love mountain biking. I’m out on my bike as much as possible. I’ve been getting into rock climbing here recently. I love taking the kids out fishing. I love going snorkeling in August. It’s a great place to do some exploration. There are islands that you can go out to in the middle of the river and you feel like you are Indiana Jones or something. You find all kinds of carvings in the rocks that are hundreds of years old. It’s just an awe-inspiring experience in the middle of the city. There are just so many great things to do in the park. It’s awesome!

For someone new to visiting the James River Park System, where is a good place to start?

For most of the activities I’ve talked about you can take off from any point in the park. Probably the space that people find most frequently is on Tredegar Street/Belle Isle parking lot. It is close to downtown, so it is in the middle of a lot of stuff that is going on. It’s right along the riverfront. It gives you access to Belle Isle, which is one of the larger islands in the park and a central hub where there is a mountain bike skills park, there are class IV and V rapids there, tons of rocks for bouldering, there are two climbing sites there, among other things. From that point you have access to fishing and a boat launch on Tredegar Street. You have access to infrastructure like the Tyler Potterfield Pedestrian Bridge, which takes you to the south side, where there are restaurants and the Manchester Floodwall Walk. With all the prey birds that come in during the spring to catch migratory fish, it looks like the Serengeti of prey birds.

You have access to pretty much the entire park, as well as other parcels that aren’t necessarily part of the James River Park System. If you are a cyclist and you want to travel the main route you can park at Tredegar Street, you can cross over at Belle Isle, over to the 21st Street Tower in the main area of the park. Buttermilk Trail is at the top of the tower and takes you all the way to the Boulevard Bridge. The sister trail, the North Bank Trail will take you all the way back to Tredegar Street, which is roughly an eight-and-a-half-mile journey. You can add on to that by tacking on all the little park areas in between or go further along the river all the way down to the 14th Street take out.

Snorkeling, the best time for that is the July-August time frame when the James gets really low and crystal clear. At the bottom of the fall line around the 14th Street Bridge you can sit on the edge of these big pools and some large fish will come up and check you out. It’s super cool! The water is biologically very diverse. You get things like blue crabs and saltwater species that come all the way up from the to there, so you get a great mix of things you get to explore and see.

Apart from the James River Park System, where else do you enjoy doing outdoor recreation? What do you like to do there?

We always go up to the mountains around Sherando Lake. It’s probably the closest mountain experience you can get to Richmond. It’s about an hour and a half west of the City. There’s a lake there with mountains up behind it. The Blue Ridge Parkway is on the other side of the range. They have all kinds of camping. You can swim at the lake and fish. I can ride my mountain bike or take the family for a hike. It’s got a little bit of everything.

I like going to Shenandoah National Park, George Washington and Jefferson National Forest quite frequently, and we love to get out to the Chesapeake Bay. I’m from Tappahannock so we go out to Gwynn’s Island a lot and visit friends in Deltaville. We love being outside, whether it’s by the Bay, along the river, or up in the mountains. There is a lot to explore in Virginia.

If you wanted to get away for a weekend in the Chesapeake, where would you like to go that you have never gone before and why do you want to go there?
I want to go to Tangier Island. My wife and I have talked about it. A good friend of mine has been out there a bunch of times and told us about us. We want to see it before it disappears into the Bay. I want to explore the island and experience the culture and hopefully get some good food.

What's your favorite place in the Chesapeake to visit?

It has to be Gwynn’s Island. We really enjoy going to Gwynn’s Island. It’s an area that has lost a bit of its heritage, so it has reimagined itself. I think a lot of people go there for vacations and we have gone there as a family frequently for weeklong stays. My wife had eaten crabs before, but she never knew how to catch crabs or clean crabs. Now when we go we put out the crab pots and have a good old time catching them and I got to show my wife and family how to cook them and how to properly eat them. It’s great.

Blue Ridge Parkway

A Blue Ridge Parkway experience is unlike any other, a slow-paced and relaxing drive revealing stunning long-range vistas and close-up views of the rugged mountains and pastoral landscapes of the Appalachian Highlands.

Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park is your escape to recreation and re-creation. Cascading waterfalls, spectacular vistas, quiet wooded hollows—plan a hike, a meander along Skyline Drive, or a picnic with the family.

Peter Turcik

Peter is the managing editor for the American Fisheries Society's magazine, Fisheries, and a contributor to FishTalk Magazine. He has a writing, editing, and photography background that includes work for the Chesapeake Conservancy, Trib Total Media, the National Geographic Society, and the National Park Service. Peter is an avid and passionate kayak and light tackle angler.

October 30, 2017

Main image: When it comes to the James River Park System, few people know it as well as Nathan Burrell.
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