Help stop the spread of COVID-19 and follow all current directives from your governor and local health officials about wearing face masks and physical distancing.
A note about COVID-19 and visiting parks: Help stop the spread of COVID-19 and follow all current directives from your governor and local health officials about wearing face masks and physical distancing.
Nestled in a wide bend of the James River, Powhatan State Park is all about the classic gentle landscapes of the Virginia piedmont. Green forests border rolling open fields, while a lazy river forms the park’s northern boundary. The James meanders here, wide and deep enough to make for easy paddling, yet still narrow enough to be able to shout across.
Powhatan is best known by locals as an ideal spot for a cool river float on a warm day. Anglers, paddlers, and tubers take advantage of the park’s three launch sites. While the river draws in many of the visitors, there is so much more to explore, explains Powhatan State Park Manager Matthew O’Quinn.
“It’s one of the most ecologically diverse parks in Virginia. It’s only 1,600 acres, but when you go from one end of the park to the other it doesn’t even seem like the same place,” O’Quinn told me.
“You can stand in the middle of a field and spot hawks, or count the stars at night. Down by the river there are vernal pools that remind me of coastal Virginia. Hike back up through the forest along the Gold Dust Trail and you can imagine you’re in the mountains,” O’Quinn said. “It’s so different depending on your perspective of the park.”
This newer state park, just west of Richmond, is one of my favorite nearby spots to get away from it all. It never feels crowded, despite having much to offer for nature lovers.
My most recent visit was on an incredibly peaceful October day. Walking by the meadows in the evening, the light turned golden. The drying grasses in the fields glowed amber with red and yellow highlights. A chorus of cricket and grasshopper song blanketed the air.
These open spaces recall the site’s history. The land was once a plantation, and more recently formed part of the Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center. In those days, there were dairy and poultry operations here, while crops were grown in these very same fields to produce food for people at the correctional center. Tom Lawrence, who worked at Beaumont in the late 1960s and early 1970s, recalls those days in an excellent online account, Memories Before Powhatan State Park.
Today, those fields have turned into meadows where a wide range of native plants flourish, which in turn nourish pollinators and a host of wildlife. Songbirds feed on the many seeds and plants produced there. In turn, hawks hunt in the skies above for small birds and rabbits. The open feel and abundant wildlife makes the park popular for birdwatchers, O’Quinn said.
At night, the wide open skies and lack of nearby light pollution attracts stargazers, and has made Powhatan State Park a stop for The Richmond Astronomical Society. You don’t have to be even an amateur astronomer to enjoy, as my family can attest. Despite our lack of astronomical knowledge, one clear night last fall my wife and young son and I loved searching for planets and constellations in the star-studded sky above – a huge treat for us city dwellers.
Of course, stargazing is best enjoyed on an overnight trip. The park's tidy new drive-in campground offers plenty of secluded sites and three yurts for rent. Powhatan’s canoe-in primitive campsites offer an even closer-to-nature experience for those who are up for hiking or paddling in their gear.
For hikers, the 8 miles of trails are pleasant strolls that cover a variety of terrain – from the pine and hardwood uplands on the Big Woods and Pine trails to the intimate water views along the James.
My favorite loop starts in open meadows on the Turkey Trail, then plunges into bottomland woods. Hitting the James, turn right on River Trail and follow the flow of the James until you intersect with the Gold Dust Trail. Hike up the ravine through some of the prettiest forests you’ll find in Central Virginia, and then turn right again through the meadows to return to your starting point. The three-mile hike passes through several different habitats – making for a fairly easy, yet satisfying hike.
Whether for a lazy river float, a quiet walk, or a night counting shooting stars, Powhatan State Park’s tranquil setting offers a lot to all of us who love a low-key day out in nature.