Second Place: James River Park System and trails
Third Place: Pocahontas State Park
Long ago, a lady in Oregon Hill told us Belle Isle was cursed. She was pretty vehement about it, probably because it was 10 a.m. and she was deep into a 12-pack of Natty Bo Light. But we think she was right, considering this little island in the James was a wretched prisoner-of-war camp during the Civil War, where as many as a thousand Union soldiers starved, froze and died. Dark past notwithstanding, Belle Isle has become a delightful oasis and Richmonders' favorite place to get out and sweat. This petite island packs a lot of topography into 54 acres: meadows, woods, rock cliffs and a quarry pond. You can watch paddlers wipe out on the nearby rapids and herons fish in the shallows. In the winter, it can feel eerily deserted. In summer, it's alive with bikers, strollers, dog walkers and sunbathers. Hikers can hop off the well-marked trails to explore abandoned industrial buildings, while runners make the island part of a long loop that includes the Canal Walk. The sweeping James River Park System gives hikers a chance to walk as much as nine miles while remaining in the heart of the city. And Pocahontas State Park is so enormous — nearly 8,000 wooded acres with 80 miles of trails — it's difficult to believe it's right there in Chesterfield.