Posts Tagged ‘Pony Pasture’

Taking ownership of Pony Pasture

Crowds at Pony Pasture Rapids Park in Richmond, Va.Pony Pasture Rapids Park is an urban paradise for many. A cheap way to make the best of one’s day for those that can’t afford a trip to the beach or don’t have the time to leave the city for a vacation.

The exposed granite boulders are a big draw for Richmond’s rock hoppers and sunbathers. Family gatherings are as popular as inner tubing, kayaking, swimming, fishing and partying.

But there are many people who take the pristine park conditions for granted. It takes a lot of work to keep human interference from tarnishing Pony Pasture’s natural beauty.  Between the James River Park System’s staff and the many volunteers and dedicated park-goers, the work gets done.

I am one of those proud people and Pony Pasture Rapids Park is now my park. Actually, many people own the park, and taking ownership is encouraged. After all my years of using the park, I’m now volunteering my time to maintain it and defend it from those that abuse it.

Aluminum cans left at Pony Pasture Rapids Park in Richmond, Va.I spent five hours clearing trash and helping people park cars at the west Richmond park on the hottest day of the summer. The official high that day was 105 degrees, beating the record of 99 for July 25. Didn’t matter, the park was packed.

I can claim four garbage bags worth of trash and recycling. I had help, as people who saw me coming with my trash bag would volunteer things they had collected from the river. It was good to have children helping a little, especially with aluminum cans.

Other than all the of senseless disposal of diapers all over the place, the worst part of clearing trash was a six-pack of glass bottles smashed on the rocks.  That malicious act took the longest to clean. I also found an enclave of more than 80 cans, bottles, boxes and food containers that was about as bad as it gets. The worst part was that a trash can was only 15 feet away. Trash in, trash out people.

Cigarette butts left at Pony Pasture Rapids Park in Richmond, Va.I think the cigarette butts were the most disappointing thing I found. Smokers know better and should be prepared to clean up after themselves.  I found 70-plus butts in one spot. The location suggested to me that it was obviously a good spot to see nature more than people-watch and I was disgusted by the lack of respect for the outdoors.

Parking is another issue at Pony Pasture. Between 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. on most summer weekends, the lot gets full and the park system workers and volunteers help manage the flow of cars into the park and keep everyone happy, according to park manager Ralph White.

Lines for the parking lot at Pony Pasture Rapids Park in Richmond, Va.By 3:30 p.m., the line to get into the lot was 20 cars deep and the wait was about 20 minutes. The lot — which is the largest in the park system — has 80 parking spaces but can be expanded with creative management to 110 spaces, White said.

“In the early ‘80s, riff-raff was so bad, people petitioned to have the park closed – twice,” White said. The Pagans and Hell’s Angels motorcycle gangs were a big part of the problem, he said — doing donuts with motorcycles in the gravel, smashing car windows, starting fights, drinking, doing drugs, womanizing, etc.

Pony Pasture was a rowdy and untamed place in those days and citizens weren’t happy, but the park was never permanently closed.

That was a long time ago. The park seems to be more popular now than ever and keeping peace and harmony for a diverse and multiculural crowd on a hot day is beneficial to everyone. 

“It’s a parks issue, not a police issue,” White said. Having the parks department and volunteers run the parking lots at peak hours frees police from having to dedicate several cars to patrolling the park.

White said Richmond police usually dedicates one unit to Pony Pasture on the weekends.

“There is no one breaking into cars or starting fights… and everyone gets along much better,” White said. Having attendants manage the parking lot at peak hours has helped ease tensions and people seem to respect the park more now.

While I was there, the police mostly concerned themselves with the cars in line for the parking lot that blocked westbound Riverside Drive. There were no calls for Emergency Medical Services, no rescues, no arrests that I saw.  Everyone was getting along, despite the close quarters, heat and huge crowds.

There were at least seven volunteers, including a two couples that lived near the park that like to ensure that their neighborhood is well-maintained. Another young man volunteered in the park all day doing whatever the parks department had for him. He is a regular and has taken ownership of his Pony Pasture.

I will continue to volunteer. The afternoon didn’t seem like work.  I was earning time to enjoy my James River. 

If you see something you don’t like about any city park, take action. Take ownership. Make the park yours.

Find out how to help the James River Park System or any of the volunteer groups: Friends of the James River, James River Outdoor Coalition and the City of Richmond’s Department of Parks, Recreation & Community Facilities.

Granite rocks are a big draw to Pony Pasture Rapids Park in Richmond, Va.


Dusk vs. dawn on the James

Dusk vs. dawn. Vibrant colors and distinct features on one hand and shadows and blinding sunlight on the other. 

I had the pleasure of two distinctly different points of view over the same James River water course — from Pony Pasture Rapids down to Reedy Creek. One late in the evening and the other just after dawn, with both trips offering challenges and appealing features.

The physical aspects and timing of the two were the same. The visuals, however, were extremely different and each trip had their own flavor.

James River Railway Bridge at duskFor the evening trip, my brother-in-law, Mark Pruett, and I left from Pony Pasture at around 7:30 p.m. The sun was already setting, and immediately we knew it would be a good run. I had never paddled the James that late in the day and was amazed by the colors brought out by the angle of the sun, which is behind you as you head east down river. The trees, rocks, bridges were so distinctive and colorful. It was beautiful.

I’ve provided a shot of the James River Railway Bridge (also known as the Atlantic Coast Line Railway Bridge or Belt Line Bridge) to show the coloring at that time of day — around 8:10 p.m. with sundown at around 8:40 p.m.

James River Railway Bridge at dawnFor the morning run, my friend George McCurrach and I put in at 6:30 a.m., before I had to go to work. The sun was rising in front of us and was at times blinding.  Obviously the colors were dimmed or lost in shadows. The temperature that morning was already near 80 degrees so there was no morning mist or fog to give the river any eerie appearances.

The James River Railway Bridge was again a feature, but very different colors were on display in the morning. This photo was taken at around 7:10 a.m. and the sun came up at around 6 a.m.

For better photographic opportunities and the fact that I wasn’t blinded, I’d choose an evening run. A morning run sets the day up nicely and gives me the rest of the day to work and live life (despite the sleep deprivation).  

It is still a toss-up, though in general I prefer paddling in the morning — watching nature wake up is generally more exciting than shutting down for the night.

In either case, the sun’s low position in the sky caused a lot of glare on the water, hiding many large boulders lurking just inches below the glassy surface.  We bumped plenty of unseen rocks on both trips.

Camping on the James River during fireworksOne great thing about our morning run was that it was the morning after Independence Day and we saw several camps on the islands east of the James River Railway Bridge — the ideal location to watch fireworks and experience the outdoors.

It wasn’t ideal in 2006, when at least a dozen people gathered on the rocks on the river near the Boulevard Bridge were attacked and robbed by a group of teenagers with rocks and bats during the July 4th fireworks at Dogwood Dell. That smirch or our city has made many people cautious about being on the river during fireworks. It was great to see these folks there and I’m sure they had the best seat for the Dogwood Dell show.

Raging waters in James river at 13 feet

Pony Pasture

A bench at Pony Pasture. Where are the rocks?

The past two days, I’ve taken back what little pleasure can be recovered from all the excessive rains we have had in Central Virginia the past week or more. All the rain flowed eventually down to the mighty James river and has given us all plenty to gawk at and be amazed by. 

Thursday, Pony Pasture was loud and the water was high.  Much more impressive than I thought it would be, considering that in early November we were “treated” to a ton of rain from the Nor’easter that threatened to force the Richmond marathon to re-route away from Riverside Drive. 

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Water was just two feet shy of cresting over the take out steps at Pony Pasture

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Water closed the River Trail. This trash can is normally about 25 feet away from the riverbank.

The water was up over portions of the River Trail at Pony Pasture, so I stayed near the parking area. It was loud! So loud that I could hear the river in my car with the windows closed.

* * *

On Friday, with the James at its peak at more than 13 feet, I ventured to Belle Isle via the walkway at Southside.

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Southside rocks at Belle Isle -- usually just a trickle of water at normal levels

Again, I could hear the river from where I parked at the Riverfront Towers. Loud. Like “train-passing-by” kind of loud.

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I love seeing water pouring over the VEPCO dam -- such power!

Water everywhere, in places that rarely get water at normal levels. It was great seeing (again) water flowing over the VEPCO dam on the Southside of Belle Isle.

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Bridge over the mill race was cut off by high water

In fact some of my favorite spots to watch the river were cut off by the high water. I love the mill race along the south shore of the James that runs along the Goat Islands down from the James River Park System visitor center and Reedy Creek takeout. I tried to get over to see the VEPCO dam for a great view of Hollywood Cemetery contrasting with the huge river, but couldn’t risk it in the cold.

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Water spilling over retaining wall above the VEPCO dam

The water was over some of the retaining walls, something I hadn’t seen before. I kept thinking about how much driftwood was shifting, how much trash would have to be picked up, how many paddlers were drooling at the sights of all that white water and above all — how much I DID NOT want to fall in the river.

Days like this were made for parents to freak out with little kids next to raging waters and the thoughts of how easy a tiny trip or slip could be fatal.  Watch, but be safe!

Pony Pasture in the fall

I would have missed Pony Pasture this fall if the sun hadn’t come out yesterday. I wanted to get out two weeks ago when I was writing about the Best walks to see fall foliage in Richmond. The leaves are dropping fast now that our hard rains have come and the winds that swept the clouds away are quickly knocking them off the trees.

If you have a chance, get out for a walk at Pony Pasture [slideshow], The Wetlands [slideshow] or along Riverside Drive. Any time of year is good, but the leaves this Autumn have been out of this world.


Williams Island looking quite colorful across from Pony Pasture


Pony Pasture is so peaceful in the fall


Ducks rest on the rocks


A fine mixture of leaf stew

Best walks to see fall foliage in Richmond

Autumn is one of the best times to be outdoors in Richmond. The humidity and heat are gone and the air is cooler. It’s the perfect time to go for a walk and watch the leaves turn color.

Trees in Forest Hill Park, another good place to see fall folliage

Trees in Forest Hill Park, another good place to see fall folliage

The Virginia Department of Forestry says that the peak of fall colors for the Richmond area will be in early November, so you have time to plan your walks. Of course, I have some suggestions.

Monument Avenue is the only street in the country to be designated a National History Landmark. Besides the iconic statues and grand homes, the thing that accents the avenue so well are it’s magnificent trees.  Walking in the median is probably the best vantage point and the area between Confederate generals J.E.B. Stuart and Robert E. Lee is probably best if you want to make the most of your time. 
Jefferson Davis statue on Monument Avenue

Jefferson Davis statue on Monument Avenue

While you’re there: Monument Avenue [slideshow] is located in the Fan District, and you can make you walk that much more enjoyable by heading down any street in The Fan — a neighborhood known for post-Victorian architecture and tree-lined avenues.

Confederate monument at Hollywood Cemetery

Confederate monument at Hollywood Cemetery

The outdoor art museum that is Hollywood Cemetery is always a good place to visit, but the fall is the most visually appropriate. Seeing the fall colors contrasted with the gray granite statues and monuments throughout the rolling hills of the historic cemetery makes the visit a must for a walker interested in Richmond’s past.

While you’re there: Hollywood Cemetery [slideshow] is in Richmond’s Oregon Hill neighborhood and a walk through the streets toward the James River overlook or the nearby Virginia Commonwealth University campus are worthwhile.

I’m partial to the James River Park System, and there are three parks of note for long walks when you’re seeking Autumn leaves in a natural setting.

Pony Pasture [slideshow] and The Wetlands [slideshow] are a great walk and the views of the wild river here are tough to beat. The bonus here is the interior of the trails to The Wetlands. There are many hardwoods and plenty of winding trails to satisfy your color-seeking desires.

Leaves along the millrace at the Main Section of the JRPS

Leaves along the millrace at the Main Section of the JRPS

The Main Section (42nd Street to some) has one long primary trail along portions of the banks of the James. The hardwoods here are dominated by Sycamore, which tend to drop their leaves earlier than most, but the views across the river more than make up for the missing leaves.

What you’re seeing across the river is North Bank Park. It is much more rustic than the other two JRPS properties I mentioned, but its location on the north bank of the James means the sunlight is less interrupted and/or blocked by the hillsides above the parks along Westover Hills and Stratford Hills, as this is the time of year the sun is in the southern hemisphere. 

While you’re there: Watch out for mountain bikers, especially in North Bank and if you choose to walk along the Buttermilk Trail in the Main Section. has some good information on fall travel, including one of my favorite’s, Pocahontas State Park. As for biological answer to why leaves change color, the Department of Forestry has a good answer:

Most leaf colors are already in the plant leaf.

  • Chlorophyll gives leaves their familiar green color.
  • Carotenoids produce yellow, orange, and brown colors.
  • Anthocyanins add color to red apples, blueberries, cherries, strawberries, and plums. They are water soluble and appear in the watery liquid of leaf cells.

Both chlorophyll and carotenoids are present in the chloroplasts of leaf cells throughout the growing season. During this time, chlorophyll is produced and broken down and leaves appear green. As days get shorter, chlorophyll production slows down until it stops. The green color is no longer visible, and other pigments present (carotenoids) with the chlorophyll are then revealed. During autumn, bright light and excess plant sugars produce anthocyanins within leaf cells.

For more on this year’s fall foliage, see Andrew Freiden’s story at

The Carillon in Richmond's Byrd Park

The Carillon in Richmond's Byrd Park

Williams Island and Warren Foster

Warren Foster

Warren Foster

Have you ever found yourself walking, running, biking or paddling along Riverside Drive near Pony Pasture and wanted to know more about that big island across the river?

That’s Williams Island. A 95-acre blend of nature, history and serenity [see slideshow].

Richmonder Warren Foster adopted the portage trail in Spring of 2007.  He even has his own brown park sign at the head of the trail. He gets out there early most mornings to play a little, see the island and maybe work on the trail.

“Sunrise is the best time to see the island,” Foster said.  “I go our there all the time … I know that portage trail gets used a lot.”

He assumes there is a lot of fisherman that use the trail, and walk along the edge of island.

“Evidentially there’s good fishing there,” Foster said.

The island has always been a popular fishing spot, according to Ralph White, park manager for the James River Park System. There are worn foot paths through the wild underbrush all around the island, most likely “maintained” and shared by a combination of fisherman and wildlife.

The relatively flat and heavily vegetated Williams Island is in the middle of the James River. There are two distinctly different channels to the north and south of the island and both are blocked by dams, built to help divert water into the city’s purification plant.

On the south side, most people are familiar with the highly visible Z-dam.  According to the Falls of the James, by David Ryan, it was rebuilt in 1932, replacing a dam of loose rocks. It was altered with a 30-foot notch in 1993 to allow migratory fish species such as shad, river herring and striped bass to swim upstream.

The north channel is much more peaceful and calm, with the serenity broken up only by the occasional train.  The dam was constructed in 1905 and begins at the northeast shore of the island and runs across the river to a portion of the north bank known as “Dead Man’s Hill,” as documented by Ryan.

There used to be a gravel pit and stone quarry on the island, which extended to the south bank of the river along Riverside Drive, according to White.  The stone was carried across the James to the Kanawha Canal and ported down river.

An interesting feature that adventurous people can see today is an archway beneath the train tracks on the north bank below a spillway on the canal. “There was a crane there, and they would load stone and quarry rocks to sail them to downtown … before the railroad was there,” Foster said. 

“The neat thing about Williams Island is the nature,” Foster said. “One day, a river otter came walking up, stopped, looked up at me and just walked off. They normally stay in the water, so that was cool.”

He has seen herds of deer, fox and birds.  “I’ve been told there’s a bear but I haven’t seen him.”

White confirmed, saying that Williams Island has a small male black bear.  He also noted that there used to be an albino deer that made Williams Island it’s home.  Other animals include raccoons, muskrat, skunk and wild turkey.

Maybe someone (or something) else is out there?

“There was series of big prints around the [portage] trail,” Foster said. “I have all these pictures.  I think there’s big foot out there.”

“There is a greater purpose to my work at Williams Island,” Foster said of his care for the portage trail. “I’d like to see it become part of the James River Park System.”

According to White, Williams Island belongs to the City of Richmond Public Utilities Department, but is under the care of the JRPS. 

Public utilities has given the JRPS permission to maintain the island and the general public is allowed to visit the island and the surroundings.  When the water levels of the James are low, people can often reach the island easier by rock hopping.

“We’d like it included as a wildlife refuge,” White said.  He illustrated this by saying that when you look at a color map of the river, Williams Island appears in white, not the familiar green that show that it is park land.

“I’d like to see [Williams Island] be green on a map.”

But under the current arrangement, would the island ever get too much people traffic?

“That’s the beauty of it, you have to want to get there,” Foster said, noting that one would have to swim, paddle or rock-climb to get to the island.  “I don’t think it would ever get over-visited.”

 NOTE: This article was reprinted from the RTD.