A Passel of Parks

New outdoor spaces across the Commonwealth help Virginia recharge.

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Paradise Creek Nature Park is an oasis on the industrial Portsmouth waterfront. Summer visitors walk through trails lined with wildflowers, kayak, take part in educational classes, and view reclaimed wetlands reflected in the gleaming sculptures of Scottish environmental artist Rob Mulholland.

It wasn’t always like this. Marjorie Mayfield Jackson recalls the first time she saw the site, two decades ago. “It was called the mudflats,” she recalls. Heavily polluted mud choked the wetlands on the Elizabeth River. The area was too densely overgrown to enter. Intrepid volunteers who ventured into the thickets of invasive reeds found junk. “We found an entire Volkswagen and pulled out hundreds of tires,” Mayfield Jackson recalls.

In 1991, increasingly concerned about the pollution of the Elizabeth River in Hampton Roads, Mayfield Jackson quit her job as a writer for The Virginian-Pilot to form the nonprofit Elizabeth River Project with several friends.

The challenges were immense. “Scientists were having a contest over who could catch the most deformed fish. The community had written the river off as dead,” she says. The Norfolk Naval Shipyard had dumped sandblast grit into the creek through two world wars, and three nearby landfills were identified as “Superfund” sites by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Mayfield Jackson and the ERP worked with the Navy to clean up the sites and secure public access, and raised funds and donations to buy the property. In 2012, the City of Portsmouth opened the 40-acre Paradise Creek Nature Park, which the ERP continues to manage and develop.

Ongoing improvements at the park include the Mulholland sculptures in 2017 and the Fred W. Beazley River Academy a year later. Last year, volunteers created a garden of shade-tolerant plants around a newly discovered giant elm tree. The group is working to create a trail linking the park’s paths to Chesapeake’s new Elizabeth River Park. And, thanks to a new donation, ERP will be doubling the size of its education headquarters at the park, constructing a new home port for its Dominion Energy Learning Barge, building a lab to demonstrate environmental resilience to sea level rise, and continuing restoration at the park. ParadiseCreek.ElizabethRiver.org

Historic Fredericksburg is also rediscovering its waterfront. When the city was originally founded, says city manager Timothy Baroody, “the development faced the river. We reversed that over the last century with the automobile. We are now going back to our roots to face the river. We are just months away from opening up a signature park that will be an attraction for the greater Fredericksburg region.”

Riverfront Park, located along Sophia Street in Historic Downtown, will include event space, play areas, a history walk, and river access. It is the area’s first “smart park,” with Wi-Fi available in phase one and infrastructure in place to add an information kiosk, a stage, and environmental sensors. The park will open later this year.

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Occoquan Bay Virginia Living

In addition, Baroody says Riverfront Park and 10 trails will connect Fredericksburg to other parts of the state. The city is on the East Coast Greenway—a trail network that will eventually run from Maine to Florida, connecting 450 cities and towns, like an urban Appalachian Trail. The Virginia Central Railway Trail in Fredericksburg is already part of the network.

The Greenway added nearly eight miles to its length in Virginia last year with several new segments in Prince William County. They join 15 other segments in the state. “Virginia is only 25 percent complete. We have a way to go but we have some momentum, particularly in the Richmond area,” says Sarah Sanford, the Virginia and North Carolina coordinator for the Greenway.

Governor Ralph Northam launched the 52-mile “Fall Line Trail” in October 2020. It will link Ashland and Petersburg, traveling through Henrico, Richmond, and Chesterfield, providing a route for commuters on bicycles as well as recreational users, Sanford says. Greenway.org

Two new state parks are in the works. Virginia’s 40th, Machicomoco State Park, is due to open in Gloucester County this year. “Honoring the tribal history of Virginia and telling the stories of Virginia Indians is critically important in our endeavor to create a more inclusive and equitable Commonwealth,” Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew J. Strickler said in a media release. The park is close to the former village of Werowocomoco, once the home of Pocahontas and her father, Chief Powhatan, and will tell the story of Virginia’s Indians.

Across the state, David Collett grew up swim- ming, fishing, camping, and floating on the Clinch River. As the western field operations manager for Virginia State Parks, he is responsible for developing Virginia’s first “blue way” state park along the river. Instead of a contiguous piece of land, Clinch River State Park, Virginia’s 41st, will consist of 640 acres divided among several anchor properties connected by river access points.

The idea began in the 1980s as a “vision to create public recreation and economic development opportunities along one of the most biologically diverse river systems in North America.” The Clinch boasts more than 50 species of mussels, more than any other river in the world, and more than 100 non-game fish, according to the state.

The park’s Sugar Hill Unit in St. Paul is currently open with nearly nine miles of trails and two miles of river frontage. Additional anchor units are under development. DCR.Virginia.gov

This article originally appeared in the June 2021 issue.

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