Photo courtesy of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation
Looking for some open-air adventure without a long schlep down the highway? You're in luck — there's a huge playground in Richmond's backyard.
At nearly 8,000 acres, Pocahontas State Park boasts a mother lode of activities — even more amazing when you consider that it's just 20 miles from downtown in one of the state's fastest-growing counties.
"I wish I knew the miles upon miles I've hiked in Pocahontas," says Will Bagby, a Chesterfield County elementary school teacher and regular park visitor. "I also wish I knew the number of times I fell in a stream, ran from a snake, lost gallons of sweat or had the bejesus scared out of me by a deer or raccoon."
No doubt, there is wildness afoot — and more. Whether you spend a few hours or a week at the park, we have some suggestions for you.
Mountain biking is huge at Pocahontas, and cyclists tackle the trails year-round. In the spring, the Columbia Muddy Buddy race, a 6.5-mile slog through various terrain by bike and foot, draws hundreds of participants who revel in a big face full of mud at the finish line. In addition, Pocahontas is one of only nine locations in the country to host a race in the Merrell Down & Dirty National Mud Run series (held in August).
There are other ways to work up a healthy sweat that don't involve glop. During the summer, take a midnight canoe expedition and then roast marshmallows over an open fire. Or rent a horse at a nearby farm and explore miles of trails.
You can also clean up with a dip in the lakes, or check out the aquatic recreation center, which includes a kids' play area.
Geocaching is one of today's most popular activities, and Pocahontas has plenty to offer. Coordinates are entered into a handheld GPS, and participants follow the signal toward the hidden cache (which can be a logbook and container with small gifts or surprises). If you don't have your own GPS, the park rents them out for a small fee.
Bagby and his wife, Lynn, are avid geocachers. "When we first started geocaching, we pulled up the map on the park and saw there were more than 50 geocaches in the park. We thought it would be an amazing feat to find them all."
It took them a year, but they succeeded. "Every so often someone will place a new cache there, and we will hurry to find it so we can always have the park ‘cached-out,' " he says.
Pocahontas' nature center offers year-round programs. Feed the reptiles, make wreaths with natural materials, go on a hike to identify foliage or take an owl prowl at night.
But you can learn about more than nature — the park reflects an important part of America's history, too. Pocahontas State Park was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a work force of young men who built public facilities across the nation between 1933 and 1942. They built 800 state parks, including six in Virginia (Pocahontas was built as a national demonstration area between 1935 and 1937, and it was given to the state in 1946).
Throughout the park are reminders of this history, but the story of 3 million Depression-scarred boys who joined the CCC to improve the nation is tied up neatly at the CCC Museum.
Lois Moore is the museum's curator. "I feel privileged to share these stories with people today, because a lot of children aren't taught about this anymore," she says. Moore has been a fixture at Pocahontas since 1980, when she and her husband ran the concessionaire at the swimming pool. "Back then, a lot of the men who had built the camps would stop by the park. They would still ask if there was anything they could do to help."
"A lot of people are doing nontraditional weddings," says Pocahontas office manager Louise Woolard, who has plenty of suggestions for romantic park locales. "It's cheaper, and it's more personal."
Whether it's in a field of wildflowers or a 1930s-era wooden lodge with fireplace, there are ample spots to personalize weddings. Couples have the option of getting a liquor license and having a full-blown affair, or keeping it low-key.
Family reunions are another big event at the park, with some popular spots booking up a year in advance.
Get Some Shuteye
The campground was upgraded and expanded a few years ago. Drive through and you'll see license plates from all over the country — and quite a few from Virginia. "Some people come here from just five miles away," says Zoe Rogers, the park's visitor services specialist. "They can go home and let the dog out and then come back and sleep."
Charles and Diane King, who live in Chesterfield, have been volunteer camp hosts for a month or two each year for nearly a decade. They zip about the campground in a golf cart, greeting guests, offering advice and making friends.
"You meet such interesting people from all over the world," says Diane.
Charles ticks off recent visitors from these countries: Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Denmark, England. He says visitors are often impressed with Pocahontas' facilities and its array of activities.
The park couldn't survive without the hundreds of volunteers who serve as camp hosts and goodwill ambassadors, and those who clear the 80-plus miles of trails, clean up litter and pitch in for special events.
An active Friends of Pocahontas State Park group splits and sells firewood, and it was vital in post-Hurricane Irene cleanup.
The summer concert series at the amphitheater draws thousands.
But even some friendly folks enjoy the solitude at Pocahontas. "One of my favorite moments was when we were there and it began to snow," says Bagby. "The whole park became so quiet and peaceful. It was almost sacred."
Facts about Pocahontas State Park
• Total acreage: 7,950
• Location: Off State Route 655, near the intersection of Route 288 and Iron Bridge Road in Chesterfield County
• In 1742, King George II granted much of the current parkland to Stephen Gill for 4 pounds, 10 shillings. Gill's descendants sold the land to the federal government in the 1930s for $5,187.74.
• The Bright Hope Railroad, which began operation in 1877, once crossed the park. The former Fendley's Station now serves as the park office.
• There are no bears (or lions or tigers)
at the park. But there are deer, turkeys,
raccoons and other critters.
• Fish in the two lakes include largemouth bass, crappie, bluegill and trout.
• Thirteen home sites and 18 cemeteries have been identified with the park; most date back to the 1800s.