Discover nature parks in Portsmouth, Virginia. In this article, you learn about safe things to do for free at Portsmouth City Park, Paradise Creek Nature Park, and Hoffler Creek Wildlife Preserve, all natural settings in the middle of urban Hampton Roads.
“The boondocks” is an American expression from the Tagalog word bundók (“mountain”). It originally referred to a remote rural area. Urban boondocks are places within a city that make you feel you’re no longer in the city, a place to breathe and let your imagination be inspired by nature. During the current COVID-19 Pandemic and at this time of self-isolation, getting outside and doing things alone or with family or a friend, goes a long way toward maintaining sanity amid the madness.
PORTSMOUTH CITY PARK
Portsmouth’s City Park is a 93-acre nature park in Portsmouth, Virginia located on the Western Branch of the Elizabeth River. It features a waterfront riverwalk, complimentary boat ramps for power boats, jet skies, sailing vessels, and kayaks. There are two playgrounds and the Pokey Smokey train that offers rides on weekends. Skateboarding, tennis, and a 9-hole executive golf course with a 30 station driving range are also available. City Park is located at 5 Cpl J. M. Williams Avenue.
Picnic with a View
There are a number of shelters available throughout the park for groups up to 200 people (by reservation). But there are plenty of family shelters offered on a first-come-first-served basis and each includes its own grill. During the pandemic, this is a great opportunity to pick up food to-go from a local restaurant and bring it out to the park to enjoy with your family, or anyone with whom you’re self-isolating – fresh air, beautiful views, and a private area away from others – just what the doctor ordered.
Smell the Spring Blooms
Spring is a beautiful time to walk through the Friendship Garden and explore the variety of blooms. As leaves return the the trees, you find azalea bushes, laurels, and many other perennials to enjoy. See how many varieties you can identify, plus there’s a beautiful water feature in the middle of the garden where you might see geese, ducks, and other water birds bathing among the blooms.
Stroll the Riverwalk
Portsmouth is well known for its Olde Towne Seawall, but the Riverwalk is a much more rustic seawall, a sidewalk along the shoreline at City Park. The perimeter trail follows the river along the eastern edge of the park and it passes reed and sea grass beds that serve as the home to small turtles and other sea life. You can connect the Riverwalk to the Friendship Garden and extend the length of your trek.
City Park has four regulation size tennis courts. Courts are used on a first-come-first-served basis and there are lights for evening play. Tennis is a sport that may be played during this era of COVID-19. Staying on opposite sides of the net should keep you safe. Just remember, no fist bumping after the game! The Washington Post published a good article on staying safe while engaging in physical activity. See Outdoor Sports.
As you walk along the Riverwalk, you arrive at a large pier stretching out into Baines Creek, a tributary for the Western Branch of the Elizabeth. The 220-foot long, 10-foot wide, T-shaped pier opened in 2016. It’s common to catch spot, croaker, puppy drum, and trout from the end of the pier and there are even lowered railings to accommodate fishing from a wheel chair. If you’re not into fishing, you can still take a walk out to the end and enjoy the panoramic view of the Western Branch, watch for seabirds, or look for passing boats. There are also two 50 foot piers on either side, great for launching kayaks and canoes.
PARADISE CREEK NATURE PARK
Paradise Creek Nature Park in Portsmouth, Virginia provides the rare opportunity to enjoy a restored Elizabeth River – first-hand. This 40-acre, waterfront park teaches generations what it takes to bring back the health of an urban river, once presumed dead. Two miles of trails lead visitors through an urban forest under revitalization, 11 acres of new tidal wetlands, and past industrial partners all doing their part to bring back the River Elizabeth. Visitors enjoy both songbirds and waterfowl returning to this oasis of peace each year. Paradise Creek Nature Park is located at 1141 Victory Boulevard.
Take an Art Walk
Sunlight flickers on the stainless steel sculpture that now greets visitors to Paradise Creek Nature Park upon arrival. The artwork isn’t typical of a nature park – no eagle or butterfly or other form of wildlife. It portrays two workers exerting muscle to raise a crane and some would say this is more a tribute to the city’s industrial heritage, especially the storied shipyard down the street. And, in part, they would be right. As you walk or ride your bike through the park, you encounter a variety of art installations, many provided by Support Portsmouth Public Art. Some are obvious while others, like these bats in the tree are harder to find, so keep your eyes open and see how many pieces of the collection you can discover.
Look for Birds
More than 160 species of Birds have been identified in Paradise Creek Nature Park thanks to the tens of thousands of native plants and trees planted by volunteers and school children since 2012. Some of the birds you might encounter include Eagles, Osprey, Herons, Snowy egrets, Ibises, Gulls, Ducks, Plovers, Catbirds (pictured), Finches, Cardinals, and more. With 2 miles of walking trails and a variety of habitats, you’re certain to spot something interesting each time you visit this nature park in Portsmouth, Virginia.
Paddle the Wetland Trail
A handicap accessible kayak launch is now open at the park for non-motorized vessels, so bring your kayak or canoe and explore 11 acres of the restored wetlands that open into Paradise Creek. You need to carry your vessel a short distance from the far end of the parking lot. Wear a hat, and bring sunscreen, wear closed toe shoes and bring plenty of water so you can enjoy a leisurely paddle through this unique and teeming ecosystem that survives in a mostly industrial habitat.
HOFFLER CREEK WILDLIFE PRESERVE
Hoffler Creek Wildlife Preserve is a beautiful nature park in Portsmouth, Virginia and functions to conserve the last parcel of wilderness in the Hoffler Creek Watershed consistent with good stewardship for environmental education, research, and recreation. The Preserve is a 142-acre haven at the mouth of the James River, connecting to the Chesapeake Bay through the safe harbor of the Hampton Roads. The preserve borders Hoffler Creek, named after Revolutionary War militia Captain William Hoffler, and the entire area is steeped in rich history. Amenities include five hiking trails, kayaking rentals (starting in May), three bird blinds, a lakeside observation deck, a marshland observation deck, and more, all centered around Lake Ballard, a man-made lake of brackish water and a one mile shoreline. Hoffler Creek Wildlife Preserve is located at 4510 Twin Pines Road.
Hike Lake Ballard Loop
Lake Ballard Trail is the main highway at Hoffler Creek Wildlife Preserve both for you and for the wildlife living there. This one-mile loop road connects you with diverse communities of plants and animals. When you visit, you enter their habitat, their neighborhood, which is filled with everything they need to live and raise their young. To meet some of these fascinating creatures, you need to walk slowly and quietly and be alert. You just might catch a glimpse of a fox, a deer, a groundhog, a river otter, or maybe a black rat snake, to name a few. And, be sure to stop at all the overlooks on Lake Ballard to see what aquatic life you can discover.
Count the Frogs
…or the turtles, or the woodpeckers, or the deer, or the butterflies….make a game of noting wildlife in their natural habitat. There are so many varieties of wildlife throughout the Preserve, you pretty much have your choice. See who can spot the most number of animals. Make a list of the animals you spot. And if you are truly interested in counting frogs, you might very well see some leopard frogs, green and gray tree frogs, pickeral frogs, and cricket frogs. Who knew there were that many types of frogs in one place?
Just a reminder, no biking, jogging or pets allowed at the Preserve, only low impact activities. The preserve is open Tuesday-Sunday 10-4, and admission is free. Donations are greatly appreciated. Kayak rentals available starting in May.
About Portsmouth, Virginia
Visit Portsmouth Virginia! The city is located in southeastern Virginia. A part of the Hampton Roads community of cites, Portsmouth is 30 minutes from the Virginia Beach oceanfront, less than an hour from Williamsburg, and we share a waterfront with downtown Norfolk. Don’t miss this Coastal Virginia treasure with its collection of antique homes spanning three centuries, its eclectic assortment of hip shops, edgy nightlife, and saucy, one-of-a-kind restaurants. Olde Towne is walkable, from the Children’s Museum of Virginia to the historic park at Fort Nelson and everywhere in between. Just park the car or show up by boat and head out on foot to explore this funky and friendly little city. Looking for a photo op? Take a walk on the Seawall at night and check out the best city light show in all of Hampton Roads. Portsmouth is a groovy little seaport with a happening art scene and an awesome music pavilion featuring the hottest touring bands. When you’re done with Olde Towne, take a ride to Midtown, Churchland, Truxton, Port Norfolk or any of our other historic communities and see what other offbeat places you can discover. Better yet, visit one of our public golf courses or one of our beautiful nature parks hidden throughout this urban setting. Portsmouth is a laidback old city and a fantastic place to hang out for a day, a weekend, or even a lifetime.