It is difficult to define the word “paradise” because it means something unique to everyone. To me, paradise is an isolated cabin in the Colorado wilderness. To you, it might be a white sandy beach beside turquoise waters in the Caribbean.
But paradise also can be found at a wooded site on Victory Blvd. between Norfolk Naval Shipyard (NNSY) and St. Juliens Creek Annex, where 40 acres of restored forest and once-spoiled wetlands form Paradise Creek Nature Park, a lush sanctuary on the edge of Portsmouth’s urban sprawl.
I drive past the park every day during my commute to work but never quite realized exactly what was hiding across the street from the historic Cradock neighborhood. Dense vegetation obscures the entrance; and when I visited one Sunday morning in August, I nearly missed the turn.
I parked my car in the gravel parking lot and the first thing I noticed was a statue of two steel workers made using metal from ships disassembled at a nearby scrap yard. The sculpture represents the delicate balance between industry and nature on the Elizabeth River, a theme that resonates throughout the park.
After a quick glance at the map, I decided to begin my adventure at the main entrance. There are two miles of well-marked gravel paths, all of which are named after various flora and fauna. You can walk or bike your way through the park, and dogs are welcome as long as they are leashed.
I kept my eyes peeled for wildlife and followed Otter Trail beneath overcast skies around the park’s perimeter past the handicap-accessible kayak launch and Wetland Learning Lab, two of the many features designed to encourage community recreation and education.
The Elizabeth River Project (ERP) has been working since 2001 to restore Paradise Creek, a small tributary on the southern branch of the Elizabeth River. The river has served as one of the greatest industrial harbors for four centuries, and hastened by human development, became one of the most polluted.
While there is no escaping the area’s commercial roots, and even though neighboring boat repair shops, energy plants, and heavy machinery are visible from virtually every angle, the park is a gleaming example of just how resilient the environment can be.
During spring, summer and fall, the park offers self-guided wildflower walks, and the wetlands provide ample opportunity for songbird and waterfowl sightings. Acres of invasive species were cut down, and there are now more than 10,000 native trees, shrubs and flowers throughout the revitalized forest. The ERP also facilitates park programs like clear-bottom kayak tours, ranger walks, and a Great Migration Bird Walk.
The network of marshy waterways, which used to be covered with mud dredged from the river, is now a wildlife refuge offering a picturesque backdrop for educational programs and public leisure.
If you’d like to explore from the water but don’t own your own kayak, NNSY’s Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) at Scott Center Annex offers equipment rentals for both military and civilian employees.
Much of the north shore of Paradise Creek served as a Norfolk Naval Shipyard landfill from World War II until 1983. The shipyard, working in collaboration with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, celebrated the Navy’s completion of restoration activities Aug. 23, culminating 36 years of investigation and remediation.
Otter Trail ended at the park’s Wetland Footbridge, where I enjoyed a scenic view of Paradise Creek with Norfolk Naval Shipyard and the South Norfolk Jordan Bridge on the horizon. I continued on Fox Trail, which loops around the north end of the park. Connector trails provide easy access to bench-lined Wildflower, Songbird, Blue Heron, and Osprey Trails, which zig and zag through swaying trees, tangled vines, and thick undergrowth, making it easy to forget our bustling shipyard is just across the river.
My morning at the park was peaceful and offered a reprieve, however brief, from the asphalt suburbs that cover most of Hampton Roads. So whether you are seeking a lunchtime respite or an educational weekend activity for the family, I encourage you to check out Paradise Creek Nature Park.
You can find a map and more information about Paradise Creek Nature Park at http://www.ParadiseCreekPark.org.
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in Norfolk Naval Shipyard’s monthly magazine, Service to the Fleet.