Hiking On The Road (Northern Virginia)

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A bend in Quantico Creek at Prince William Forest Park

This blog has been quiet for a few weeks.  When you’re out of town, whether for business or vacation, you can easily get locked in to indoor spaces because of the comfort of a hotel room or the challenge of unfamiliar surroundings, particularly in a place that seems like it’s hopelessly locked in suburban sprawl.  But that would be a shame, as there are always new trails to explore via hiking and/or trail running which may hold surprisingly different flora and fauna.

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Bird’s nest at Locust Shade Park

I spent a few weeks in northern Virginia, and found that there are wild spaces to be found- not as wild as Maine, but still beautiful and historic, and blooming in what seemed to be a full season ahead of the Northeast.  I used the All Trails app, National Park Service, state and county government websites, and word-of-mouth to find parks.  Here are a few:

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South Valley Trail to North Valley Trail at Prince William Forest Park

Prince William Forest Park

A $7 admission fee (according to signs at the park, it was scheduled to go to $10 as of May 1, 2018, but I believe this was rolled back) gets you entrance to a beautiful forest sanctuary in Triangle, VA with miles of trails (see official park map here).  I chose a fairly aggressive loop from the Visitor Center parking lot, using the Laurel, South Valley and North Valley Trails, Burma Road, Scenic Drive, Oak Ridge and (again) South Valley and Laurel Trails to create a tour of the park that spanned almost 15 miles.

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Like the other trails and parks I will describe below, this park appeared to have sustained heavy trail damage from storms, and trail crews had been busy.  The loop took me through rolling hills, and included waterfalls, dogwood blossoms, and a large variety of wildflowers.

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There were also animals to be found, including birds, butterflies, frogs, and what looked like a large water snake (I had no idea what “large” was- more on that at Mason Neck).

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This was a beautiful, uncrowded, quiet park, minutes from terrible I-95 traffic and shopping malls, and a welcome respite.  Originally built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) as the Chopawamsic Recreational Demonstration Area (RDA), it is a triumph of land management, including the reclamation of an old pyrite mine and its former pollution of the surrounding streams.

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View from the Observation Blind overlooking Kane’s Creek at Mason Neck State Park

Mason Neck State Park

Mason Neck, located in Lorton, VA, is a peninsula on the Potomac River, with miles of hiking trails (see park map here), and water/paddling activities available, as part of the Occoquan Water Trail.  Again, $7 for out-of-state residents.  I was there on a weekday evening, and took the Kane’s Creek (1.2 mi) and Eagle Spur (1.29 mi) Trails, as well as the Bayview Trail (1.02 mi).  This is a place to see bald eagles, and an observation blind sits at the end of the Eagle Spur Trail.

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Bayview Trail, Mason Neck State Park

I didn’t see any eagles or osprey.  What I ended up seeing on the Bayview Trail were snakes.  Lots of snakes.  Big water snakes.

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But I didn’t bother the snakes, and they didn’t bother me.  Mason Neck is, again, right next to the I-95 corridor, but a beautiful, well-maintained park.  Each trail has its own self-guided tour, with brochures available at the map/kiosk next to each trailhead, and plenty of green space and benches to enjoy the scenery.


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Sunset at Locust Shade

Locust Shade Park

Locust Shade Park is sandwiched between I-95 and U.S. Route One, but has some great trails in between, with a listed length of four miles (see map here), full of birds, flowers, and lizards.  A word of caution – the AllTrails app appears to have this trail transposed a mile or so to the east, which would put someone who used the app for navigation at the gates of the Quantico Marine base.

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Yeah, you can see I-95 from the trails at Locust Shade

I visited this park in the late afternoon, and the nearby highway was jammed with traffic, making me feel lucky to walk or run on trails.  The terrain was rolling, with a few hills and streams, and made for a pleasant hike, rather than the usual rocky challenge of Maine trails.  The trail also has a Fitness Trail loop, with self-guided stations for exercises.

One thing that makes Locust Shade special is its proximity to the National Museum of the Marine Corps, and the Locust Shade trails connect at their northeast terminus to the silent looping trails of memorials winding around the museum by the side of well-laid brick walkways.  Nobody does tradition like the Marine Corps.

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Evening light at Locust Shade Park

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Trail Map at Government Island

Government Island

Government Island is a small park and historic site, originally a quarry purchased for the federal government in 1791 by Pierre L’Enfant, where freestone was extracted for construction of the White House and the Capitol.  Navigation using Google Maps can be difficult, but using the physical address, 191 Coal Landing Road, Stafford, Virginia, seemed to work.

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Admission is free, and the trails are only about a 1.5 mile out and back loop around the island on Aquia Creek (see the trail map above), full of birds and trees.

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Overlooking Aquia Creek from Government Island

So, next time you find yourself somewhere different with time on your hands, look up a trail, and start walking.  You never know what you might see.