Posts Tagged ‘National Recreation Trail’

The Washington & Old Dominion Rail Trail

The Washington & Old Dominion Rail Trail

The Washington & Old Dominion Railroad Regional Park is one of the skinniest but one of the longest parks in the commonwealth of Virginia. It is a regional park in Northern Virginia that is 44.8 miles long but only about 100 feet wide. The park encompasses the Washington & Old Dominion (W&OD) Railroad Trail, which is a nearly 45-mile asphalt-surfaced paved rail trail that runs through densely populated urban and suburban communities like the villages of Falls Church and Leesburg, high-tech centers such as Reston and Herndon, as well as through rural areas. The park and its trails are administered and maintained by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority (NVRPA), with the assistance of The Friends of the Washington and Old Dominion Trail, a non-profit citizens organization dedicated to the preservation, enhancement and promotion of the trail.

The W&OD Trail begins in the Shirlington neighborhood of Arlington County, Virginia, near the intersection of South Shirlington Road and South Four Mile Run Drive (MAP).  At its trailhead, it connects to the paved Four Mile Run Trail, which travels eastward through Arlington along a stream embankment to meet the Mount Vernon Trail at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, near the Potomac River. This makes it easily accessible via the 14th Street Bridge for riders from D.C.  In fact, with the ability to then connect to the Rock Creek Park Trail, and then the Chesapeak & Ohio Canal and Towpath and the Great Alleghany Passage, it is possisble to travel from Purcelville to D.C., and then all the way to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a distance of 380 miles, entirely on trails without ever having to encounter cars or other motorized vehicle traffic.

The trail takes its name from the former Washington and Old Dominion Railroad, whose trains ran along the right-of-way from 1859 until 1968. The trail now travels on top of the rail bed of the former railroad. When the railroad ceased operations, the local power company bought the right-of-way for its electric power lines. After years of trying, the NVRPA was eventually able to acquire the use of sections of the railroad right-of-way for the trail. The first section of the W&OD Trail was opened in 1974 within the City of Falls Church. The multiuse trail proved to be so popular that the remaining sections were built, until its completion to Purcellville in 1988. The final section of the trail and near Arlington’s Bluemont Park was finally added in 2002. But even before its completion, it proved to be so popular that in 1987 the W&OD was designated a National Recreation Trail by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Along the trail are numerous attractions and sites to keep the ride interesting, including several former railroad stations and cabooses, as well as bridges, museums, an old lime kiln, stores, bike shops, and old Victorian houses visible from the trail. Numerous streams, wetlands, overlooks, culverts, and green spaces are also located along the W&OD, which are home a variety of plant life, including hundreds of species of wildflowers. Over 100 species of birds, as well as mammals such as foxes, river otters and beavers, and reptiles such as turtles and snakes also inhabit these areas. With few hills, the W&OD Trail is a perfect venue for a bike outing. And in stark contrast to riding in D.C., there is no vehicle traffic along the entire route.

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Fort Circle Park National Recreation Trail

Fort Circle Park National Recreation Trail

The Fort Circle Trail is what’s known as a hiker-biker trail, and follows along part of a route connecting historic sites that are collectively known as The Civil War Defenses of Washington.  The seven-mile trail passes through four of D.C.’s dozens of Civil War era forts which were originally built to defend bridges, naval installations, Capitol Hill and the rest of the city from likely approaches by Confederate rebels through southern Maryland during the Civil War.  Trail end points are at Bruce Place (Fort Stanton) in southeast D.C. (MAP), where I entered the trail on this ride, and at 42nd Street (Fort Mahan) in northeast D.C., where I ended.

The Fort Circle Trail contains surprising expanses of natural open spaces in what is otherwise a highly urban area.  It runs along the traces of old roadways, as well as through forests which are thick with oaks, beech, maples, and pine.  It can also get overgrown with vegetation at times along the route.  There are a few busy road crossings too, and navigating the starts and stops can sometimes get tricky if a rider is not paying attention.  The trail’s surface is mostly natural earth, with some improved sections which are paved with asphalt.  Be aware that the natural surface areas can also get muddy after heavy rains.  But the trail is signed in most places and easy to follow.

The Fort Circle Park National Recreation Trail was designated in June of 1971, and was one of the first National Recreation Trails.  It is administered by the National Park Service, and is part of the larger American Discovery Trail as it winds its way from Chesapeake Bay to Georgetown, as well as the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail, whose 425 miles of trail stretch between the Chesapeake Bay and the Allegheny Highlands.

The Fort Circle Park National Recreation Trail is unique in that it is the only natural-surface trail within the D.C. city limits that allows mountain bikes.  In fact, a good way to see the trail is on mountain bike guided tours that are offered on the last Saturday of the month during warmer weather, and are lead by a Park Service ranger.  And if you don’t have a bike, the National Park Service will even provide one for you with advanced notice.

Whether you happen upon it like I did and explore the trail at your own pace, or plan ahead and take a tour guided by a ranger from the National Park Service, the Fort Circle Trail is unique among D.C.’s many trails, and worth experiencing in whatever way you choose.

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