Hiking Amid Wetlands And Wildlife

Observant hikers may spot a river otter in the wetland. Photo by Ed Eider.

Observant hikers may spot a river otter in the wetland. Photo by Ed Eider.

One of the largest parks in the Fairfax County Park Authority system is not, generally speaking, a hiking or biking park. Oh, there are trails at Huntley Meadows Park, but it’s not the place to take off blazing new paths through a woods. There are only two short miles of trails, but they are a celebration of wildlife watching and nature photography.

Fairfax County has more than 500 miles of trails ranging from the paved and noisy biking path alongside the Fairfax County Parkway to the isolated, steep, rugged stretches of hillside climbs at Scott’s Run. There’s the lakeside jaunt around Burke Lake, the South Run Stream Valley mix of wide, paved paths and narrow twists of dirt. There are the horse trails of The Turner Farm and Laurel Hill. Among the others, of course, is the 40-mile Gerry Connolly Cross County Trail. Our mapping tool, Trail Buddy, will help you find an appropriate hiking, biking, equestrian or wildlife watching trail.

Then there’s Huntley Meadows. There’s nothing else quite like it in the county because it is home to the largest non-tidal marsh in Northern Virginia. The very sensitive ecosystem that comprises the park, especially its central wetland, is rare habitat in this area. The forests, wildflower-dotted meadows and cleansing wetlands of the park draw rich numbers of wildlife, and the half-mile boardwalk that traverses the wetlands is the reason for this area’s claim as the best place in Northern Virginia to watch wildlife.

The boardwalk at Huntley Meadows leads visitors into the heart of the wetland.

The boardwalk at Huntley Meadows leads visitors into the heart of the wetland.

That boardwalk is the key to hiking in Huntley Meadows. First, it is ADA accessible, which opens this world of wildlife to all comers. It runs right through the heart of the wetlands, which means when you visit, look up to the sky, down into the waters and mud, left and right across the fields and away into the woods. There’s wildlife large and small to be seen in the distance and, sometimes, right under your feet. It’s a wildlife photographer’s utopia.

The $3 million dollar wetland restoration project was recently completed at Huntley Meadows.

The $3 million dollar wetland restoration project was recently completed at Huntley Meadows.

It’s a pretty utopian place for wildlife, too. The wetland, part of an area once carved by the Potomac River, underwent a major restoration in the past two years, and the result is a prime wetland that is attracting an increasing number of wildlife and welcoming the return of species that had abandoned the park prior to the restoration. Huntley’s 1,500 acres now include the wetland, woodlands, a visitor center, and a historic house built by a grandson of George Mason that is located nearby.

Because of the sensitive ecosystem and the numerous animals, the park’s hiking options are both unique and restricted in order to protect natural resources. That means we ask visitors using the ADA accessible boardwalk and observing wildlife to leave bikes and dogs behind. The boardwalk doesn’t have safe space for cyclists and a dog in the wetland, even quiet and on a leash, scares the park’s locally rare bird species. Studies show that even silent dogs on a leash can reduce breeding bird populations by more than 40% because birds see them as predators. Just a few dogs in the wetland could convince the park’s rails, bitterns and grebes to move on and nest elsewhere. Dogs, litter and loud music on park viewing platforms threaten and disturb the wildlife and therefore should not be a part of any visit to this site.

One of the ways to approach the central wetland is via the park’s one-mile Hike-Bike Trail, an easy and flat path that is excellent for small children. It’s not an appropriate place for speed/racing bikes or for mountain biking, and we ask those who bike in the park to ride responsibly and stay on the trail. Leaving the trail could land you on fragile conservation areas among ground nesting birds and slow-growing woodland wildflowers, and the park’s salamanders and forest frogs can all be devastated by a few off-trail bike trips. That fragility is actually true for most of the park’s forest, meadow and stream trails, which is why park personnel ask that you stay on the established trails and blaze no new ones.

Huntley Meadows also differs from other parks in Fairfax County in that there are no large loop trails. It’s not a park designed for long-distance, cardio workouts. The park’s trails are relatively short and designed with two main goals in mind – getting you close to wildlife for observation and protecting sensitive conservation areas. When viewed and visited with that understanding, Huntley Meadows is indeed a special type of hiking/biking park.

Written by Dave Ochs, manager of Stewardship Communications for the Park Authority’s Resource Management Division, and based on notes from Huntley Meadows Park manager Kevin Munroe.

After 22 years of planning, 60 public meetings, and a cutting-edge design and construction process, the wetland at Huntley Meadows Park in Alexandria, Va., has been restored. The Fairfax County Park Authority invites the public to attend the grand opening Saturday, May 10, 2014 from 10 a.m. to noon.

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About Fairfax County Park Authority

HISTORY: On December 6, 1950, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors created the Fairfax County Park Authority. The Park Authority was authorized to make decisions concerning land acquisition, park development and operations in Fairfax County, Virginia. To date, 11 park bond referenda have been approved between 1959 and 2008. Another Park Bond Referendum will be held in November 2012. Today, the Park Authority has 420 parks on approximately 23,168 acres of land. We offer 371 miles of trails, our most popular amenity. FACILITIES: The Park System is the primary public mechanism in Fairfax County for the preservation of environmentally sensitive land and resources, areas of historic significance and the provision of recreational facilities and services including: o Nine indoor RECenters with swimming pools, fitness rooms, gyms and class spaces. Cub Run features an indoor water park and on-site naturalist. o Eight golf courses including Laurel Hill, our newest, upscale course and clubhouse located in Southern Fairfax County o Five nature and visitor centers. Also seven Off-Leash Dog Activity areas o Several lakes including Lake Fairfax, Lake Accotink and Burke Lake, with campgrounds at Burke Lake and Lake Fairfax o The Water Mine Family Swimmin’ Hole at Lake Fairfax, Our Special Harbor Sprayground at Lee as well as an indoor water park at Cub Run RECenter o Clemyjontri Park, a fully accessible playground in Great Falls featuring two acres of family friendly fun and a carousel o An ice skating rink at Mount Vernon RECenter and the Skate Park in Wakefield Park adjacent to Audrey Moore RECenter o Kidwell Farm, a working farm of the 1930s era at Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, now with historic carousel o Eight distinctive historic properties available for rent o A working grist mill at Colvin Run in Great Falls and a restored 18th century home at Sully Historic Site in Chantilly o A horticulture center at Green Spring Gardens in Annandale o Natural and cultural resources protected by the Natural Resource Management Plan and Cultural Resource Plans, plus an Invasive Management Area program that targets alien plants and utilizes volunteers in restoring native vegetation throughout our community o Picnic shelters, tennis courts, miniature golf courses, disc golf courses, off-leash dog parks, amphitheaters, a marina, kayaking/canoeing center o Provides 274 athletic fields, including 30 synthetic turf fields, and manages athletic field maintenance services at 500 school athletic fields PARK AUTHORITY BOARD: • A 12-member citizen board, appointed by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, sets policies and priorities for the Fairfax County Park Authority. Visit http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/news2/social-hub/ for Fairfax County Government's Comment Policy.

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