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.
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.
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.