© 2006 Virginia Review, LLC

Green Education

Northern Virginia Regional Commission Publishes Guide to Recreational Trails in Northern Virginia

By Barbara J. Gordon

Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very far.

Thomas Jefferson
Second Virginia Governor, Third US President, Trail Blazer

Whether it’s jogging for exercise, pushing a baby stroller through a park, biking to work, riding a horse, bird watching, or walking with friends, many residents and visitors enjoy the hundreds of miles of recreational trails in Northern Virginia. People also benefit from the dozens of miles of on–road designated bicycle routes and the many trail systems for hikers, walkers, bicyclists and in some areas, horseback riders. Since the trails are operated by various local, regional, state and federal agencies, how can residents learn about where the trails are located and the different kinds of trails? The Northern Virginia Regional Commission has taken the lead in creating a guide to the more than 380 miles (220 local and 162 regional miles of trail) of recreational trails in the area.

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Marshall Miller & Associates
Hiking is one of America’s fastest growing recreational activities, and according to the American Hiking Society, almost one third of AmericansŚmore than 73 million peopleŚwent hiking in a recent 12 month period. According to a recent survey of state residents by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, walking for pleasure is the number one outdoor recreational activity. Seventy percent of Virginians participate in this activity regularly. In addition, one in five surveyed indicated that they bicycle, jog or run. When asked to name the most sought after outdoor opportunity, access to trails for hiking, biking and walking ranked second, with half the respondents indicating that more trail facilities were needed.

According to a study by the Outdoor Industry Association, bicycling ranked first, trail running ranked second, and hiking ranked fourth nationally as the top recreational outings based on usage in 2005. Hiking is often associated with backcountry recreation, but as trail use grows, more recreational trails are being developed near population centers as communities recognize the economic, social and health benefits of trails and hiking. The 1992 Virginia Outdoors Survey, conducted by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, indicates that many Virginians recreate within 20 to 30 minutes of their home. Trails can provide close to home, accessible recreation with health benefits, non–polluting transportation routes, and more.

In response to the growing interest in outdoor recreational opportunities, the Northern Virginia Regional Commission published An Introductory Guide to Recreational Trails in Northern Virginia that includes 19 maps of 24 trails with information on each location and types of nearby facilities.

“Recreational trails connect people to local outdoor resources and provide a fun way to improve their quality of life,” said Barbara A. Favola, chair of the Northern Virginia Regional Commission and a member of the Arlington County Board. “Hitting the trail with family or friends is a great way to get exercise and enjoy the countryside in Northern Virginia,” she said.

“Trails provide one of the primary means for citizens to enjoy the many oases of green in the region,” said G. Mark Gibb, NVRC Executive Director. “While trails are used for a variety of recreational purposes, they also serve the community by providing a connection as transportation corridors between homes, businesses, schools, historic sites and parks. The NVRC was pleased to work with the local government, regional, state and federal agencies in preparing the Guide to Recreational Trails,” he said.

Bird watching is growing in popularity and many of the region’s trails offer great opportunities to capture the beauty of wildlife.

The Northern Virginia Regional Commission (NVRC) and the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation researched and published the guide with assistance from the National Park Service, Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail Office, and the Virginia Trails Association. The guide provides an introduction to the most popular Northern Virginia trails, but it is not an exhaustive list.

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Types of trails highlighted in the guide include hiking, biking, equestrian, interpretive and historic trails. The level of difficulty varies from easy to difficult. The length of trails ranges from about one mile long for an interpretive trail in Balls Bluff Regional Park, Leesburg, to the 45 mile rail to trail Washington & Old Dominion (W&OD) Railroad Regional Park, the longest continuous trail in Northern Virginia. The W&OD, which follows the bed of the abandoned Washington and Old Dominion Railroad, stretches from the urban areas of Arlington County near the Potomac River to the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains in Loudoun County.

Both Balls Bluff and W&OD trails are managed by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority ( www.nvrpa.org). Other trails in the guide are operated by the National Park Service ( www.nps.gov), Arlington County (www.arlingtonva.us), City of Alexandria (www.alexandriava.gov), Fairfax County ( www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks), Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation ( www.dcr.state.va.us/parks), and the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club ( www.patac.net). A complete list of NVRC member governments and their contact information is at the end of this article.

Each separate, trail–by–trail map in the guide includes three primary types of information: a narrative description of the trail, a map, and a trail elevation profile. The narrative section is a general description of the trail facility and the location of the primary access point or the park in which the trail is located. The narrative also includes an assessment of the level of difficulty, major attractions along the route, surface type and trail length.

The trail maps highlight trail access points (trail heads), parking, and facilities located along and within the trail vicinity. The editors provided the most recent and accurate information at the time of publication, but some trail courses may differ slightly to the information in the guide due to a variety of factors such as changes in development near the trails and weather impacts.

The elevation profiles are approximations based on 1:24,000 United States Geological Survey maps. These profiles give the user a general sense of a trail’s gain or loss of elevation, steepness of slopes and the general difficulty of the trail.

The guide lists Guidelines for Sharing Trails, a compilation of safety and courtesy rules promoted by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority and the International Mountain Bike Association. Guidelines include: use open trails; avoid trespassing on private property; use reasonable speed when cycling (trails are not racetracks); cyclers should give audible warnings and yield to horses and pedestrians. The trail guide is published in an attractive, easy to use format that allows the user to carry individual maps with them while hiking, biking or horseback riding. Trifolded maps fit easily into saddlebags, hip pockets or backpacks.

The Introductory Guide to Recreational Trails in Northern Virginia can be ordered from NVRC by mailing an order form available on www.novaregion.org (click on publications), or by visiting the NVRC offices, 3060 Williams Drive, Suite 510, Fairfax, VA 22031. Call 703.642.0700 for more information. Each Guide costs $9.95 each plus shipping and handling and discounts are available when multiple guides are purchased.

The Introductory Guide to Recreational Trails in Northern Virginia is also sold at Northern Virginia–area bicycle stores. Editor of the guide is Doug Pickford, NVRC Director of Environmental and Heritage Resources.

The W&O Trail is Northern Virginia’s most popular linear park, attracting all ages and trail user groups. Here, equestrians and bicyclists coexist peacefully in a generous trail system that is enjoyed by the public all year long.

Many of the trails in the Guide to Recreational Trails have recently been designated part of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail that is planned as a network of trails between the mouth of the Potomac River and the forks of the Ohio River. Based on a vision for a continuous network of foot trails and bicycling routes in the Potomac River corridor, local governments and regional agencies are developing and seeking designations for segments of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail. This spring, the National Park Service recognized five trails as components of the developing network:

These trails complement other segments of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail network, including the 17–mile Mount Vernon Trail and the ten mile Potomac Heritage Trail along the George Washington Memorial Parkway. The US Secretary of the Interior designated the Potomac River Water Trail (one of 24 national scenic and historic trails in the National Trails System) a National Recreation Trail, joining a list that includes the W&OD Trail. For more information about the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail see www.nps.gov/pohe. A Hiker’s Guide to the Potomac Heritage Trail is available at www.potomactrace.org.

In addition to the contact information listed above, recreational trail information is available from other trail organizations and their websites:

For more information about the Introductory Guide to Recreational Trails in Northern Virginia, contact Doug Pickford, director of environmental and heritage Resources, NVRC, dpickford at novaregion.org or (703) 642.4623.

A list of NVRC member governments and contact information for their local recreation facilities including trails is as follows:

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