Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Washington & Old Dominion Trail in Virginia

A trail made just for me (and you)
The Washington & Old Dominion Trail

(Published in Spokes, September, 2006)

(Photos courtesy of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority)

Some folks just complain about the traffic in Northern Virginia because the roads are crowded and the highways are gridlocked. However, I seem to fly as I head west towards Loudoun County. Whether heading to work in Ashburn or to lunch in Purcellville, my trip from Falls Church is relatively stress free as I cycle on the Washington & Old Dominion Rail Trail.

The Washington & Old Dominion trail is many different things to its diverse users. For some it is a social multi-use trail where dogs are walked, baby carriages are pushed, and friends are met. To others it is place to walk, run, inline skate, or bike. While some just like to stroll along and bird watch or observe the wildflowers grow, others use it as a car free commuter route.

When I moved to Falls Church in 1970, the W&OD right-of-way was just a former railroad bed with high voltage lines. Little did I realize that this old railroad right-of-way would eventually become a place for my recreation and exercise. Over the years I have spent lots of time walking, running, and cycling on the W&OD. Last year about one half of my 3000 cycling miles were on this trail.

The Trail

The W&OD trail is noted for being a rails-to-trails success story and is used by more than 2 million people annually. The trail runs through a 100 foot-wide and 45-mile long park that is owned and operated by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. The paved trial stretches the entire length of the park from Shirlington to Purcellville as it passes through the communities of Arlington, Falls Church, Dun Loring, Vienna, Reston, Herndon, Sterling, Ashburn, Leesburg, and Hamilton. The park also offers a 32-mile gravel trail that serves horseback riders, mountain bikers, and walkers.

The W&OD trail was built on the rail bed of the Washington and Old Dominion Railroad, which operated from 1859 to 1968. After the railroad terminated operations in 1968 the right-of-way was bought by Virginia Electric and Power Company for its electric power transmission lines. A cooperative agreement allowed the Regional Park Authority to open the initial Falls Church section of the trail in 1974. This section proved to be popular and in 1977 the Regional Park Authority agreed to purchase the entire property in stages. By 1982 the purchase was complete and by 1988 the entire trail was paved from Shirlington to Purcellville. Over the years the trail has been widened to 10 feet and other enhancement projects are completed annually.

Head Down Cycling

For those cyclists that like to put their head down and crank out the miles, the W&OD’s 45 miles of paved trail has many stretches of 1 to 2 miles without street crossings. While we would all like the 45 miles to be crossing free, the reality is that crossings do exist and many of the busy ones have over/under passes or traffic lights to aide crossing. The trail also has some longer stretches. For example the section between Columbia Pike in Arlington and Falls Church is about 4 miles of uninterrupted trail. However, Falls Church has lots of street crossings but once on the other side you will find many sections of a mile or two until you leave Vienna. West of Vienna the trail provides another long stretch of about 3 miles of continuous cycling until you reach Hunter Mill Road. Because of reduced traffic at the western end of the trail, those street crossings are quicker and make the trail sections seem longer. However before dropping down on their handle bars, cyclist need to remember:

Ø The trail is not a bike trail but a multiple use trail and cyclist must always yield to other trail users.
Ø The recommended speed limit on the trail is15 mph.
Ø For their own safety, all trail users must stop at all street crossings.

Trail’s Natural Setting

Sometimes we all feel overwhelmed by our urban setting. Every where we look we see high-rise buildings, commercial development, and McMansions replacing our parents’ 50 year-old homes. The W&OD trail is an oasis of nature in the midst of all this chaos. I have many favorite sections of the trail that take me back to my “country boy” roots. Rather than do any of them injustice by trying to list them in some order of importance, I’ll describe them from east to west. Please forgive me, if I end up saying that each of them is my favorite; but they all are.

Cycling west from Shirlington the first 1.5 miles the W&OD runs through a well-developed area with commercial and high-density housing and a few busy street crossings. However, as soon as you cross over Columbia Pike the trail becomes immersed in a larger park that provides a more country feel. Furthermore, off to the left and down by the stream is the parallel Four Mile Run Trail.

Not to long ago, sections of the W&OD trail west of Columbia Pike used the Four Mile Run trail. It is well worth your time to cycle this trail. It offers the joys of a country road that twists and turns into short climbs and quick descents. It is a much slower ride and takes you into the woods and through some streams. By comparison the new section of the W&OD is like a major highway with its straighter lines and gradual inclines.

If you continue west on the W&OD you will also find that nature abounds in this section. Just west of mile marker 2 is the newly built Sparrow Pond and educational display. Not too much farther (just west of Long Branch Creek) is a path off to the left that takes you to the Long Branch Nature Center. Next the W&OD will take you through Bluemont Park (which offers, railroad history, drinking water, rest rooms and for those with more energy than I, it has some great tennis courts). After going under Wilson Boulevard, you will find the Bon Air Rose Garden. Years ago I gave up growing roses so I really enjoy the beauty and fragrance of this garden. It is especially grand about the middle of June.

The section of trail just west of Vienna is undoubtedly my favorite. Starting at mile marker 12, the trail is 3 miles of uninterrupted cycling through natural wetlands. Along this stretch I frequently see deer and a wide variety of birds. In the early mornings the deer stand along the trail and nonchalantly watch cyclist go by. Also blue birds are making a return to this area and bring out many bird watchers in the early mornings. Other interesting birds can also be seen including redwing black birds, gold finches, and buzzards. I like to think of myself as an enduring cyclist but I often wonder if those buzzards are waiting for me to make my return trip. In the springtime this section of the trail is almost deafening as the frogs sing their love songs and the birds call out to passing cyclists.

Further west, the trail offers more rural settings with farms and wooded areas. Just west of Ashburn the trail passes over Goose Creek, Sycolin Creek, and Tuscarora Creek. Recently I saw several huge turtles sun bathing on a log just under the bridge over Goose Creek. On the western side of Leesburg and the most of the remaining 10 miles to Purcellville the trail is heavily canopied with large trees.

While most of the W&OD trail shares the right-of-way with high voltage power lines, the section from Leesburg to Purcellville does not. However, that may change. Despite a multi-year effort to save the trees along the trail, they may have to be cut down if this right-of-way is approved for power lines. This is not the first controversy between the power company and trail users and neighbors. During 2005, the power company clear cut all the large trees from around its power lines on the rest of the trail. They wanted to prevent storm-damaged trees from disrupting service. Needless to say, this position was met with lots of opposition.

Another interesting site in the western section is the Quarry Overlook (just east of Goose Creek). While some call this man-made cavernous hole a “rape of nature,” others are fascinated to see how the earth is put together. Whether you love or hate it, the Quarry overlook is a great rest stop.

Historical Sites and Markers

Despite “progress” some of the original W&OD Railroad infrastructure remains. Several stations and cabooses can be found along the trail. Some of the stations have been restored and are being used for various activities. In addition the Park has honored the trail’s railroad history by using the W&OD’s inverted triangle logo and with the placement of many trail side photo displays. Other historical (non-railroad) sites can also be found along the trail and in nearby communities. An hour-long video/DVD describing the history of the W&OD can be purchased from the trail office or from the Friends of the W&OD web page (

Train stations can be found along the trail in Vienna, Reston, Herndon, and Purcellville. Cabooses are located at Bluemont, Vienna, and Herndon. A freight depot that used to be part of the railroad in Leesburg has been moved several blocks away to a commercial area called Market Station. (This station’s former location is marked with an interpretive panel with a photo.) The Purcellville station has been restored and is owned and managed by the Town of Purcellville.

The station in Vienna is just west of Maple Avenue (Route 123) and is being used by a local model railroad club. The club offers several open house activities that allow the public to view their real life miniature world. Just opposite of this station, there is a large mural painted on an adjacent building depicting Vienna’s railroad history. Vienna’s caboose is located just east of the station.

The small Reston station is located on the western side of Old Reston Avenue. This building is one of several railroad buildings that made up this railroad stop. To learn more about this location just stop at the sheltered rest stop and view the photo display and narrative. If you are lucky you may meet up with Quentin, a semi-retired gentleman who picks up litter at this popular spot. Because Quentin lived in this area when the trail was a railroad, his narrative can transform the old photos into current times. He likes to point out where the tracks once ran and where the freight station stood. He will tell you that the remaining station building once housed the stationmaster and the gazebo in the photo is the same one still standing behind the station. According to Quentin, this location was called Sunset Hills and its primary purpose was to serve the Virginia Gentleman Distillery (their brick warehouse still stands one short block up Old Reston Avenue). Quentin is also eager to tell stories about the “old days” and the times he and his friends hopped slow moving freight trains in the morning and rode “all the way into Falls Church for a day out.”

The Herndon railroad station has been restored and serves as a visitor’s center and museum. This museum has displays of the town’s history with the railroad and the civil war. A caboose is also located near here. (For those who quickly tire of history, there is a Dairy Queen across the street from the caboose. While I don’t tire of the history I also don’t need an excuse to get ice cream.)

Another interesting, but easily missed railroad artifact is the “Station One Mile” sign in Falls Church. This sign is one of a few original makers remaining and is located just west of Little Falls Street.

Besides the railroad, the trail offers many other historical sites worth exploring. For example, one of the original Washington, DC boundary stones lies at the border of Falls Church. After you go under Roosevelt Blvd on your westward journey the W&OD makes a sharp right turn over Four Mile Creek. Instead of making this sharp right, go straight on a short section of trail to Van Buren Street; take a right turn on the street and cycle just past the creek. There you will find the boundary stone on your right (inside a rod iron fence). This stone dates to 1791 when the District was laid out as a square in Maryland and Virginia.

The Freeman House in Vienna (at the intersection of the trail and Church Street) provides another interesting history stop. During the Civil War the house served as a hospital and now is open as a museum and general store. In 1859-60 President James Buchanan used a Sterling residence as his “summer White House and got there on the train. (According to the Trail office three other Presidents also rode on the W&OD.) Donona Manor, the home of George Marshall is in Leesburg and is being restored. West of Leesburg is a stone structure at Clarks Gap. This pre-Civil War arch supported the original Leesburg Turnpike. While many other historical sites are found along the trail, I leave them up to you to discover.

Refueling and Rest Stops

No matter where you start or want to stop, it is easy to find great refueling and rest stops near the trail. The communities along the trail all offer a variety of refueling stops that range from coffee to fancy meals. Other than at the fancy restaurants your spandex outfit will not cause a stir. Since I start my ride on the eastern side of the trail and usually head west I start out with coffee in one the many places at the Reston Town Center. However, I can assure you that great coffee is also available in Shirlington, Arlington, Falls Church, Vienna, Herndon, Ashburn, Leesburg, and Purcellville.

While great lunch stops are at these same locations, I generally like to have lunch at my turn around points in Leesburg or Purcellville. However, if you are looking for something a little different I suggest checking out the Old Dominion Brewery…for the lunch…and well, maybe just one beer. The Brewery is located about 2 miles west of Sully Road (Route 28). A trail sign directs you through an industrial park to the Brewery. In addition to their beers, Old Dominion serves lunch and provides an excellent tour (reservations required). During the tour you will have the opportunity to sample beer at its different production stages. By the way, if you eat on the patio keep your eyes open because you will likely see low flying airplanes as the land or take off from the near by Dulles Airport and you may see some very large guys from the nearby Redskins Park.

Getting Here From There

So now that you know lots about the W&OD Trail I bet you are wondering how to get to it. For those that live along the trail, I bet you are wondering where the W&OD Trail will take you. While I will address how to get to the W&OD, it only takes a little imagination to reverse these directions.

Because of the great system of interconnecting trails in the Washington, DC area there are many ways to cycle to the W&OD Tail.

Ø Nellie Custis Trail that follows Route 66 from the Potomac River connects with the W&OD just east of Falls Church.
Ø Mount Vernon trail connects with Anderson Bikeway at National Airport. This bikeway follows Four Mile Run Creek to the W&OD trail head at Shirlington. (At West Glebe Rd the trail utilizes the streets as it takes you to the overpass at I 395.)
Ø Four Mile Run Trail meanders next to the W&OD trail providing multiple connections in Arlington.
Ø C&O Canal Trail from Cumberland, MD takes you to Washington, DC. From the Potomac River it is just a short trip over the Key Bridge and onto the Nellie Custis Trail.
Ø Capital Crescent Trail from Bethesda will take you to Georgetown and the Key Bridge.
Ø Rock Creek Trail will take you to Georgetown.
Ø Allegheny River Trail from Pittsburgh, PA connects with the C&O Canal Trail in Cumberland, MD and then it is only 185 miles to Georgetown.
Ø Alternatively, you can leave the C&O Canal at Whites Ferry and take the ferry across the Potomac where it is just a short trip on Ferry Road to Route 15. Route 15 (business) becomes King Street in Leesburg and the W&OD is just south of center city. The ferry ride cost is nominal for cyclists and a pleasant experience.
Ø Fairfax County Parkway Trail connects with the W&OD in Reston at the trail’s overpass.
Ø The Fairfax Cross County Trail (not to be confused with the Parkway Trail) which opened in 2006 connects with the W&OD near Hunter Mill Road. This trail runs 40 miles from Great Falls, VA to Occoquan, VA. While some sections are paved, those closest to the W&OD are more suited for mountain bikes.

For those not fortunate enough to be able to cycle to this trail, the W&OD Trail web site shows the following parking locations.

SHIRLINGTONTake I-395 to the Shirlington exit, bear to right heading north, go to second stoplight. Turn left on South Four Mile Run Drive. The W&OD Trail will be on the right paralleling the road. You can park along the side of the road. Not recommended for leaving your car overnight.
ARLINGTONBluemont Park in Arlington has 2 lots. One is at Manchester and 4th Street, north of Route 50/ Arlington Boulevard just west of Carlin Springs Road. The other is off of Wilson Boulevard, just west of the Bon Air Rose Gardens and tennis courts, on the south side of the road.
DUNN LORINGTake I-495 to the Gallows Road/Route 50 exit and follow the signs towards Gallows Road north (right turn on Gallows). Go past the trail, turn right on Idylwood Road, turn right on Sandburg Street. Gravel lots on both sides of road at trail.
VIENNA EASTTake Route 123 into Vienna, turn on Park Street (left if coming from Tysons Corner). Turn right into the Vienna Community Center parking lot. The trail runs between the parking lot and the center.
VIENNA WESTTake Route 123 into Vienna, turn on Park Street (right if coming from Tysons Corner). Turn left at four-way stop sign onto Church, turn right onto Mill Street. Turn left onto Ayr Hill Road and then left into the gravel parking lot at the train station.
RESTONTake Route 7 west, turn left onto Reston Parkway. Turn left onto Sunset Hills Road, then left onto Old Reston Avenue at the 7-11 store. There is a paved parking lot on the right by the trail. There is also a large commuter parking lot next to the trail further down Sunset Hills Road, although this is usually full on weekdays.
HERNDONTake Elden Street to Station Street (right turn if you are coming from Route 7). At the end of station street pull down towards the large town municipal center parking lot.
STERLING/ROUTE 28Take Route 28, watch for W&OD Parking signs, several miles north of Dulles Airport. This is a large lot, good for horse trailers. There are very few road crossings west of this lot.
The Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority has a 40 car parking lot for W&OD Trail users at the trail intersection at Ashburn Road in Loudoun County. This lot is just on the opposite side of the trail from the famous Partlows Brothers Store, near Mile Marker 27.5.
LEESBURGTake Route 7 west into Leesburg, turn left onto Sycolin Road. Turn immediately right into the parking lot for the Douglass Community Center and park in the rear of the building. The trail is directly behind the building through the picnic area.
LEESBURG WESTTake Route 7 west into Leesburg past the Douglass Community Center and turn left on Catoctin Circle. Follow that road until you turn left on Dry Mill Road. Turn immediately right into the parking lot of Loudoun County High School. The trail is several hundred yards further down Catoctin Circle. This is the only for parking available on weekends during the school year.
PURCELLVILLETake Route 7 West. Exit the Bypass at Route 287; turn left. Turn right onto Hirst Road, then left on Maple Street. Turn left into the parking lot of Loudoun Valley High School. This is the only for parking on weekends during the school year.
PURCELLVILLE WESTRoute 7 to exit for Route 287. Go south to Purcellville. Turn right onto business Route 7 ("the Pike"). Turn right onto Hatcher Street, right into gravel parking lot at trail.

Just Do It

I have provided you with my view of the trail. You may share some of my impressions but I hope that you will discover your own wonderful places on and near the W&OD. Yes, I spend a lot of time on the W&OD trail! Perhaps we will meet some day. I am the slow cyclist that often stops to “smell the roses” or chat with other trail users. Some days I have on my Trail Patrol shirt but on other days I look like any other cyclist. If you see me, or think you see me, say hello.

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