February 2006: Prince William Forest Park


Dumfries, Virginia

This was some of the earliest European settled land in th ecountry. Early tobacco farming in the area drained the land of much of its nutrients and for centuries a few farms survived around the creeks flowing into the Potomac River. During the Depression of the 1930s this was one of 46 locations of marginal farm land selected to be developed for recreation. Prince William Forest became a part of the National Park System in 1940 and work camps from the Civilian Conservation Corps were established to build roads and trails and bridges. Five rustic cabin camps built at this time are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

At over 15,000+ acres, Prince William Forest Park is the largest protected swath of land in the Washington DC metropolitan area. Although just south of the nation's capital in this densely populated area, the trails in the forest are refreshingly uncrowded - always an attraction for canine hikers. As you motor around the Scenic Drive loop the dozen or so parking lots at trailheads scarcely have space for ten vehicles each. That makes these 37 miles of trails a prime destination for a lively dog.

The canine hiking here is through the only preserved Eastern Piedmont forest in the National Park Service. You will be working up and down and around the many slopes in the Quantico Creek watershed - often with long views through the forest that features little understory in many areas. Many of the trails lead away from Scenic Drive to the South Branch and the North Branch of Quantico Creek. These gurgling brooks have been colonized by beavers, once decimated in the area but recovering from a single pair introduced some years ago, whose dams have created small pools just deep enough for a good canine swim. 

In addition to the wide, well-marked hiking trails (directions and distances on posts at the many trail junctions so you can carve any hiking outing with your dog here) you can take off on several old access roads that deliver a country-lane feel to the hiking. You can also use the paved - but walkable - Scenic Drive to close some of your customized loops.

If you head off on the North Valley Trail and continue about one mile down the Pyrite Mine Trail along the North Branch of the Quantico Creek you will reach the remains of the Cabin Branch Pyrite Mine. The mine opened in 1889, pulling nugget-like rocks known as "fool's gold" for their appearance to the prcious metal. In fact pyrite is loaded with sulfur that kept the operation profitable into the 1920s, including an important stretch during World War I when as many as 300 men worked the mine. Many acres of historic underground workings, pilings and foundations have been reclaimed and are remembered today. 

DIRECTIONS TO Prince William Forest Park:
Prince William Forest is 32 miles south of Washington DC, directly on I-95. Take Exit 150 (VA Route 619 West) to the well-signed park on the right.