I consider myself tremendously lucky to live in an area that is so accessible to lush, gorgeous parkland. Northern Virginia is home to national park sites, state parks, and county parks that lend themselves beautifully to family-friendly hiking and exploration. Yet there is another category of park that should not be overlooked: Northern Virginia Regional Parks.
NOVA Parks maintains more than 30 natural and historic sites throughout Arlington, Fairfax, and Loudoun Counties, as well as Alexandria, Fairfax, and Falls Church Cities. Why do regional parks exist? According to the NOVA Parks website, “regional parks may cross the jurisdictional boundaries of two or more localities, may be too costly to be undertaken by any one jurisdiction alone or may have special characteristics which appeal to the broad-based population of the entire region.” This seemed a logical enough reason for the purpose of regional parks today, but there is more to their origin story than I realized.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, my daughter and I watched this live Facebook broadcast about the dedication of a new sign at the Tinner Hill Historic Park. One of the speakers explained that the concept of regional parks was born in part as a response to the racist opposition to desegregation of Virginia’s state parks. Try as I might, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to reconcile the peace I feel in Virginia’s natural landscape with the anger and shame that hits me every time I learn about another dark piece of this state’s history. That is why I am grateful for the commitment of NOVA parks to shed light on these untold stories.
In addition to social justice awareness, there are many other great reasons to visit Northern Virginia’s regional parks. We have only made it to about a third of them so far, but we definitely have our favorites. Read on for four of the best ways to spend your time at these local gems.
- Take a walk on the wild side
So many NOVA Parks make fabulous hiking destinations. I already referenced Occoquan Regional Park as a fun place to walk in this blog post, and this month we opted for some more rugged locales.
Located just 10 minutes from historic downtown Leesburg, Red Rock Wilderness Overlook Regional Park feels like a completely different world. The 67-acre park is home to several trails that wind through the forest to a bluff, offering sweeping views of the Potomac River. We stuck to the blue and white trails while we were there (which only separate from each other for a brief period near the overlook before reconnecting), but we were also among the brave souls that climbed down the hillside to the water’s edge. The scramble back up to the trail was easier said than done – at least for me; my kid scampered up it like a gazelle while I slid around ungracefully and tried not to fall in the mud. The grounds are also home to a several historic structures with interpretive signs. This is a fantastic park for a fun family hike.
About 10 minutes outside of Clifton and just past the entrance to Paradise Springs Winery, you will find a couple of trail heads for Hemlock Overlook Regional Park. This beautiful bit of wilderness slopes down to the colorful banks of Bull Run. During our recent visit, we hopped on the yellow trail and picked our way down to the water. Once there, we traversed some rocks across a stream before transferring to the blue trail. The blue trail is actually the Bull Run Occoquan Trail, which runs for 19.7 miles between Bull Run Regional Park and Fountainhead Regional Park. It’s a rolling, natural surface trail with great views, and the water’s edge is home to some of the best skipping rocks in the county (in my opinion, at least). While the elevation changes and somewhat steep drop-offs make me hesitant to recommend this option for the tiniest hikers, it’s a fabulous way for families to get some exercise and fresh air.
Note that both Hemlock and Red Rock have small parking lots, so getting there early is highly recommended.
2. Bask in beautiful colors
When most people in this area hear the word “Meadowlark”, they immediately think of the Meadowlark Winter Walk of Lights. This is not surprising, as the stunning holiday light spectacle draws people from all over the region and beyond. Although we skipped it this past year, it is usually one of our annual Christmas traditions.
While the winter lights are incredible, it’s important to remember that the Vienna park’s full name is Meadowlark Botanical Gardens. Come springtime, the colorful displays in this magical spot burst forth from flower bulbs rather than light bulbs, and electric wires are replaced by the buzzing energy of active wildlife.
One of my favorite times of the year to visit Meadowlark is actually at the peak of the cherry blossoms. If you can’t make it to DC or don’t want to brave the crowds around the Tidal Basin, simply stroll down to Meadowlark’s Lake Caroline, where stunning cherry trees grow along the water’s edge. You will still get great views and photos of these local treasures, but in the peace and quiet of a sparsely populated sanctuary.
3. Get lost in local history
Various NOVA parks highlight a wide array of local history, from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement. For this year’s Weekend of Service, my daughter and I decided to visit a few of them in order to help with litter removal. We focused our attention on the historic town of Aldie, which packs a lot of history into a small radius. First, we cleaned up around the parking lot area of Aldie Mill. More than 200 years old, the impressive mill is still in working order, and visitors can take tours when it is open.
We then drove two miles to Mt. Zion Old School Baptist Church to continue our clean-up quest (and there was sadly so much trash around the perimeter of this site – it’s a shame that some members of our communities don’t respect our parkland). Like Aldie Mill, Mt. Zion is a tiny property with an interpretive sign explaining its significance. In addition to serving generations of congregants, this building also was home to a hospital, battleground, and meeting place during the Civil War. During our visit, my daughter was fascinated by the old gravestones in the little graveyard.
After an hour or so of litter pickup, we decided to reward ourselves with a short hike. We headed directly across the traffic circle from Mt. Zion to Gilbert’s Corner Regional Park. This site has interpretive signs highlighting the area’s role in the Civil War Battle of Aldie. It is home to a fantastic little loop hike through a wild meadow that is perfect for training your tiniest hikers. It also has a trail that winds through a stretch of woods, but we were cold and tired by that point and decided to save it for another day. Still, I was glad that we bundled a few smaller points of interest into one visit – it was a nice way to take in some local history in bite-sized doses.
4. Play your heart out
While the historical and natural significance of regional parks are indisputable, there are additional leisure amenities that should not be overlooked. When it comes to play time, our favorite option is probably Algonkian Regional Park in Sterling. For my daughter, its big draw is a delightful forest-themed playground that even includes a unique double-kid swing. The park is also home to a golf course, a small water park, a boat launch, and a series of river-front rental cottages that overlook the Potomac (and some even have hot tubs!).
Pohick Bay Regional Park in Lorton has similar amenities to Algonkian Park, although in lieu of cottages there is a sizable campground with both tent sites and cabins for rent. Pohick Bay also has one-of-a-kind jungle gym equipment, and the playground’s location just steps from the water results in fabulous views of the bay.
Algonkian and Pohick Bay are far from the only parks that boast the aforementioned amenities. For a filtered list of activities and amenities at all NOVA Parks, check out their “things to do” list here.
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I did not set out to write this much when I started planning for this post. In all honesty, I could have written so much more about our regional parks. Take my wordiness as a sign that there is something for everyone in the NOVA Parks system. Happy exploring, and feel free to write about your favorite regional park in the comments!