Copyright © 2014
by Ralph F. Couey
Pictures and written content
In 1936 during the worst years of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt ordered that land be set aside for the purpose of giving inner city children and their families a place to go where they could discover nature outside the grim habitat of the city. This area, originally called Chopawamsic Recreational Demonstration Area, was established as a summer camp, with the buildings and infrastructure constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, part of the Works Progress Administration as a way of providing employment as well as teaching valuable skills to young men. Using locally harvested materials, the CCC built camping cabins, trails, and bridges. People started coming to the area in 1936, spending as many as 5 weeks in the woods. When World War II broke out, public access was halted and the area turned over to the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA, as an area for training covert operatives for the war effort. After the war, the land reverted to public use. Today, the original area was split, with Quantico Marine Corps Base on the south and the now-named Prince William Forest Park on the north. The park, operated by the National Park Service, occupies some 19,000 acres, the largest preserved forest tract in the DC area. It is considered to be the finest example of Eastern Piedmont Forest existing. It contains some 37 miles of hiking trails and tantalizing bits of history. The park has the most original CCC building inventory in the U.S., some 153 buildings, all of which are still in use. The park is located south of DC near the intersection of VA-234 and I-95.
This area had been on my "oughta-visit-there-sometime" list for awhile, but in planning my hiking ventures, I stayed to the west, thinking that anything closer to DC would be too urbanized for my taste.
Okay. I admit it. I was wrong.
Today was extra special because my wife was along for the hike. Up to this point, she had been working on Tuesdays, so I had gone by myself.
She made me take the hat off.
Originally I had intended to go up to Great Falls Park and hike the riverside trails, since I knew them to be much easier than the roller-coaster walk that characterizes most parts of the Appalachian Trail. This being her first real hike, I wanted it to be as much of a positive experience as possible.
Pulling into the parking lot, we saw the Visitor's Center, one of the CCC buildings still standing. I went in, renewed our NPS annual Pass, and picked up two trail maps. After consulting with the Ranger, we looked for and found the correct trail head. The trail headed downhill into a valley. We crossed a bridge over Quantico Creek and took the South Valley Trail to the North Valley Trail.
After hiking on the rock-and root-strewn AT, this trail was a pleasure. It was soft on the feet and only had a few sections where things got difficult. There were some hills, not too tough, but most of the way was agreeably level. One of the challenges of an area like this is the large number of trails intersecting with each other. For the first-time hiker, close attention to navigation is a priority.
The day was cloudy, but cool, so a comfortable one for a hike. I was swinging along enthusiastically, reveling in the lovely forest and the wandering streams which we crossed several times.
I looked back at Cheryl to find her daintily picking her way along with one of my trekking poles in one hand and her smart phone in the other, reading up on FaceBook. Oh well...
Still, it was fun to have her along, chatting and laughing together as we hiked. I did enjoy hiking, but as with all things, it was better to share the experience.
Along the trail, you can see the remains of home foundations, the remains of people who lived here over the decades. At one place along the Cabin Branch Pyrite Mine Trail is the site of a Pyrite mine that operated from 1889 until 1920. Pyrite, known colloquially as "fool's gold," is a source of sulphur which was turned into soap, fertilizer, and gunpowder. When a cheaper source of higher quality Pyrite was discovered in Spain, the mine was shut down, leaving environmental damage that would scar the land for decades. In 1990, the NPS began a reclamation project which restored the land and erased the scar left by the mine. Today there are some bits and pieces of the buildings remaining, a tantalizing piece of history to be discovered.
We picked up the Pyrite Mine Road, a wide gravel path up to the Scenic Drive, which we used for a short space before swinging back onto the North Orenda Road Trail. This, too was wide and easy until we crossed the bridge and reconnected with the Laurel Loop trail which took us back to the visitor's center. We went 4.75 miles today, a short hike, but a distance mandated by the stamina of my bride.
This was a great hike, amended by the pleasure induced by the "discovery" of this park. We will undoubtedly be back, as this is a good place for novice hikers to build up their muscles and experience before tackling more difficult trails.
Plus, there's not a bear to be had anywhere in this park.