By Ralph F. Couey
Words and pictures
Today we were lured to Lake Accotink Park by the rumor of nesting eagles in the area. Alas, we were disappointed by the absence of the great raptors, but had a great hike anyway.
Lake Accotink is a reservoir surrounded by a 500-acre piece of paradise plunked down amidst the urban bee hive of Fairfax County. The park lies less than 2 miles (as the eagle flies) from one of the busiest freeway interchanges in the entire Washington DC area, I-495 and I-66. Stitched through the hills and around the lake are a multitude of trails that branch off the main path which widely circles the lake itself. Accotink Creek was dammed to create the lake and the area has been a government facility, a camp during World War I, an Army officers' retreat, and finally a county park. The main trail follows parts of the old railbed for the Orange and Alexandria railroad, an important Union rail line. Today, a massive concrete and steel Norfolk Southern bridge crosses the creek in the place where a log trestle stood during the Civil War, at least until Jeb Stuart and his cavalry burned it down.
This trail shares space with the Fairfax Cross-County Trail, a conglomeration of interconnected trails which runs some 40 miles from Occoquan Regional Park in the south all the way to Great Falls Park, where it joins with the Potomac Heritage Trail
The weather started out cool, but warmed pretty quickly, although the wind retained a bit of a bite. This would be Cheryl's first time out on the trail, so I thought this might be a good way to start the season for her, especially as she's breaking in a new pair of Merrill hiking boots.
There are several ways to approach the park. We chose the route through the Ravensworth Farm neighborhood off Braddock Road. We parked in the first lot we came to and after gearing up, went down an asphalt path to the marina. Here was a beach, a carousel, a couple of snack bars and several picnic shelters, from the looks of things a very busy place after Memorial Day.
The path leaving the marina was wide and in excellent shape. It undulated a bit as we walked along, but nothing like the steep climbs we had experienced in other places.
There were a few muddy patches which required some artful detours, but for the most part, we swung along easily, entranced by the sound of bird calls, announcing their return to the forest. On the first half, the trail passes between the lake shore and the backs of homes in the Ravensworth neighborhood. But the way is pleasantly forested, so at this stage there wasn't the kind of oppressive feel of urban intrusion.
At one point, we saw a deer, a yearling by the looks, hesitantly cross the trail in front of us. Squirrels abounded, but no eagles.
We reached the turnaround point north of the lake and crossed to the west on a connector path. The trail continued northward towards Great Falls. As we turned back to the south, now headed towards the west side of the lake, the trail left the woods and lurched up into suburbia for a short space. The map told us to follow Danbury Forest Drive until it T'd back into the forest. Somehow we ended up on Lonsdale Drive, which inexplicably dead-ended. By traversing a couple of back yards and climbing up a steep grass hill, we found our way back to the trail, and thankfully, back into the woods.
At one point, the trail passed between two steep berms, the sure sign of the long-lost Orange and Alexandria Railroad. We passed nearby the modern railway as a couple of Norfolk Southern freight trains and a sleek-looking VRE commuter train thundered past.
Now the sun began to make a belated appearance, although it continued to play hide-and-seek with patches of clouds the rest of the afternoon. The temperature had warmed into the upper 50's which was pleasant as long as the wind remained behind the hills.
We looped around the marshy northwest end of the lake, where the creek seems to be a bit confused as to which direction it needs to go.
The trees are still bare of leaves, and even buds at this point, but here and there we could see patches of welcome green grass beginning to sprout.
We reached the northwest side of the lake and, being that this was far enough away from the neighborhood, began to scan the treetops for the telltale sign of eagle's nests.
Alas, the great white-headed birds were nowhere to be seen, although there were an abundance of hawks, Canada Geese, various ducks, and surprisingly, seagulls.
Completing the circle, we passed below the dam and crossed the creek in the shadow of the huge concrete train bridge before wending our way back to the parking lot.
Accotink Creek passing under the train bridge
It was a solid 4.5 miles, according to the GPS, which we completed in less than two hours. A good day spent in another surprising and pleasant greenspace hidden away amid the urban sprawl of Northern Virginia.