Trail of the Month: October 2004
W&OD Railroad Regional Park, Virginia
The Washington and Old Dominion Trail (W&OD) has always had a strong support group to develop and protect its every mile. As far back as 1974, when the first mile-and-a-half segment was finished as an experiment to gauge the public's reaction to rail-trails, the overwhelmingly positive support for the trail prompted the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority (NVRPA) to purchase the entire W&OD Railroad Line from Virginia Electric Power Company—now Dominion Virginia Power (DVP). This year as the trail celebrates its 30th birthday; it hasn't lost any of the encouraging public enthusiasm that propelled its beginning. In a recent Washington Post online poll, the annual Best Bets 2004 Reader's Choice Awards, the W&DO Trail took top honors as Best Hiking/Biking Trail in the Washington, D.C., metro area. This is the second of such awards that the trail has received since the competition began, offering proof the rail-trail is loved by all.
The W&OD boasts 45 completed miles over varied Virginia terrain from Shirlington to Purcellville. Trail enthusiasts can enjoy a variety of activities from jogging and bicycling, to inline skating, while equestrians are welcome to use the 32.5 miles of crushed stone and dirt bridle paths that parallel the completely paved trail. Beginning in the heart of Northern Virginia in Shirlington, the W&OD glides west through Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun counties, showcasing six towns—Shirlington, Falls Church, Vienna, Herndon, Leesburg and Purcellville.
Much of the eastern portion of the trail is well used and well traveled as it passes urban parks, established housing developments where the trees have grown tall, and small plots of newer fenced-in communities. As it progresses west, the path thins, weaving in and out of small towns where houses display more varied architecture. The scenic western end winds over bridges, past beaver dams and beside galloping horses. Make sure to visit the five 12-by-12 foot shelters sprinkled throughout the trail and the new rest area in Leesburg. Each of these projects were completed by NVRPA with grant money and finished in September.
The trail ranges from fast and flat to gently rolling hills, providing an easy route to explore the plethora of flora and fauna on the trail. The W&OD is home to a variety of interesting creatures like the rare wood duck, famous for its striking colors, and the harmless black rat snake. Hawks can be spotted diving and rising through the trees, as groundhogs and weasels weave paths through the brush.
Perhaps the most scenic and celebrated part of the W&OD Trail lies along the last 11 miles from Leesburg to Purcellville. A canopy of gigantic oak trees engulfs trail goers in a serene, natural tunnel. The sturdy and vivacious foliage shades the trail during the hot days of summer and blankets it with colorful leaves in the fall. In fact, the trees along this stretch are so appreciated by all who use the W&OD, a recent controversy over their fate had citizens up in arms.
DVP, which owns an easement along the path allowing overhead power lines along the trail, wanted to cut down the trees to erect 110-foot steel towers to prevent future power outages during damaging storms. This plan threatened more than 26,000 trees, according to an NVRPA authority, and might have devastated the wildlife in the area. Residents of Loudoun County, legislators, the NVRPA and the Friends of the W&OD banded together and worked with DVP to come up with alternative ways to prevent the trees from being cut down. To date, they have saved nine miles of trail from losing its trees and are continuing to negotiate for the last two.
DVP plans to file an application with the Virginia State Corporation Commission outlining the overhead routing alternatives no later than the first quarter of 2005. The commission has final say on whether or not the last two miles will be saved, as well. If you would like to help save the trees along the W&OD, please visit savethetrail.com.