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The final trailhead in Purcellville, Va. © Barbara Richey/Rails-to-Trails ConservancySpringtime on the trail near Falls Church © Bryce Hall
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Trail of the Month: December 2008
Virginia's Washington & Old Dominion Railroad Regional Park

[What is this?]

You'll find the eastern trailhead of the 44.8-mile Washington & Old Dominion (W&OD) Railroad Regional Park in Arlington, smack in the middle of northern Virginia's vibrant scene and only a few miles from downtown D.C. Cars stream by on Four Mile Run Drive, and a couple blocks away traffic honks and hums along Interstate-395 in a never-ending rush-hour blur. Untouched in this urban tangle, though, is the newest member of RTC's Rails-Trail Hall of Fame—the paved W&OD trail, which strings visitors through backyards and quiet neighborhoods on its unblinking route west into the rolling countryside of Virginia.

Built in 1859 on the eve of the Civil War, the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad was intended to shuttle coal and other goods to Alexandria. The tracks barely survived the war but later grew into a popular passenger line heading west through Falls Church, Leesburg and Purcellville. When service ended in 1968, the Virginia Electric and Power Company (VEPCO)—later Virginia Power, and now Dominion Power—purchased the right-of-way for its electric power transmission lines.

Over the following decade, the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority (NVRPA) began acquiring the right-of-way in stages, and the first segment of the trail opened in Falls Church in 1974. By 1982, the NVRPA owned the full length of the corridor, and they now operate the park with the active support of the Friends of the W&OD Trail. Today, a good portion of revenue for trail upkeep comes from agreements with utility companies, like AT&T, which share the corridor for their fiber-optic cables. "That's a big money-maker for us," says Karl Mohle, park manager for the W&OD. "The trail has always been one of the most profitable parks [in Virginia]."

More than preserving the land, the NVRPA has helped revive the history and spirit of a passenger railroad that once linked communities across northern Virginia. Travel on the rail corridor might be a little slower these days, but the passage from high rises and streetscapes to colonial villages and horse country has never been more pleasant.

If you begin at Mile 0 in Arlington, the W&OD trail first makes its way through apartment communities and residential neighborhoods. You'll soon notice that the pathway, though by no means challenging as a whole, rolls with the hills more than many traditional rail-trails. Only a few of the climbs are rigorous; most simply bob you along with a little huffing here, a little coasting there. You'll also encounter a fair number of street crossings. These are extremely well marked and don't usually occasion more than a brief stop—and they grow farther apart the farther you go.

The suburban backdrop thins noticeably in Reston after about 17 miles. You'll still pass periodic roadways and office buildings, but the trail drifts more remotely into golf courses and woodlands as you cut through Herndon, Ashburn, Sterling and Leesburg, where the community's colonial history is well worth a side excursion.

For the final 10 miles into the Purcellville Train Depot, pastoral landscapes and thicker tree cover further unleash the trail from its urban ties. On clear days in Purcellville, in fact, the Blue Ridge Mountains are visible on the western horizon—perhaps the most striking indication of far how you've traveled and what you've seen, from office parks and interstates to buzzing meadows and mountain tops.

The W&OD trail, in this respect, is a marvel of convenience and conveyance. It takes advantage of the original depots and stops in town centers, offering incredible access and services to tens of thousands of local users and visitors. You can park and pick up the trail at a dozen points along the way, and part of the corridor even parallels the Washington Metro's Orange Line and Interstate-66 out to Vienna. Yet even with communities on all sides, the trail has a way of disguising the journey.

"I have to say, I enjoy all parts of the trail, but I especially like the area between Hunter Mill Road and Vienna," says Mohle. "It's the only place on the trail where I've seen wild turkey. On that particular stretch, it's amazing. You feel like you're in the middle of nowhere, yet you're right in Vienna."

Perhaps the W&OD's most impressive trick, though, is how the trail reaches people in unpredictable and uncountable ways. "I like to think there's something for everyone on the trail," says Mohle. You can use it to commute to work or for exercise, on wheels or on horseback, for a weekend trip or a 15-minute walk. You can pedal to a farmers market or train for a marathon. It's an all-season pipeline of activity, unburdened by city traffic, and ideal for users of all ages and inclinations.

So find the trail at a point convenient to you, and discover what makes this pathway the newest member of the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame.

For more information, photos and user reviews of the trail, or to post your own comments, please visit TrailLink.com.

 

Related Links

Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority

Friends of the W&OD Trail

TrailLink.com

 

Trail Facts

Name: Washington & Old Dominion Railroad Regional Park (W&OD Trail)

Trail Web site: W&OD Trail

Length: 44.8 miles

Counties: Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun

Start Point/ End Point: Arlington at Four Mile Run Drive to Purcellville at 21st Street

Surface type: Asphalt

Uses: Hiking, jogging, bicycling, inline skating and cross-country skiing; the trail is also wheelchair accessible, and equestrians can use a 32-mile gravel horse trail that runs parallel to the pathway between Vienna and Purcellville.

Difficulty: Easy to moderate

Recent Developments: The NVRPA recently widened the final five miles of the trail into Purcellville, from 6-8 feet to 10-12 feet.

Parking: The Friends of the W&OD Trail provide directions and a detailed list of parking options all along the trail. You can also sign up to access a free interactive GIS map of the trail at TrailLink.com.

Nearby Attractions: Each Memorial Day weekend, the Rotary Club of Vienna, Va., sponsors the Viva! Vienna! festival. The W&OD trail passes directly through the celebration, which features amusement rides, great food, live entertainment and all sorts of local vendors

A week later, May 28-31, the town of Herndon will hold its 29th annual Herndon Festival, which attracts more than 90,000 people from the greater Washington, D.C., area. Stop in right off the trail, admission-free, to enjoy international foods, carnival rides, 5K and 10K races, and plenty of live entertainment and arts and crafts.

If you're heading toward Arlington and downtown D.C. from points west, you can take advantage of local trails and bike lanes to reach the heart of the city. The Arlington trailhead links to the Four Mile Run Trail, which connects to the Mt. Vernon Trail, which runs alongside the Potomac River and offers direct access to Washington, D.C. To make sure you understand how these trails connect, it's worth consulting the detailed online bicycle map that BikeArlington provides for free.

Leaving urban landscapes behind on the trail's western half © Barbara Richey/Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Between Falls Church and Vienna, the trail parallels I-66 and the Metro's Orange Line © Bryce Hall

RTC's Farr Prickett stops for some canine affection © Bryce Hall

Coasting over some of the trail's many undulations © Barbara Richey/Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

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