Trail of the Month: December 2008
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.