Prince William Forest Park is sneaky. I’ve probably driven past it a few hundred times over the years and yet, I didn’t know it wasn’t there. It’s just off I-95, south of Washington, D.C., north of Richmond, Virginia, and adjacent to Quantico. It’s smallish, at 15,000 acres, but includes almost 40 miles of hiking trails, more than 20 miles of bicycle-accessible roads and trails and a short scenic drive. Best of all, it’s lovely.
Knowing mostly nothing about this park, I turned to googled, asked a few pointed questions and set out early one Saturday in April. I stopped at the visitor center, got a stamp in my passport, asked the volunteer staff and rangers on duty for some hiking advice and then set out, opting to combine a few trails to get in some decent mileage and see a good chunk of the park.
I headed up the scenic drive to the parking lot at the Turkey Run Education Center, parked, wandered around a little bit to get my bearings, and headed out on the Black Top Road.
There are few things that feel as good as setting out on a new adventure in a new national park. It doesn’t matter where I am, whether it’s a battlefield in North Carolina, the Grand Canyon in Arizona or a little park on the outskirts of northern Virginia; the excitement still feels pretty much the same.
I followed the Black Top Road to the High Meadow Trail (left turn, orange blaze), scampered my way across the Taylor Farm Road and a small, trailside cemetery before crossing the Scenic Drive and finally hitting the South Valley Trail (white blaze), which follows the South Fork Quantico Creek.
About half of this 7-mile hike follows the creek. I didn’t see a ton of other hikers, which is always my favorite, and I found myself slipping into deep thoughts about being a lady in the woods alone, about the strength that comes from that, the peace and the power.
But then, I felt like someone was watching me. It was a spooky sort of feeling, of course.
I ran into a few of these creepers on the trail. They were always a little ways away and they were not very pleased with my descent into their neighborhood, but they were pretty entertaining. One hid behind a tree as I walked by and then suddenly stuck her head around the tree to get a better look at me, just as all her friends were scampering away in fright. She stared me down pretty seriously, but she didn’t leave. I like to think we’re friends now.
After following the South Valley Trail for approximately three miles, weaving over and under the scenic drive and past a few smalls waterfalls, I hit the Turkey Run Ridge Trail (blue blaze) and followed it for just under a mile and a half until I made it back up to the Turkey Run Education Center.
Leaving the park, I promised myself I’d come back. There’s still 30 more miles of trails for me to explore.
HISTORY OF THE PRINCE WILLIAM FOREST PARK
Prince William Forest Park was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps as the Chopawamsic Recreational Demonstration Area. The CCC played a part in the founding of a lot of America’s state and national parks and, in the most basic of terms, it was a federal work relief program included in President Theodore Roosevelt’s relief efforts in the midst of the Great Depression.
More than 2,000 CCC enrollees worked to create the Chopawamsic RDA, which aimed to provide a place for low-income, inner-city kids and their families to experience the outdoors. Camps housing up to 200 people were built by the CCC and inner-city kids were welcomed to the camps for the first time during the summer of 1936. The camps were segregated by sex and race – black and white, male and female – but more than 2,000 kids spent two to three weeks at Chopawamsic that first summer experiencing nature.
The history of the park of course reaches back before 1936 and the work done by the CCC. American Indians inhabited the area, Civil War troops tramped their way through the same streams I crossed and there are still remnants of the farms that date back to the early 1900s. During WWII, the camp even served as a top secret training facility where spies learned how to handle explosives and gather intelligence.
Prince William Forest Park is open sunrise to sunset year-round. The visitor center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. March – October and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. November – February. Admission to the park is $10 per vehicle and is valid for seven days from the date of purchase. Annual passes to the park are available for $30 and an America the Beautiful pass can also be purchased for $80 at the park and allows free entry into thousands of federal recreation areas, including all 417 of america’s national parks.