Looking back on 2016

Looking back, it has certainly been a busy year for hiking! Our hiking group grew by 1,779 members, from 6,796 to 8,575, and we met for 103 events during 2016, hiking a total of 450 miles at locations throughout Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia.

At the trailheadJanuary and February were bitter cold, of course, but that was a good time to get out for some more strenuous hikes along the Billy Goat Trail and trudge through deep snow at Sky Meadows. A visit to Mount Vernon on Washington’s birthday was almost obligatory (it’s free!), and the cold weather was a good time to visit the National Zoo, which is normally overflowing with visitors.

Spring creimg_2148pt in during March through May, and with it came the cherry blossoms. This year we visited the National Mall to enjoy the blossoms at sunset and see the monuments in the light of the full moon. With Spring came the azaleas and Virginia bluebells, and we also went to the Shenandoah Mountains a few times and visited Patapsco State Park to see Bloede Dam, which was demolished this Fall.

img_5042During June through August we visited many of our usual Summer favorites like Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, Potomac Overlook, and White Oak Canyon, plus several new places like Jug Bay, Lake Frank, and the McKee-Besher Wildlife Management Area. Summertime is always great for Independence Day fireworks and Daylight Savings Time yields more daylight in the evening, making after-work walks around town practical.

img_6537The Fall foliage forecast for 2016 was the same as the year before, but this year the trees were on a different schedule! Our urban hikes in places like Georgetown and DuPont-Kalorama were unaffected, but hikes in September and October like Buzzard Rock, Rock Creek Park, and Sugarloaf, were not as colorful as in previous years. In November the leaves finally turned, and our hikes at Carderock and Great Falls were great!

It’s December now, and while we haven’t had our first snow yet, we’re back in Winter’s clutches! This weekend we’re closing out 2016 with a hike along Four Mile Run, and ringing in the New Year at Mason Neck State Park. I’m looking forward to another year of fun on the trail!

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Walk to National Harbor

Last weekend we walked across Wilson Bridge to visit National Harbor in Maryland, starting from Jones Point Park in Alexandria, Virginia. It’s about a 6-mile (10-kilometer) paved walk both ways, and it is so gently inclined that it may as well be flat. Some folks are always clamoring to do this walk, but there are a couple downsides:

  • Noise. It looks like a nice walk, but you may want some ear protection for this one:

img_6892 img_3354

  • Pace. I did mention it is pretty flat, right?

gazelleThere’s  something about a long, flat stretch of paved surface that just brings out the gazelles who walk at 4+ mph. I’m sure they were just keeping up with each other and struggling to carry a conversation over the noise, but I wanted to take photos and enjoy myself, so I gave up trying to stay in front of them. Fortunately, both National Harbor and Jones Point Park are in sight the entire time, so there’s little worry about anyone getting lost.

Once you get out of traffic, some of the sights around National Harbor are pretty nice.

Of course, the MGM Casino at National Harbor opens today, December 8, 2016, so who knows what impact that will have on the area. Between casinos, racing, slots, and the lotto, Maryland has become one of the most heavily saturated gluts of legal gambling on the East Coast, with the government raking in a significant portion of the earnings. Maryland’s cigarette tax is also among the top 20 states in the country at $2 per pack, far above the 30 cents per pack charged by her southern neighbor, Virginia. (Oddly, Maryland’s alcohol tax is only 25% of Virginia’s, so while smoking is verboten, boozing it up is apparently OK.)

What comes next? Well, the government is ever anxious for more revenue, so I’m sure they’ll find something new to tax.

I’ll bet we’ll see legalized marijuana and/or prostitution in Maryland within 10 years.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

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El Galeón and a Super Moon

Last weekend we had a visit from El Galeón Andalucia, a full-size replica of a 16th century Spanish galleon. The ship docked at the Alexandria Waterfront from 9 to 14 November as  one of her stops along a journey up and down the Eastern U.S. Coast. As luck would have it, her visit coincided with the November full moon, which was billed as being the closest to Earth since the full moon of January 26, 1948.

img_6683From the press pack at the NAO Victoria Foundation website, El Galeón is a replica of the type of ship used by the Spanish Crown for maritime expeditions during the 16th-18th centuries. She is a 3-masted, 500-ton galleon; 164 feet long, 34 feet wide, and has a draft of 10.5 feet. Since her launch in 2009, a crew of 15-35 has sailed her to ports of call ranging from the Philippines to the United States. (No circumnavigation or breadfruit runs, though.)

I had originally planned a 5-mile Sunday evening walk around Old Town Alexandria to enjoy the supermoon, but because of El Galeón’s visit, I added an additional morning event to get a look at her during daylight hours. I was half expecting to see some Zinn acolytes turned out to protest Spanish colonialism, but after last Tuesday’s election, there must have been more pressing perceived outrages elsewhere. Instead, the Sunday morning crowd yielded a more Disneyesque experience: hundreds queued up to go aboard, snoop around, and have optional family photos taken on the quarterdeck, complete with conquistador helmets and pirate costumes.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I much preferred coming back after nightfall. If more is left to your imagination, you can fill in whatever details you like.

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Here’s a few interesting shots from a walking tour of historic Del Ray, Virginia, which was for the most part a tour of the town of Potomac, Virginia, which existed from 1908-1929.

The genesis of the tour was a complaint I received during one of our usual easy summer evening walks around Del Ray: “[It was] not the most picturesque side of Del Ray, I would rather see more of it’s [sic] unique housing and layout than back streets.”

Actually, almost any evening walk in Del Ray cannot help but take you past homes dating from 1895-1920, but given the casual nature of our walks, I never point them out.

In any case, it seemed like a good idea, so I spent around six weeks researching the records, and we did exactly that: a formal tour of the unique housing and back streets of Del Ray. It included many of the old homes dating from 1895, but also a lot of the interesting Art Deco and Streamline Moderne warehouses and shops from the 1940s and 50s.

Unfortunately, the person who asked for the tour chose not to attend. But I guess sometimes what you ask for is not really what you want.

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Lake Frank and Meadowside Nature Center

Last Saturday I took a day off from group hiking to explore Lake Frank, in Montgomery County, Maryland, for a hike our group is doing this coming Saturday. Lake Frank is only about 10 miles from the I-495 Capital Beltway, but since it is nestled in the 1800-acre Rock Creek Regional Park, it’s a great place for a country hike.

Lake FrankI’ve been planning to do a hike at Lake Frank for some time, but when I first visited the trails were torn up due to a sewage line construction project. I checked on it again this Spring, but the ford over North Branch Rock Creek was always too high to cross without getting your feet wet. Finally I decided to circle the lake counter-clockwise. The stream crossing is at the end of the hike, so getting your feet wet doesn’t matter much.

The resulting 5-mile route is pretty straightforward, heading west and north past the Study Pond and some of the Lathrop Smith Center outbuildings before turning south to hike past the Pioneer Homestead, over the Valient Covered Bridge, and along the west shoreline of Lake Frank to the Lake Frank Dam. To add a little more meat to the hike, the route continues downstream from the dam to the junction of North Branch Rock Creek and Rock Creek, and follows Rock Creek downstream a bit before returning north along the east bank of Lake Frank. Directly east of the Nature Center, stepping stones across North Branch Rock Creek lead back to the starting point. The whole hike takes around 2 hours; maybe a little more if you stop for a break.

As it turned out, the counter-clockwise route was probably better than the clockwise route I had originally planned: the hillsides along the west bank of Lake Frank are quite steep, and the trail (aptly named “Old Nasty”) is narrow, so going downhill is a pretty good option. You still have to go back uphill on the east bank, of course, but the Lakeside Trail is paved and graded, making the long climb a little more conducive to good conversation.

All told, a pleasant hike, easily accessed from anywhere in the Washington DC area. Meadowside Nature Center has plenty of parking, a friendly staff, and nice facilities, and once you get away from its immediate vicinity there aren’t a lot of folks on the trail. The Pioneer Homestead and Valient Covered Bridge are picturesque, and most of the hike is in the shade, so on a hot summer day, you’re still fairly cool and comfy.


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Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary

Sanctuary entranceOn Wednesday I drove out to Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary to take a look around for a hike we’re doing this coming Saturday. Jug Bay is due east of Washington DC and very close, only 12 miles from the I-495 Capital Beltway, but you would think you were far out in the country. The bumpy gravel road (Blue Shirt Road) leading into the sanctuary is barely one lane wide.

The planned route takes the Brown Loop (Otter Trail, Railroad Bed Trail, Two Run Trail and the Utility Road), interrupted by a walk around the Red Loop Trail (Farm Trail, Pindell Bluff Trail, and the Upper Railroad Bed Trail, excluding the Beech Trail), before finishing the rest of the Brown Loop Trail to return to the Wetlands Center.

The first stop on the hike is an overlook and a boardwalk located just next to the outdoor classroom and its obligatory propaganda placards. Both the overlook and the boardwalk give you a nice view of the first of several osprey nests you can see during the hike, all occupied.

After that it’s off through the woods along the Otter Trail to the Railroad Bed Trail, where a walk out to the River Pier and back rewards you with a nice view of the Patuxent River and Mount Calvert, a tobacco plantation just across the river that was in operation from around 1780 until 1860. Along the way there are two other osprey nests and a side boardwalk leading off into the marsh that doesn’t offer any views, but does afford a look at some of the many plants.

Continuing along Otter and Two Run Trails takes you south to Otter Point and back north towards the Railroad Bed Trail, passing the Beaver Pond overlook along the way. For a short hike you could continue north along Two Run Trail and the Utility Road back to the Wetlands Center, but for a full 5-mile hike, it’s time to do the Red Loop, east and south onto the Farm and Pindell Bluff Trails. The River Farm is one of the few open fields along the hike route, and the field is surrounded by a very high electric fence that suggests a lot of deer live in the area. No deer to be seen, but there were more than a few tree swallows!

After the River Farm, the Pindell Bluff Trail meanders south through the woods along the shoreline, affording me occasional glimpses of Jug Bay and an encounter with a disinterested black rat snake, before turning northeast up Pindell Branch to the intersection of the River Farm Road and the Railroad Bed trail. The Railroad Bed Trail leads northwest past Mark’s Pond back to the Two Run Trail, which leads north to the Utility Road and back to the starting point at the Wetlands Center.

All told, the hike is a little over 5 miles, and it took me about 3 hours, mostly because I was dawdling around taking photos and enjoying the day. This would probably be an extremely sultry hike a little later in the year, but for the late spring/early summer, it’s perfect!


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Two Falls

This past Friday I drove out to Shenandoah National Park to reconnoiter an upcoming hike near the Harry F. Byrd, Sr. Visitor Center, in the Big Meadows area of the park.

The planned hike is a counter-clockwise loop, about 5 miles of smiles, although the elevations changes and inevitable twists and turns along the trail run the distance a bit higher. (Your mileage may vary, as the disclaimer reads.) The surface is dirt woodland paths, often rough, rocky and rooty, descends about 1200 feet to Rose River and the same amount back up, plus a bit, before returning to the starting point elevation.

The hike starts at Dark Hollow Trailhead and leads 0.8 of a mile down the Dark Hollow Trail to the bottom of Dark Hollow Falls and the junction with the Rose River Fire Road. About halfway down the trail it intersects and parallels Hogback Branch, the not-so-romantically named stream that feeds Dark Hollow Falls.

Below Dark Hollow Falls the trail intersects the Rose River Fire Road, and after turning right and following the road across a footbridge over Hogback Branch, a left turn puts you onto the Rose River Loop Trail. The trail follows Hogback Branch downstream about 0.8 of a mile before recrossing Hogback Branch on another footbridge. After crossing the bridge, keep an eye out for the trail blazes: next to a crumbling old concrete base for an air compressor that was once used by the Rose River Copper Mine, the trail turns right — the seeming “trail” of pale blue-gray rock chips that goes uphill simply leads to the old mine shaft, which is now filled in.1 Shortly after the turn the trail turns left and parallels Rose River upstream to Rose River Falls, which makes a good place for a break.

A black bear just happened to be hanging out near the Rose River Copper Mine, the first I have seen up close since running into a pair of black bear cubs near North Marshall Mountain late in 2013. Black bears are not an endangered species, and they are the most numerous of all bears, but you don’t get this close to one just any day of the week!

After the Rose River Falls, it’s an uphill slog for much of the rest of the hike, mostly over rooty, rocky trails. The remaining mile and a half of the Rose River Loop Trail features a couple of switchbacks before intersecting the Skyland/Big Meadows Horse Trail, and a left turn takes you almost all the rest of the way up to Skyline Drive, where the horse trail crosses Rose River Fire Road.

The Rose River Fire Road was once part of the Gordonsville New Market Turnpike, which was in use from 1853 until about 1867. The Blue Ridge Turnpike Company2 operated a stagecoach line to convey travelers along the turnpike between Winchester and Richmond, but the turnpike’s most notable use was by Confederate General Stonewall Jackson’s II Corps. After the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, Jackson’s Corps retired up the Shenandoah Valley to recuperate while the rest of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia took up positions east of the mountains. In mid-November, Union General Ambrose Burnside advanced the Union Army of the Potomac to the banks of the Rappahannock River, and Lee moved to block him. Lee called on Jackson to rejoin the main army, and on November 21 Jackson’s Corps took the turnpike through the mountains and rejoined Lee’s army in time to participate in the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13.3

The stretch along the horse trail is about 2 miles of rough uphill hiking, so for some relief, a short detour along the fire road across Skyline Drive allows a break to enjoy the view from Fishers Gap Overlook.

From Fishers Gap Overlook, a 200-foot walk southwest along Skyline Drive reconnects to the horse trail. Turn right and follow the horse trail the final 1.25 miles southwest to the Song of the Forest Trail. From there a left turn onto the Song of the Forest Trail and a short 0.2 of a mile walk, recrossing Skyline Drive, ends the hike back at the starting point at Dark Hollow Falls Trailhead.

All told, an enjoyable hike! The second half is a little challenging since it’s almost all uphill, but the total distance is short enough that the hike is not too difficult.


  1. Rose River Copper Mine, from Hike HC-31, “Guide to Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive”
  2. Blue Ridge Turnpike Company, from the Library of Virginia Board of Public Records at “A History of the Earliest Milams in Virginia”
  3. The Gordonsville New Market Turnpike, from “Shenandoah’s Civil War Connection II,” U.S. National Park Service (archived at the Internet Wayback Machine)
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A hike in Patapsco Valley State Park

Last weekend we took a nice hike up in Maryland, at Patapsco Valley State Park, just south of Baltimore. For the first part, we crossed the river on a suspension bridge and hiked a 1.25 miles upstream on the Gristmill Trail (gray), recrossed the river again on another suspension bridge near Ilchester Road, and returned to our stating point on the right bank of the river, a total of 2.5 miles. For the second part, we hiked up Cascade Trail, crossing the stream several times before turning off to follow the Morning Choice (yellow), Old Track Loop (red), and Ridge (orange) Trails back to our stating point, for a total hike of around 5.5 miles.

The hike offered quite a variety of scenery. The Gristmill Trail is relatively flat and paved on the left bank and runs adjacent to the B&O Railroad track, while on the right bank it is mostly dirt and a bit more rugged. Historical markers provide information about construction of the railroad and the history of Patapsco Valley. Here and there a few princess trees were still blooming. The river is strewn with rocks and rapids below Bloede Dam, while in the calmer waters above the dam a pair of Canadian Geese were shepherding their goslings. The second part of the hike features rugged and wandering dirt paths through the forest, and the Cascade Trail passes Cascade Falls and several smaller rapids upstream, and one of the several stream crossings left me with wet sneakers.

Bloede Dam is an interesting piece of history. It was built in 1906, went into operation in 1907, and was the first submerged hydroelectric power plant: the machinery was underwater, inside the spillway. It also included a 200-foot wooden fish ladder, which tends to dispel the popular notion that wildlife conservation started only with the advent of Captain Planet and Earth Day celebrations. The power plant was finally taken offline in 1924, overcome by more efficient plants elsewhere and the ongoing problem of clogging due to river debris. The dam was severely damaged by Hurricane Agnes in 1972, and in 1992 the Maryland Department of Resources spent $1.58 million to build an improved fish ladder. The dam is scheduled to be removed in the fall of 2016, leaving only rocky river rapids in its place, so there’s only a little time left to get a look at this piece of the past.

Patapsco Valley State Park is only about 30 minutes’ drive from the Washington DC Capital Beltway, or about an hour from Northern Virginia. It’s probably a good idea to check with the park ranger before planning your hike, since the Gristmill Trail will undoubtedly be closed during the demolition of Bloede Dam.


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Potomac Overlook

Last weekend we took an urban hike in Arlington County, Virginia, starting from Potomac Overlook Regional Park. The hike was basically a 5.1-mile counter-clockwise loop, boxed in by Donaldson Run, the Potomac River, Gulf Branch, and North Glebe Road. It took a little longer than I expected; about 2.75 hours, but would take less time with a smaller group. We’ve done several variations on the theme both from this park and nearby Ethan Allen Park, and sometimes using Windy Run, another tributary of the Potomac River, rather than Gulf Branch. Last weekend’s combination seemed to be about the best version we’ve done yet!

This stretch of the Potomac Heritage Trail is quite rugged, and the mouths of Donaldson Run and Gulf Branch feature steep inclines with pleasant little waterfalls and large boulders, making it a rough go descending into and climbing out of the Potomac River basin. (This stretch is maybe a bit more difficult than Billy Goat Trail B, across the Potomac in Maryland, but not nearly as tough as Billy Goat Trail A.)

Gulf Branch Nature Center, about halfway through the hike, provided a welcome and scenic break after all the boulder scrambles. We had a pretty big group of hikers, 60+, and the Nature Center naturalist came out to greet us!

The rest of the hike featured a long uphill ascent along back streets to the ridgeline along North Glebe Road, a shortcut through Marymount University campus, and a descent from there along Donaldson Run Trail back to our starting point. As a teaser, there was just one last water crossing over stepping stones. Throughout our hike I was pleased to see early signs of spring: the snowdrops and daffodils have popped up, and Virginia Bluebells won’t be far behind!

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Keep moving

IMG_1120One of the downsides to winter is that you just have to get out there and keep moving, but you often spend more time getting dressed for and getting to a hike than you do actually hiking. (Actually, this applies to distant hikes at any time of year. I’ve heard of something called a butt-to-trail ratio: the amount of time sitting on your butt in your car versus the actual time spent on the trail. But I digress.)

Anyway, early this month, after the snow cleared away, I saw something that gave me hope that the end of the really cold temperatures is already in sight: daffodils. They usually bloom by Saint David’s Day (March 1st), so we haven’t too much longer to wait.


Our first outing in February was in Reston, where we took a 5-mile hike along the paved paths winding through the woods around Lakes Audubon and Thoreau. I’m not overly thrilled with paved paths, but in a melting snow/slush situation they have their advantages. (See the bit about getting dressed for the hike above.) There were quite a few birds darting through the woods, and a couple of pileated woodpeckers made an appearance, but they were too wary of our large group to stop and pose. Towards the end of the hike, though, we were rewarded by encountering a small herd of deer. The few does who had been nervously nibbling on bushes showed us a clean pair of heels but the buck with them defiantly stood his ground while they escaped. Good for him!

The National Zoo

The next day we visited the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, and winter can be a good time to go if you don’t mind the cold. There’s no crowds and most the animals are still out, so you don’t have to elbow your way in to get a look. An added attraction just now is that Bei-Bei, the newest Panda, made its public debut on January 16. Of course, as a structured walk/hike, a group visit to the zoo falls apart almost before it gets started, because everyone wants to linger longer to check out their favorite animals. But regardless, it still winds up being a respectable hike: one circuit around the park is 3.5 miles, assuming you don’t double back much, and you have another mile to walk to and from the nearest Metro stop.

Last weekend we got in a short 4-mile hike around Old Town Alexandria, and the 21oF temperatures with 10-20 mph gusting winds made for a very fast morning. After that, another heavy snowfall forced cancellation of a planned outing to Mount Vernon to celebrate George Washington’s birthday, but at least we have another shot at it on February 22nd.

Coming up: Ox Hill Battlefield

I’ve been wanting to visit Ox Hill/Chantilly Battlefield for some time, but it’s very tiny — most of the battlefield was bulldozed down in the mid-1980s to make room for condominiums. The roughly five acres left doesn’t make for much of a trip, and there’s only room for four cars in the parking lot. (The regrettable loss did make it the poster child for future Civil War battlefield preservation efforts, though.) But during a hike at last July at Walney Farm and Big Rocky Run I drove by a good starting point at Greenbriar Park, with plenty of parking and a pleasant 5-mile hike to and from the battlefield along Rocky Run Stream Valley Trail. We’re doing the hike this Saturday, and you can read about the hike and the battle here, but I went there today to snoop around and see what’s cooking.

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