Scott's Run Nature Preserve

Scott’s Run Nature Preserve

Scott’s Run Nature Preserve is one of only two nature preserves in the Fairfax County Park Authority’s holdings. It is a remarkable place of rare plants and splendid beauty. Yet that same beauty is being challenged by urban pollution problems and human destruction. It is a poignant match-up that has many people concerned.

A grove of ancient hemlocks, whose ancestors migrated here during the last ice age, stands in the nature preserve as a reminder that this region was once subarctic in its climate. A major fault zone cuts right through the park, a relic of a much more distant past some 520 and 570 million years ago when the rocks were created out of slabs of ocean floor pushed up onto this continent.

Visitors have flocked to Scott’s Run for years to witness the spring wildflowers that grow there. Trailing arbutus, Virginia bluebells and trillium blooming on the steep hillsides create a small oasis of rare and fragile plants. Remarkable and rare species grow along the precipitous cliffs, in steep valleys and throughout the mature hardwood forest of very large oak and beech trees, ancient hemlock and wild cherry trees that stand as tall as the oaks.

Hiking the trails of Scott’s Run can be challenging, requiring a hardier constitution than possibly any other park in Fairfax County. There are two entrances into the valley park, one along the stream and the other leading to the bluffs above the river. Some trails are gentle and wind quietly through the forest. Other trails require hiking up and down very steep hills and cliffs.

The trails down the bluffs to the Potomac River are sheer in many places, and visitors must very carefully pick their way down the rocky cliffs. This ruggedness is part of the charm of Scott’s Run, creating almost a paradox between the rugged terrain and the fragile beauty of the blankets of wildflowers.

Ironically, the beautiful creek that spills over the waterfall right before it enters the Potomac River actually starts directly below the parking lots of Tyson’s Corner Shopping Center which sits atop a very large ancient gravel deposit that is the highest spot in Fairfax County. Flowing east, through many business parks and condominium complexes, it ends its journey at the waterfall.

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Image Credit: Scott's Run Nature Preserve


The park is open from one-half hour before sunrise until one-half hour after sunset.

(Note: Many places fill to capacity on busy, nice weather days, especially holiday weekends. Please call ahead or visit the official website to get the most up-to-date information before visiting.)


Hiking: Some of the park’s trails are gentle and wind quietly through forest. Other trails require hiking up and down precipitously steep hills and cliffs. Hiking the trails of Scott’s Run can be challenging, requiring a hardier constitution than possibly any other park in Fairfax County.

Programs: The Park Authority occasionally holds instructional nature programs at Scott’s Run. Those events have included:

  • Spring wildflower walks
  • Warbler walks and other bird watching programs
  • A Geology of Scott’s Run program
  • A Meaningful Watershed Education Experience program for several hundred schoolchildren
  • Watershed programs for homeschooled children
  • “Rain on my Watershed” school programs for approximately 300 students
  • A Wetlanders week-long summer camp
  • Programs for McLean High School’s AP biology class

The beauty of Scott’s Run also brings the park its problems. People flock to the waterfall during hot weather to swim and bathe; however swimming is against the law at Scott’s Run.  Swimming in the creek is a health hazard because many sources of pollution make the waters potentially hazardous to human health. Storm runoff in the Tyson’s area washes human and animal waste into the creek. Mountain bikers and horseback riders have illegally added to the wastes. Park and animal control staff work together to try to enforce the countywide leash law for dogs in order to protect wildlife, park patrons, water quality and the dogs.


In the 1960s, there were 336 wooded acres along the Georgetown Pike known as the Burling Tract. The land had belonged to an attorney named Edward Burling, Sr., who had a secluded cabin at the site. A developer bought the land after Burling’s death in 1966 and proposed 309 cluster homes for the area that would have left about half of the site as preserved, open land.

Neighbors saw small rezoning signs in the woods, and the clash of philosophies was under way. A citizen movement to stop the development arose, and the conflict of ideas that followed over the next year eventually enveloped county residents, the governor of Virginia and local elected officials, four U. S. senators, conservation and park agencies, the federal government, the New York Times, a national conservation organization, developers, protesting high school students and door-to-door petitioners.

Eventually a local public referenda passed as voters decided to tax themselves one and a-half million dollars to purchase the land, although negotiations over the price continued. Eventually the U.S. Department of the Interior provided $3.6 million dollars for purchase of the land, which today belongs to the Fairfax County Park Authority.


Last updated: November 16, 2022
Potomac Trail