Just thirty miles south of Washington, DC, Prince William Forest Park is a serene getaway. It’s located conveniently right off of I-95, but turning into its leafy entrance is like driving into another world.
This haven to campers, cyclists, and hikers is an excellent place to bring the kids or a pet to enjoy nature, or to relax on your own. The park, encompassing almost 15,000 acres, is also an excellent place to camp not far from the city, making it a great destination for first-time campers who are wary of traveling far from home.
The backbone of the park is the scenic drive that provides access to 37 miles of hiking trails. After a few miles, the drive becomes one-way; three miles of the park's Scenic Drive are a dedicated bike lane providing a paved, relatively flat surface ideal for beginning bicyclists. Parents help their children learn how to ride bikes and joggers run to a soundtrack of chirruping birds and rustling leaves.
I found myself drawn to the park recently after a hectic week of deadlines and meetings. I drove and then walked along the scenic route. Immediately, I felt my blood pressure drop and my breathing grow deeper. The paved road is particularly great for those with strollers and wheelchairs; the wide pavement is well-maintained, with plenty of room to avoid the occasional car cruising by.
Eventually I diverged from the paved road onto a tranquil, unchallenging path. After less than a mile on the Quantico Cascades trail, I arrived at Quantico Creek. The water rushed over rocks and boulders, forming a little series of waterfalls. Flat, sun-warmed rocks rising just above the water-line formed the perfect perch to watch the water flowing—and to feel the last remnants of my stress ebbing away.
Another notable activity for hikers is the Geology E-Walk—a digital guide to the history and scenic areas of Prince William Forest Park. It begins right above where the Quantico Cascades Trail meets the North Valley Trail. Visitors can see a dam carved out of rocks around a lake and roam alongside the ancient volcanic rock undergirding the creek as dinosaurs once did.
The area’s more recent history is equally fascinating. The park was formed in 1936 as a camp for urban kids to have a summer camp experience during the Great Depression. Back then, it was called Chopawamsic, and it became a model for such camps throughout the country.
Then, during World War II, the site was used by the Office of Strategic Services as a training facility for agents deploying oversees. The OSS, of course, was a predecessor of the CIA.
“The history is what makes the park unique,” says Chris Alford, chief of interpretation and education at the park. But Chris also enjoys the forest’s diversity. “For me, seeing wildlife wild—that’s what life is about.”
And the Quantico Creek watershed does more than simply ease the stress levels of visitors like me. “Waters from the park flow into the Potomac River and then into the Chesapeake Bay area,” he explains. “Protection of this watershed helps improve water quality for all life downstream.”