Both residents and visitors to Washington, D.C. might not know it, but the region surrounding the United States’ capital city is home to a vast number of both national and state parks hosting a seemingly infinite number of hiking trails and other outdoor activities. I’ve greatly enjoyed exploring many of them ever since I moved to the area three years ago, but Virginia’s Mason Neck State Park never made it on to my day trip radar. Not because I learned about it and brushed it aside as uninteresting; rather, I didn’t even know of its existence. I’ve poured over Google Maps for hours, trying to locate every park within a two hour radius of my home city, but Mason Neck State Park somehow slipped through the cracks – and I’m glad that a spontaneous drive one Sunday afternoon changed that.
You see, in late February 2016, Kevin and I took advantage of a sunny 64-degree day to visit Manassas National Battlefield, but less than thirty minutes in the park left us completely underwhelmed. Over a lunch of delicious cheese pizza (what else?), I suggested we try our luck at a federal nature reserve about a half-hour away from Reagan National Airport, where we had to return our day rental car that evening.
You see, on Google Maps, the park is listed as “Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge,” and prior to visiting, I didn’t realize that property is in fact split into two separate entities: the national wildlife refuge and the state park. Upon arrival, Kevin and I simply drove as far into the park as we could and only noticed the difference between the two parks when we paid our $5.00 entrance fee to the state park.
Worth it? Absolutely. We started off by hiking the Eagle Spur Trail, which was lovely and offered typical scenery of the region. Kevin and I agreed that it looked similar to nearby Prince William Forest Park.
The trail culminated at a wooden overlook, designed for birdwatchers to perch themselves over the swamp and soak up the wildlife. Unfortunately, when we visited, the overlook had been taken over by a rowdy group making a mess with their foul-smelling picnic lunches. As such, we, and the other hikers who arrived at the overlook around the same time, did not stay long, but the hike was still wonderful.
If you enjoy nature and wildlife photography, be sure to have your camera ready at any moment – even in the parking lot, which is where I spotted this fella. Bald eagle sightings at Mason Neck are common; I personally spotted four during my entire afternoon in the park. That’s four more bald eagles than I’ve ever seen before!
After hiking Eagle Spur, Kevin and I turned to the Beach Trail, which, as the name suggests, follows the perimeter of the park’s Potomac waterline. The view is impeccable on a clear day, and as a visitor, it’s hard to believe that a beach and forest are less than a quarter-mile apart from one another.
The Marsh View Trail might be short and sweet, but it turned out to be my favorite trail of the three that Kevin and I hiked during our visit.
Note the dam; even though this trail is intended for bird watching, I kept my eyes peeled the entire time for a beaver. Sadly, my efforts did not lead to fruition, but I did enjoy the ducks in the background and the bald eagle that flew overhead.
Best of all? The Marsh View Trail is partially handicap-accessible. The only other people on this particular trail during our visit was an elderly couple, and the woman was able to hike to the end of the trail using a cane. “If you and I are like that couple when we’re in our eighties,” I whispered to Kevin, “I’d be satisfied.”
So, what makes Mason Neck State Park the perfect day trip? Let’s see. One, the park holds an incredible amount of biodiversity, especially for the region. Visitors can sink their toes into soft white sand, spot an endangered species of bird, admire a photogenic marsh, and hike a moderately challenging trail lined with an endless of variety of trees. Two, this is a rare attraction in the D.C. area that isn’t centered around history, and can offer a much-needed respite for those weary of museum-hopping. Three, the park is about twenty minutes away from Woodbridge, Virginia, home to nearly every store one can imagine, so visitors still won’t find themselves in the middle of nowhere – even if Mason Neck State Park offers that illusion.
For more information about the park, such as opening hours and driving instructions, please visit the official website here.