I live in Fairfax County, Virginia. It’s known for having a million people, being nestled up to the capital beltway (and partly inside it), beltway bandits, clean industries, great schools and well-moneyed people. One thing that doesn’t come to mind when you think about Fairfax County is nature. It’s not that nature is wholly absent, it’s just that nature consists mostly of modest county parks and little asphalt trails winding their way through patches of woods that are overseen by hulking single family houses. Some communities in the county try to celebrate nature. Reston does a good job of it, or at least did before they put the downtown in. Mostly though Fairfax County is about nice houses, annoying traffic, lawns, keeping up with the Joneses and people who think they are more important than they actually are.
In general, if you want nature you go west. The Shenandoah Mountains is about an hour away. Many people from Fairfax County consider a trip to nature to be climbing Old Rag Mountain in the Shenandoahs. (It has a granite face so you can take in a view.)
It turns out that Fairfax County has a trail that almost no one knows about. I walked part of it last weekend. It’s the Cross County Trail and it literally crosses the entire length of the county, from the Potomac River in the North to Woodbridge in the South. It does touch civilization in spots but mostly it cuts its way through remnants of forests and along local streambeds. I had known about the trail for a couple of years and had ignored it. Most Fairfax County residents don’t even know it’s there. But if you are a hiker, it’s right here and a great way to get some exercise. You just have to find the darn thing. At least that was my experience last Sunday walking a stretch of it between Vale and Lawyers roads.
The trail may not be well known because it is not well marked. I had to drive to it and it took me a while to find it. There was no place to park my car, so I pulled off and parked by the side of the road. The entrance to the trail at first escaped me, as all I could see was a gravel road into Camp Crowell, the local Girl Scout camp. There was a hard to see dirt path off on the side, and this happened to be the trail. I was expecting something grander and wasn’t even sure I was on it at all until I saw a small trail marker. Water bottle and camera in hand I headed north. Slowly the noise from cars on Vale Road disappeared behind me.
What appeared ahead of me was pasture, and then another pasture, this one bounded by fences. Inside were two horses for the girls of Camp Crowell looking very bored in the distance. There were prominent no trespassing signs, so I didn’t. I did however come up to the fence just to get a better look at the horses, a rare sight in Fairfax County. The two horses, including one foal, were frisky, playful and curious and came right up to me. “How you doing, fellas,” I said, stroking their heads, affection that they were very happy to receive. I could not recall how long it had been since I had the pleasure of touching a horse. It was likely more than a decade, but it was a welcome, almost sensuous experience. I regretted not having packed a couple of apples, but I had no idea I would be encountering horse on my little four-mile hike.
I wandered past the pastures and soon found myself in the woods, somewhat past their autumn peak. To my right was the sound of gently flowing water, a stream called Difficult Run to be precise. I knew of it not because I have lived in Fairfax County for nearly thirty years but because I manage a web site for the USGS that serves data for thousands of water monitoring sites, including one on Difficult Run. I wasn’t sure whether I would encounter our gaging station or not, but water flow was gentle so it couldn’t be flowing more than a few cubic feet per second. The creek’s banks, covered with sand and gravel, attested to the power of the stream after storms. Today it was moving at a languid pace. I breathed deeply. How wonderful: invigorating autumn air, temperatures in the lower 60s, mostly dry ground to walk across, a mixture of hazy sunshine filtering through the canopy and a gently winding trail to traverse.
And yet it was not wholly unmaintained. I crossed a few bridges the county had put in. I also found one volunteer about my age, with his aging dog sporting a large benign tumor on his right side, maintaining the trail of sorts. He had a little rake and was engaged in the thankless task of sweeping leaves off the trail, but only in spots where they masked hidden roots. I stopped and we chatted for a bit. He spoke of the trail as a hidden gem and said he walked it regularly, but usually alone and sometimes in the evening when the deer came out. It was both sad and nice to hear about its little use. Today, I didn’t mind so much the lack of human company. Instead I hungered for a little nature. I got it with the rustling of leaves, mostly wind driven but occasionally caused by a squirrel in the bush. I heard it in the birds overhead and the occasional call of a crow.
It was not quite just me, this man and his dog on the trail. A little further I found a mother with two daughters and two dogs. Dog lovers know what happens if you put dogs near a stream: they were in it, lapping it, walking in it, prancing through it from time to time, and mostly making a happy but soggy mess of themselves. It’s a natural things for dogs to do, except you don’t see it much in Fairfax County, where leash laws are in effect and where nature like this tends to be far away. Here, hidden in the woods, dogs could be dogs.
“Follow the signs carefully,” the trail guide with the broom told me. “Cross the creek to the path on the other side and you can end up on private property. Nothing should happen to you, but it’s best avoided.” Instead he pointed me to the trail marker pointing to the left. It moved me away from Difficult Run and up a small hill. Up the hill I found some tents in the woods, which I first mistook for tents of homeless people. On further inspection I realized that they were there to keep cords of firewood dry. Nearby were some large estates for rich people. Their chimneys would use that that wood when the weather turned colder. I was more than a little envious. I wished I could purchase an opportunity to be so close to nature.
Up to Lawyers Road then back again. My pace back was brisker as rain looked like it might threaten. The horses were nowhere to be found when I past their pasture again. There was no sign of an outhouse, but plenty of nature. When privacy allowed, I let nature be my outhouse.
Finally the distant sound of cars on Vale Road, and suddenly the magic was over. But now that I know the Cross County Trail is so close and often so unused, it is likely that I will be back again soon, and exploring other parts of this largely unknown gem secretly nestled in the heart of Fairfax County. Walking the trail I can renew both body and spirit. And I don’t have to go too far. Call me selfish, but I hope it stays our little hidden natural gem.