Public lands where you least expect… the East Coast
Spent last weekend attending my brother’s wedding in the vicinity of Quantico, Va. Major Tim Drieslein flies C-130s out of Cherry Point, N.C., but he met his now-wife, Ericka, while attending staff and command training at the U.S. Marine Corps “Q-Co” base in northern Virginia. On Sunday morning, my dad (also a USMC veteran), brother Tim, me, and two other members of the wedding party decided to burn some energy and pre-ceremony jitters and take a quick three-mile hike through a portion of the nearby Prince William Forest Park.
I love Minnesota for its rich access to public lands and water nearly statewide, but whenever I travel, it’s surprising how often I can find a quiet little gem almost anywhere in the Lower 48. At Prince William, we found a gorgeous parcel with a lot of history, a nifty little trout stream, and some respectable East Coast timber.
Operated by the National Park Service, the 16,000-acre property borders the forested Marine Corps base, making for a nice chunk of wild property just 30 minutes south of the Washington D.C.-Alexandria-Arlington, Va., megalopolis. Indeed, Wikipedia describes the property as the largest protected natural area in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan region and says it provides “a window into the past and serves as an example of what much of the East Coast once looked like centuries ago.”
Among our hearty group of hikers was Curt Storey, now of La Crescent, Minn., who read scripture at Tim’s wedding and joined us on some epic backpacking trips in the mid-1990s. The three of us had fun rendezvousing on the trail again, if only for a few miles and sans 50-pound backpacks.
I’ve visited many national parks and national forests but never a “forest park,” which the National Park Service operates. As part of his New Deal, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a new kind of park in 1933, the Recreational Demonstration Areas, to reuse marginal, overworked land. According to NPS information, more than 2,000 Civilian Conservation Corps enrollees came to work the land along the Chopawamsic and Quantico creeks to create the Chopawamsic RDA. It became a model for the entire program and one of 46 such land-use projects around the country. Complete with CCC-built cabins, the property hosted thousands of inner-city children and families where they could experience the great outdoors as the camp experience and built “a crop of sturdy citizens” inspired by “a close communication with nature.”
Later, during World War II, the family camps closed and the Office of Strategic Services (a forerunner to the CIA) trained spies how to handle weapons and explosives on the property. (These days, in addition to the USMC base, Quantico also is home to the FBI’s training academy.) Today, Prince William contains reservable camp cabins and campsites, plus great day hiking and biking trails underneath a fragrant canopy of beech, tupelos, and sycamores.
If you find yourself in the Washington D.C. area and need a respite from political chatter, military structure, and incessant traffic, check out the Prince William Forest Park just a half hour south of the metro and a couple miles from the Potomac’s western shore. We hiked for 90 minutes, but you could explore the area’s creeks, bridges, and trails for weeks. The forest park is another example of America’s public legacy providing citizens with a place to recharge their batteries in the most unexpected places.