Virginia's Tidewater Potomac Hikes
1. Caledon Natural Area
Bald eagles are the big attraction at Caledon, a 2,579-acre park which is designated a National Natural Landmark. Five hiking trails are open year-round, taking hikers through ecologically rich marshlands and woodlands. The 3.5 mile Boyd's Hole Trail leading to the Potomac River is the most popular of the trails. Because human traffic disturbs the park's summer population of roosting and foraging eagles, the Boyd’s Hole Trail is open only from October 1 through March 31.
2. George Washington Birthplace
Visitors to Popes Creek Plantation are often struck by its isolation. Tucked into a cove on Popes Creek at the confluence with the Potomac, Washington’s birthplace illustrates how far removed the first colonists were from England and Europe. And as a memorial to the first president, it is the opposite of the more familiar grand and elegant monuments. Through the place it is possible to understand the earliest influences of a person most of us know only through legends.
One fact of early 18th century life we can only imagine now is the role of the Potomac River as a highway. In the early days of Virginia, the Potomac along the Northern Neck was busy with ships and skiffs. Tobacco, wheat and corn were shipped "back home" to Britain, and goods from Britain shipped to the plantations. Local commerce was so sparse that no towns emerged as commercials centers—all eyes and attention were on the waters of the Potomac, the Rappahannock and the many navigable smaller rivers and creeks.
For hikers, the grounds are explored on foot via networks of paths. There is also a one-mile nature trail. Popes Creek Plantation offers short walks punctuated with long pauses to watch the water and contemplate the interpretive exhibits about colonial tobacco plantations and how they shaped Virginia and the southern colonies.
Trailhead: George Washington’s Birthplace is 38 miles east of Fredericksburg, VA. Take Route 3 south 35 miles to Route 204; turn left and follow to the park entrance.
3. Stratford Hall Plantation
The birthplace of Robert E. Lee is one of the finer "history hiking" opportunities in the Potomac Heritage Trail corridor. Whether walking in the West Garden, wandering the grounds amid the outbuildings scattered over the acres, or hiking the nature trails through Stratford’s woodlands, you get to experience this piece of history on foot and outdoors (as well as all there is to enjoy indoors). Although in history Generals Lee and Washington are from entirely different epochs, their families are both rooted along the Potomac River in the early 18th century and separated by only a few miles of shoreline.
Trailhead: Stratford Hall Plantation is 45 miles east of Fredericksburg, VA. Take Route 3 south 42 miles to Route 214; turn left and follow to the entrance. Stratford is open daily.
4. Westmoreland State Park
There are several miles of hiking trails at Westmoreland. The main attraction for many is the chance to hunt for fossils, whale bones and shark teeth along the Potomac River at the foot of Horsehead Cliffs—remnants of the Miocene Sea. Westmoreland is situated between the birthplaces of George Washington and Robert E. Lee. The cabins and campsites make the park the perfect base from which to explore Lee’s Stratford Hall, Washington’s Popes Creek Plantation and other area attractions. It’s also a fine place to just hang out on the beach, take an afternoon hike and rent a kayak or canoe.
Trailhead: Westmoreland State Park is 40 miles east of Fredericksburg, VA. Take Route 3 south 40 miles the entrance. There are picnic tables, boat rentals and a boat launch.
5. Bush Mill Stream Natural Area Preserve
Bush Mill Stream is a brackish tidal creek that serves as a nursery for blue crab, yellow perch and other estuarine species. Within 105 acres, the preserve includes varied habitat, from hillside hardwood/pine forest to swamp to wetland that interact directly with the stream. Leading to the creek are a series of steep ravines, some containing springs that are home to a rare amphipod—a tiny shrimp-like creature that dwells primarily in groundwater. The developed trail system is limited to the half-mile Deep Landing Trail, which in a short distance traverses the complexity of the preserve’s typography and habitat, ending at Bush Mill Stream. About midway along the path is the Heron Loop, a quarter-mile stroll to an overlook offering the patient, quiet walker a bird’s eye view of this great bird in stillness and action.
Trailhead: From Kilmarnock, VA, travel north on Route 3 about 7 miles to Lancaster. Turn right (north) on Route 600 and go 1.5 miles to Route 201. Bear right (north) on Route 201 and go about 6.5 miles to Route 642. A brick church is on the right. Turn right (east) on Route 642 and go 0.3 mile to the preserve entrance on the left. The parking area is 0.1 mile down the gravel entrance road.
6. Hughlett Point Natural Area Preserve
Situated on a peninsula in the Chesapeake Bay, Hughlett Point Natural Area has 204 acres of undeveloped beach, dunes and forest. It is home to river otters, gray foxes and an array of summering and shorebirds and waterfowl, including American the black duck and tundra swan. The forest provides important nesting habitat for songbirds. About the only things unnatural is the interpretive signage that enriches the experience of the boardwalk and observation platforms. The trail system sidles through upland forest, marshes and the beach. The site may be periodically closed for resource management purposes, and access is coordinated by DCR staff. Before visiting, contact Rebecca Wilson, Chesapeake Bay Region Steward, Department of Conservation and Recreation, Division of Natural Heritage, Richmond, VA (804) 445-9117.
Trailhead: From Kilmarnock, VA, by traveling north on US Route 200 about 4 miles to Route 606. Turn right (east) onto Route 606 and go about 2 miles to Route 605. Turn right (south) on Route 605 and go about 2 miles to the preserve parking area on the left.
7. Voorhees Nature Preserve
This preserve along the Rappahannock River is best known as a roosting and nesting site for bald eagles. It also represents an interesting conservation experience. Donated to The Nature Conservancy in 1994 by the Voorhees family, the preserve is adjacent to Westmoreland Berry Farm, which provides passage into the preserve. Visitors park at the farm store, wander the trails and watch for eagles, then return to the farm for a snack and pick-your-own fruits and vegetables. With 729 acres, the preserve offers lots of room to lose yourself in the Rappahannock’s scenery and solitude. Westmoreland Berry Farm makes re-entry into civilization gradual and enjoyable. Forget dinner and a movie for that first date—take a hike and pick some berries.
Trailhead (from TNC Web site): From Fredericksburg, take Route 3 east into King George County. Watch for the Route 301 intersection. Beyond this intersection, continue for 7 miles on Route 3. Just after Westmoreland County line, look for Westmoreland Berry Farm sign. Turn right onto Route 634, following signs for berry farm. Park in lot at the farm.
8. Historic Fredericksburg
How’s this for hiking? Leave the car behind and take the train to Fredericksburg. Both Amtrak and the Virginia Railway Express stop in downtown Fredericksburg. You can easily spend an entire weekend wandering through the historic district and along the Rappahannock River, where Ferry Farm lies on the opposite shore. There are restaurants and watering holes with outdoor seating, while indoors you will find museums, galleries and other cultural attractions, including Kenmore, George Washington's sister's home. Stay at a B&B or hotel in town, rent a boat or bicycle, and you’ll never miss the car.
Trailhead: By car, all roads south from greater Washington, D.C., lead to Fredericksburg. For a unique weekend, take the train and go car-less for a weekend.
9. Belle Isle State Park
Few parks anywhere can boast seven miles of waterfront. Belle Isle State Park has that and 733 acres. It has the Rappahannock River, wild areas, an elegant reproduction Colonial mansion available to guests, hiking trails, canoe and bicycle rentals, saltwater fishing, two guest house, wildlife and dark skies at night. It is an unusual and distinctive park, the first one purchased with funds from a $95 million bond created in 1992. Guided, interpretive canoe trips are available.
Trailhead: From Kilmarnock, VA, take Route 3 west to Lively, then left on Route 201. go three miles, then turn right on Route 354. Go three miles, then turn left on Route 683 and proceed to park entrance.
10. Hickory Hollow Natural Area Preserve
Three and a half miles of footpaths wind through 254 acres of forest owned by the Northern Neck Audubon Society. The preserve is home to a variety of breeding bird species and more than 500 plant species. Hickory Hollow contains a number of plants that are rare for lowland forests. There are picnic tables and well-marked trails. Trail maps and interpretive brochures are available at the trailhead kiosk.
Trailhead: Hickory Hollow is easy to locate, situated behind Lancaster High School on Regina Road, less than a half mile off Route 3 in Kilmarnock.
11. Dameron Marsh Natural Area Preserve
The 316-acre Dameron Marsh Natural Area Preserve contains one of the most significant wetlands on the Chesapeake Bay for marsh-bird communities. Its pristine beach habitat is important for the federally threatened northeastern beach tiger beetle. Dameron Marsh supports impressive salt marsh communities, sand beach, and upland forest habitats. Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation is partnering with The Nature Conservancy to develop long-term conservation management plans for the site. The site may be periodically closed for resource management purposes, and access is coordinated by DCR staff. Before visiting, contact Rebecca Wilson, Chesapeake Bay Region Steward, Department of Conservation and Recreation, Division of Natural Heritage, Richmond, VA 804-445-9117.
Trailhead: In Northumberland County.
12. Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park
The park is a system of sites commemorating four major actions of the U.S. Civil War: the Battle of Fredericksburg, December 11-13, 1862; the Chancellorsville Campaign (encompassing the battles of Chancellorsville, Second Fredericksburg, and Salem Church), April 27-May 6, 1863; the Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864; and the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, May 8-21, 1864. The web site describing the battles and linking the sites together does an exceptional job of providing visitor information. Only two of the sites have visitor centers, but each has trails and walking opportunities. You could make a weekend of walking the battlefields.
Trailhead: The park is in and west (up to 12 miles) of Fredericksburg.
13. George Washington’s Ferry Farm
Across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, Ferry Farm was George Washington's home from age six until adulthood. Ferry Farm was purchased by Augustine Washington in 1738 and is the place where George Washington spent his formative years. Now it is mostly forested with a mixture of oak, alder, beech, dogwood, gum, buttonbush, locust, maple, tulip poplar, walnut, and ash grow thickly on the river slopes, providing cover for a diverse bird population. In spring, the river bottomland is colorful with wildflowers.
Trailhead: Ferry Farm is directly across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg on Kings Highway; 268 Kings Hwy, Fredericksburg, VA 22405
14. Colonial Beach Historic District
Colonial Beach is small beach town on the shores of the Potomac. In the late nineteenth century, Victorian houses sprang up to serve as vacation homes and several hotels hosted the influx of summer tourists. The town’s Web site boasts Alexander Graham Bell as an early resident. It’s a fine little town for taking a stroll, a swim or a siesta. Especially recommended is a hike through the town’s historic district.
Trailhead: Colonial Beach is 40 miles southeast of Fredericksburg, reach via U.S. 301, then Route 205.
15. Village of Kinsale
Established in 1706, Kinsale is the oldest port on the Virginia side of the Potomac. A self-guided Kinsale village walking tour begins at the Kinsale Museum. The museum traces the village's history from its beginnings as a colonial port, through the bustling steamboat days to the present. Northern Neck Eco Tours offers kayak tours of the ecosystem of the Chesapeake Bay, Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers, and the numerous tributary creeks in the region. The company offers kayaking trips ranging from a half-day to overnight with lodging at a B&B. Port Kinsale Maritime Museum focuses on the traditions and heritage of the Chesapeake Bay's workboats. Its flagship is the skipjack "Virginia W." is one of the oldest remaining Virginia-built skipjacks.
Trailhead: Kinsale is about 65 miles southeast of Fredericksburg. Take Route 3 to Route 203 just outside of town.
Reedville is known as a fisherman's town. It is home to a thriving menhaden commercial fishing industry and sport fishing charters. The Reedville Fisherman’s Museum is located in the center of the town's historic district. The museum houses a collection of traditional Chesapeake Bay work boats. While at the museum, pick up a copy of the Reedville Walking Tour brochure. The tour describes the turn-of-the-century Victorian homes which line Main Street.
Trailhead: Reedville is 85 miles southeast of Fredericksburg along U.S. 360.
17. James Monroe Birthplace
The 75 acre forested had been largely ignored as a public space for many years. Westmoreland County, which owns the site, commissioned a master plan for creating a modest memorial and public open space for hiking, nature study and education. The plan received an award from the American Society of Landscape Architects. Those plans will unfold over several years, but already the site provides a quiet, pleasant setting for a hike along an old road to Monroe Creek. A marker identifies the former home site, and there is a modest memorial to the fifth U.S. president.
Trailhead: James Monroe Birthplace is in Monroe Hall on Route 205, about 35 miles southeast of Fredericksburg, near Colonial Beach.
Did You Know?
Prince William Forest Park was used by the Office of Strategic Services (forerunner to the CIA) as a training camp for spies during World War II. Today, you can rent a cabin where spies once learned their trade.