I have spent the majority of my 20 years on nature walks, especially along the boardwalk wetland trails of Huntley Meadows Park in the Hybla Valley of Fairfax County, Virginia. Located only 30 minutes from Washington D.C, Huntley Meadows serves as a natural island vacation from the monotonous miles of metropolis. Growing up, whenever my parents felt like we needed an escape, we explored the park’s 1,424-acre spread of forests, meadows, and vast wetlands.
Recently, I decided to relive my youthful excursions and take a visit to the park. I began on the half-mile wetland boardwalk “Heron” trail, and within minutes I was gazing down at tadpoles, geese, ducks, and dragonflies. I had pretty high expectations for my wildlife viewing, as I recalled witnessing a beaver retreating from its dam (yes, there are several right next to the boardwalk) at age 10, but I was not disappointed.
In the span of 30 minutes, I viewed several snapping turtles sunning themselves, red-tailed black birds bickering, egrets flocking, a lone Eastern bluebird chirping, and bull frogs croaking. Besides the diverse fauna, I noticed thriving wetland flora: profusions of duckweed, budding swamp rose, and bunches of lizard’s tail and cattails. Even though I missed seeing any snakes or beavers like I have in the past, I was impressed. Near the end of the boardwalk, there is an observation tower that provides a spectacular panoramic view of the wetlands and is perfect for bird-watchers.
After I stepped off the boardwalk, I walked along a two-mile interpretive trail system comprised of the “Deer Trail” and “Cedar Trail,” a loop that leads visitors back to the Visitor Center and parking lot. The Visitor Center is a nice stop for a history lesson—I learned that the wet lowland was carved out by the Potomac River, inhabited by Indians, and later covered with dairy farms and anti-aircraft facilities before finally transforming into Fairfax County-created wetlands in the 1980s.
Before heading out, I discovered another hiking and biking trail at the park only a five-minute drive away (What? I thought I was the residential expert here!), so I drove over and ogled at Huntley Meadows namesake—expanses of meadows. The paved trail hugs the meadows on one side and the forest on another—it allows for bikes and dogs on leashes, and even includes a “Pond Trail Loop.” The Loop amounts to about twenty minutes of peaceful, winding dirt paths and views of amphibians leaping into the pond and birds skirting between overhanging branches.
My latest visit to Huntley Meadows Park confirmed the sentimental feelings of discovery that I have always associated with it. The park is a natural escape for all ages with a major reward—no matter what time of day you visit, you will inevitably spot a variety of wildlife in the abundant habitat, which makes for a pretty successful afternoon at this neighborhood natural island.