Mason Neck State Park, Virginia

Kane's Creek in Mason Neck State Park provides a peaceful and secluded place to kayak and critter-watch, just 20 miles south of Washington, DC. Photo by Christopher A. KobergMason Neck State Park's Kane's Creek provides a peaceful and secluded place to kayak and critter-watch just 20 miles south of D.C. Photo by Christopher A. Koberg

An Urban-Area Oasis Awaits Exploration by Foot, Bike, or Kayak

By Loren Anne Barnett
Published in the Fall 2011 issue of Save The Bay magazine

Your breathing slows as you leave behind the urbanized metropolis of D.C. and Northern Virginia. Turning onto Gunston Road in Lorton, Virginia, a sense of peace washes over you as you pass horse farms and undisturbed forest. Ahead lies an oasis. A pleasant change from what is usual. A refuge. Once destined to be a massive suburban development, Mason Neck is a peaceful, 9,000-acre peninsula on the Potomac River just 20 miles south of our nation's capital. Generations of hard work has put two-thirds of this beautiful and historic land in the hands of local, state, and national park systems.

Map of Mason Neck State Park in Lorton, Virginia. Map credit Lucidity Information DesignImage credit Lucidity Information Design

Mason Neck State Park at a Glance

LOCATION: 20 miles south of Washington, D.C., on Lorton (Fairfax County), Virginia's Mason Neck peninsula.

GEOGRAPHY: About 6,000 of Mason Neck peninsula's 9,000 acres are held as public land. The penninsula is bordered by Gunston Cove to the north, Belmont Bay to the west, and the Potomac River to the east.

ACTIVITIES: Hiking, biking, kayaking, canoeing, Wee Ranger activities (ages 4 to 6), Junior Ranger programs (ages 7 to 10), and interpretive programs (all ages).

CONTACT: www.dcr.virginia.gov/state_parks/, 703/339-2380.

LOCAL WATERSHED GROUP: Mason Neck Citizens Association.

Cheers to those who had the foresight and dedication to preserve this beautiful land: the Mason Neck Citizens Association, The Nature Conservancy, the federal government, the state of Virginia, and representatives like Congressman Jim Moran. Originally settled in 1755 by Virginia Declaration of Rights author George Mason IV, the peninsula has been the target of many development projects over the years. Plans to encroach on ecologically sensitive Mason Neck have included an "outer beltway" for D.C., an airport, and a landfill.

Thankfully, the spotting of bald eagles in 1965 got the preservation ball rolling. Mason Neck is now home to three large parks: Pohick Bay Regional Park, Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge, and Mason Neck State Park. My daughter Helen and I visited the state park this past summer.

On the day of our arrival, Administrative Assistant Patricia Paron welcomed us and became our self-appointed cruise director, making sure things ran smoothly at every turn. After an introduction at the visitor center, Park Manager Jess Lowry gave us the lay of the land, covering the park by truck.

Jess has been with the Virginia park system for 32 years. His career has taken him across the state from Natural Tunnel in the western end of Virginia to the Piedmont Region's Smith Mountain to his current post in the park system's Chesapeake Region. He is knowledgeable and speaks of the park like an old friend. "Mason Neck," he says, "is my favorite." Helen and I believed him 100 percent.

A plan gelled as we returned to the visitor center. The following day would be spent doing what we began to call our "Mason Neck triathlon": a biking, kayaking, and hiking, upclose-and-personal romp around the park.

Back at our hotel in Woodbridge: culture shock. We couldn't believe we were just 10 miles away. Next time, we will reserve a cabin at Pohick Bay Regional Park. Although with the water park, pool, and snack bar, Pohick is not as pristine as our triathlon site, it beats neighboring the 1.5-million-square-foot concrete jungle that is Potomac Mills Mall.

Patricia greeted us the next morning and set us up with rental bikes and helmets. We felt the impending heat as we began Leg 1, an eight-mile bike ride along the park's multiuse trail. But as we entered the shaded path, the air cooled. We were quiet except for the sound of our bike tires on the barely damp asphalt. As our eyes and ears acclimated, we noticed woodpeckers swooping between the trees and furry critters scurrying along the forest floor. The trail continued outside the park, running through a corner of the National Wildlife Refuge and meeting up with another trail along Gunston Road. Before turning around, we stopped at an archeological dig display that interprets artifacts from Paleo-Indians to early European settlers. We wouldn't be doing this had the "outer beltway" gone through.

Back at the visitor center for Leg 2, Ricardo Hoyos, our kayak guide, awaited. Ricardo, the park's Naturalist, studied ecotourism in his native country of Ecuador. Before he came to Virginia four years ago, he was a jungle guide. Helen and I expected an adventure.

Success at Gunston Cove

Mason Neck's Gunston Cove is an inspiring model of success for saving the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams. In spite of the increasing population and volume of wastewater, this Potomac River embayment is experiencing the benefits of pollution-reduction efforts: improved water clarity, declines in algal blooms, and a doubling of underwater grasses—a critical habitat for larval fish and juvenile crabs. The road to progress has been steady and measured—a great case for implementing EPA's Chesapeake pollution diet. Fairfax County has been proactive in decreasing nutrient pollution since the late 1970s. In a response to the ban on phosphate in laundry detergents and sewage treatment plant upgrades, phosphorus pollution was dramatically reduced in the early 1980s. And, in the last several years, additional sewage treatment upgrades have reduced nitrogen pollution.

Before we boarded the kayak, Ricardo pointed out the tidal pond's many turtles, their heads dark and still, resembling the ends of sticks poking through the green water. We paralleled the shore of Belmont Bay, paddling north towards Kane's Creek. We passed an impressive beaver dam, but the nocturnal builders must have been safe inside. Instead, a racoon prowling the beach acknowledged our presence and a large turtle plopped off a log.

Entering Kane's Creek, I imagined how Dorothy felt when she landed in Oz. We were truly away from it all. Only nature surrounded us and we synched with the caterpillars patiently riding on the water's surface, waiting to be taken to the nearest blade of grass. Landscaped by Mother Nature, the creek was bursting with purple pickerelweed and punctuated with yellow lilies. We stopped often to watch for critters. Overhead, a bald eagle chased an osprey carrying a fish. At the headwaters, an immature blue heron, not quite as graceful as his parents, showed us his new fishing skills. We wished to linger and it was tough to return.

Back on land, Helen and I set out on Leg 3. Bay View Trail hugs the waterfront and loops through park's mature hardwood forest. We played possum now and then until the critters—birds, frogs, dragonflies, and squirrels—showed themselves. Otherwise, all was green and brown. Although we only covered one mile, we didn't emerge for more than an hour. Our triathlon was complete.

With tuned-up senses and lots of great memories, we headed home.

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