You live, work and play along particular pathways that make it easy to forget. To forget that this place is more than neighborhoods and monuments and office parks and traffic jams. That before any of that, this land was home to native tribes and bald eagles. There are plenty of those majestic birds still around, of course -- if you know where to look.
With all the protected land in and around Washington, there's an almost overwhelming number of choices. Here's one we particularly like: Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge. It's just off Route 1 in Lorton, but it's the type of place that can make you forget that urbanity even exists. The Mason Neck peninsula juts into the Potomac River, and a three-mile trail through the wooded refuge leads to an arrestingly beautiful marsh often cited as one of the nation's best viewing points for those eagles.
May is an ideal month to visit, refuge manager Greg Weiler says, because "the weather is such that you have a lot of migrant birds coming through the area." After you've worked up an appetite, detour into nearby Pohick Bay Regional Park (you'll see signs for it on your way to the refuge) and refuel with a picnic on the banks of the rolling Potomac.
Tip: The restrooms aren't in the best shape, especially later in the day. You might want to make a pit stop before you pull into the park.
-- Ellen McCarthy (January 25, 2008)
Mason Neck is a perfect place for bird-watchers-in-training. Its claim to fame is the bald eagle, which has made a comeback here, where the Occoquan River feeds into the Potomac in a series of bays. More than 60 of the national birds live here year-round, and nesting pairs help assure a steady supply of eaglets.
The friendly staff at the visitors center can give you eagle-watching tips, even if they can't guarantee you a sighting. Kayakers often push off from a small beach at the foot of the center, paddling into Belmont Bay. Interconnected trails, none longer than a mile and none requiring too much strenuous activity, pass along the bay or head through the woods.
As you drive to the park, you'll first pass the Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge. Its three-mile Woodmarsh Trail may be too long for littlest hikers to do in its entirety, and its most interesting feature (a trail that skirts Great Marsh) is about halfway in. The path is graveled, with boardwalks over wet areas.
Words to the wise: Bring binoculars if you have them.
Notes: There's no food, but there are picnic tables and grills if you've brought your own.
-- John Kelly and Craig Stoltz (Kid-O-Rama, 1998)