Riding the rails to trails: Metro offers a car-free path to the great outdoors


With the opening of the Silver Line, mountain bikers have a new Metro-accessible trail to try out. The lush ribbon of green that runs northeast from the Wiehle-Reston East Station to the Potomac River offers nearly eight miles of medium-level single track that crosses creeks and rivers and careens through the woods. (Amy Orndorff/The Washington Post)

Metro’s shiny new Silver Line has been heralded as a boon for commuters heading into the District from Virginia’s outer suburbs and as a quick and easy way for carless Washingtonians to splash some cash at Tysons Corner’s shopping centers. But we’ve found another, somewhat unexpected use: a way to explore the great outdoors. ¶ Metro’s extension can be used as a jumping-off point for an epic mountain bike ride to Great Falls or a hike around untouched wildlife preserves. You can use it to go fishing for rainbow trout or as the start of a 20-mile bike ride into Washington. ¶ So grab your mountain bike, lace up your hiking boots, pick up your rod and reel and don’t forget your SmarTrip card. ¶

The Post's Stephanie Merry strapped a camera to her bicycle before pedaling from Reston to Georgetown along a section of the 45-mile trail where the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad once chugged along. (Stephanie Merry/The Washington Post)
BIKES ON METRO

You can bring a bicycle on Metro anytime other than during rush hour (7 to 10 a.m. and 4 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday). A few tips, courtesy of Metro: Use the elevators instead of escalators, and enter and exit trains through the first or last door of any car.

Biking back to the city on the W&OD Trail

Outdoorsy locals know about the W&OD Trail. On any given sunny afternoon, the 45-mile stretch of asphalt from Shirlington to Purcellville is dotted with cyclists, roller-bladers and joggers traveling the path where the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad used to chug. But where one rail line has disappeared (the train ran until 1968), another has cropped up, giving carless city dwellers access to a peaceful section of the trail they may not have had the chance to explore.

The W&OD sits mere blocks from the Wiehle-Reston East stop on Metro’s Silver Line, and if you bring your bike on the train, the ride to the city is a roughly 2-hour, 20-mile trek, much of which is hill-free. And given that the trail passes through Vienna, Falls Church and Arlington, plenty of places along the way offer the chance to refuel.

Once you get to the Wiehle-Reston East stop, take the North exit, which guides you toward Reston Station Boulevard. Walk toward Wiehle Road and take a left, then cross over Sunset Hills Road. Once you see the Pizza Hut, you know you’ve arrived. But don’t let that inauspicious beginning discourage you. Things are about to get very idyllic. (Note: Wiehle is a busy road and not particularly bike-friendly, but it’s a short, manageable distance from the station to the trail to walk your bike on the sidewalk.)

On a recent Thursday, the section of the trail from where you enter at mile marker 18 until about mile marker 13 was the least populated, and even then the only people to be seen were road warriors so perfectly outfitted in colorful spandex they made this particular city commuter feel sheepishly unprepared. With the exception of a few roads to cross and the inescapable power lines overhead, the trail feels remote. There were more cardinals, squirrels and butterflies than fellow trail-travelers and the sound of cars was undetectable beneath the late-summer din of buzzing insects. Speaking of which, there are a lot of bugs out there, so bicycling with a closed mouth is recommended.

Stretching posts and benches crop up along the way, and in the early portion of the ride, you can take a longer detour by locking up your bike and hiking along the Gerry Connolly Cross County Trail to Difficult Run. Don’t let the name scare you. Sections of the stream may get wild at times, but the trail isn’t too strenuous.

Civilization will be nearly imperceptible until you reach Vienna, where warehouses spring up along the trail, including Caboose Brewing Company, which is expected to open this fall. Vienna is a good place to stop for quick replenishment: A Whole Foods backs up to the path, and a number of other spots, including Church Street Pizza and Jammin’ Java, are within a couple of blocks of the W&OD.

A lot of parks dot the path along the way, but one worth a visit, especially if you have kids in tow, is the magnificently forested Dunn Loring Park. From the trail, take a right on Gallows Road (there are bike lanes on this busy road, but the west side of the street has wide sidewalks that are bike-friendly) and ride for three-tenths of a mile. The park has bike racks where you can lock up to take advantage of the playground, picnic shelter and plenty of shade. Also keep in mind that this park is only a half-mile from the Dunn Loring-Merrifield station, if the full ride from Reston sounds daunting.

Cross over the Beltway and take a moment to give thanks that you aren’t in one of those cars sitting in traffic below. The next point of interest is Idylwood Park. It’s less quiet and shady than Dunn Loring, but Idylwood has something the earlier stop doesn’t: tennis courts. Don’t forget your racket.

After crossing over Interstate 66 and following the trail, which parallels Shreve Road, you’ll land in Falls Church, where the options for food and drink are plentiful. One option: After bumping along the wooden bridge, take a right on North Oak Street, a left on Park Avenue and a right on Pennsylvania Avenue, which dead-ends at West Broad Street. From there, you can walk your bike left to Mad Fox Brewing, which has bike racks out front. If beer and biking don’t sound like a magical mix, there’s also Sweet Frog for frozen yogurt.

The trail disappears momentarily by the East Falls Church Metro station, where you’ll have to ride on North Tuckahoe Street before getting back on the path by Four Mile Run. There are more parks and benches for stopping, but you’ll have the sweet strains of I-66 to contend with. The remainder of the ride parallels the highway.

Continue on the W&OD until just beyond Patrick Henry Drive, where you’ll pick up the Custis Trail toward Washington. This stretch is the hilliest portion of the ride, but there are also more excuses for breaks given the ample opportunities to cut into Arlington. And good luck trying to resist the enticing aroma of pizza wafting from the Italian Store, which backs up to the trail. (Keep in mind that the bridge to Courthouse neighborhood is closed for construction at the moment.)

The Custis Trail leads into Rosslyn, where city dwellers can take the Key Bridge into Georgetown and head home. Or, if all this riding has only whetted your appetite, you can pick up the Mount Vernon Trail for an additional jaunt along the Potomac River.

Stephanie Merry


After crossing over the Beltway and I-66, the W&OD Trail cuts through quiet neighborhoods on the northern end of Falls Church. (Stephanie Merry/The Washington Post)
Trail riding, mountain-bike style

Mountain bikers are a different breed of cyclist. Far removed from their skinny-wheeled brethren, they will take trees over traffic and rocks over roads. And fortunately for carless adrenaline-lovers stuck in the city, the opening of Metro’s Silver Line has made another playground accessible.

The lush ribbon of green that runs northeast from the Wiehle-Reston East station to the Potomac River offers bikers nearly eight miles of medium-level single track that crosses creeks and rivers, winds through the woods and (for slower bikers) offers a peek at suburban wildlife, including deer, turtles, frogs and other assorted creatures.

To reach it, exit the station from the north entrance and continue north until you see the intersection of Wiehle Avenue and the smooth, flat W&OD Trail. Make a right to head east on the trail. Fortunately, you need to go less than a quarter-mile on the W&OD before you reach Michael Faraday Court and the start of the single track. Start your ride at the Rails to River Trail in the cool, shady woods.

The first part of the trail takes you through Lake Fairfax Park. Two warnings about this part of the ride:

● The spider web of paths within the park aren’t well blazed and can prove confusing. The good news is that even if you get a little off your preferred route, you are never more than a couple of minutes ride from a trail map, which you’ll find at most intersections. Our suggestion? Print the online map, highlight the Rails to River Trail and check it when in doubt.

● The park is popular. You may have to contend with hikers, dog walkers and even horses on weekends, but the trail is mercifully quiet during the week.

Leave the park along the Rails to River Trail, which continues along the lazy Colvin Run stream and lets out at Leesburg Pike and Carpers Farm Way. On the other side of Leesburg Pike, to the left, is Colvin Run Mill, a perfect turnaround point for a short, eight-mile ride (which takes two to three hours) or a stop during a longer, 16-mile ride (about six hours).

If you stop at the mill, be sure to check out the general store, which dates from 1900 and sells souvenirs, candy, books and grain from the mill. The best bet for a weary rider? An ice-cold soda.

The mill (open Wednesday-Monday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.) offers tours on the hour ($7, $6 students and $5 children and seniors). There are free demonstrations — think ice cream making and wood carving — on the weekends.

If you continue the ride, make a right after crossing the pike and pick up the Difficult Run Stream Valley Trail. This path crosses the swiftly moving Difficult Run stream twice, so you’ll have to dismount and walk your bikes across. Besides those two potentially soggy crossings, you also have to contend with the kind of mud that will make you dream of a drought. For the sake of your fellow Metro riders, pack a towel.

Unfortunately, part of this trail was washed out about a quarter-mile from the terminus, where Difficult Run meets the Potomac River. The rocky outcrop makes a lovely spot for a picnic, so if you are feeling really adventurous, lock your bike around a tree and make your way to the end on foot.

Amy Orndorff


The Difficult Run Trail crosses the stream twice as it winds toward the Potomac River. (Amy Orndorff/The Washington Post)
Hiking through Lake Fairfax Park

The southern gateway to one of Fairfax County’s finest parks is an inconspicuous gap between trees in the parking lot of an office park on Michael Faraday Court in Reston. It’s only about three blocks from the Wiehle-Reston East Metro station, past a Pizza Hut, a bank and the W&OD Trail, but the unmarked park entrance — really no more than a dirt path winding into the woods — looks a little sketchy. Don’t let that deter you.

Lake Fairfax Park is known for many things, including the titular lake and the popular Water Mine water park, but the bulk of the 476-acre green space is made for a walk in the woods. Hiking trails crisscross the length of the park, skirting the edges of designated wildlife sanctuaries, following the gentle path of the Colvin Run stream or climbing up steep-sided valleys.

On a recent weekday afternoon, the atmosphere was so peaceful that you could hear the wind in the canopy of trees, birdsong and the burble of a nearby waterfall. Even when the silence was broken by the occasional mountain biker whizzing by or a plane overhead approaching Dulles International Airport, it was easy to quickly get lost in nature again.

The trails are primarily flat, though they aren’t always well-marked. There are trail maps posted sporadically throughout the park, but the only place to pick up a physical map is at the park’s main office near the official entrance, which sits miles north of where hikers coming from Metro will enter. You might want to print out a guide before lacing up your hiking boots.

The lake, about two miles from the southern entrance, is a large draw: Dozens of brightly colored paddleboats can be rented between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and a pontoon boat offers daily half-hour tours of the 20-acre lake. (You won’t see much, but there’s a nice breeze.) Anglers will love that the lake is stocked with rainbow trout every spring. If you don’t have a Virginia fishing license, you need to buy it in advance, as they are not sold at the park.

Other amenities include picnic areas with grills; a wooden carousel; a free 14,000-square-foot skatepark with a concrete bowl and obstacle-filled plaza areas; soccer and cricket fields; and a campground with dozens of spots for tents and RVs. It’s everything you need to enjoy the great outdoors.

Lake Fairfax Park, 1400 Lake Fairfax Dr., Reston. 703-471-5414. www.fairfaxcounty.gov/
parks/lakefairfax
.

Paddleboats for up to three people cost $11 per hour on weekends and $10 during the week. Pontoon boat tours cost $2 for adults and $1.50 for children.

Fritz Hahn


The 20-acre Lake Fairfax is the centerpiece of Reston’s Lake Fairfax Park, used for fishing, canoeing and boating. (Fritz Hahn/The Washington Post)

Nature trails wind through Lake Fairfax Park, skirting wildlife preserves, following the path of Colvin Run and offering both gentle and steep hiking options. (Fritz Hahn/The Washington Post)

Stopping to see the space shuttle

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is home to some pretty spectacular flying objects, including the space shuttle Discovery, the Enola Gay and a sleek Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. Flight simulators and Imax films are entertaining. But if you don’t have a car, it’s hard to get to Chantilly.

With the opening of the Silver Line, the Fairfax Connector unveiled a bus line that travels from Wiehle-Reston East to Udvar-Hazy. Unfortunately, you might feel like it’s faster to get into orbit than to get from downtown Washington to the museum.

From Metro Center, the ride to Wiehle-Reston East will take 42 minutes, according to our trips. Once there, change to the local 983 bus, which stops at Reston Town Center and Dulles International Airport on its 45-minute trip to Udvar-Hazy. The bus runs every 20 minutes, so if you barely miss the connection at Wiehle as I did, cool your heels in the Metro station’s new transit center. As a result, my trip from downtown to see Discovery took just under two hours one-way. (The return trip was slightly faster because of a short wait for the Silver Line.)

The museum is definitely worth a visit, and bus riders get to skip the $15 parking fee. Just make sure you have time to spare.

Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, 14390 Air and Space Museum Pkwy., Chantilly. 703-572-4118. www.airandspace.si.edu. Free admission.

Fritz Hahn


A new Fairfax bus route is designed to take visitors to the Steven F. Udvar-Havy Center, where the space shuttle Discovery is a prime attraction. (Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post)
Shop

For years, Washingtonians have been jumping in their cars and heading to Tysons Corner’s two shopping malls. It’s finally possible to take Metro to Tysons, yet indoor malls have fallen out of favor with shoppers and the kind of luxury stores that fill the upscale Galleria — Gucci, Louis Vuitton and others — have opened on Wisconsin Avenue.

But here are three reasons to take the Silver Line to the Tysons Corner station, even if Tysons Corner Center isn’t the only place Where The Stores Are:

The American Girl store

(877-247-5223)

The only store dedicated to American Girl dolls between New York City and Atlanta, the two-level American Girl store buzzes with more than doll outfits and accessories. Free craft events allow kids to make bookmarks, doll accessories or Grandparents’ Day cards. A bistro offers teas and brunch for children and their dolls. And a doll hair salon will give the pricey dolls new hairdos or even pierced ears.

The Lego store

(703-848-2822)

Perfect for kids or adults, this temple of Lego offers dozens of ready-to-build sets, from superheroes to “Star Wars” to the classy architecture series. But the real draw here is the chance to buy mini-figures (outside of the sets) and the awesome “Pick a Brick” wall, which lets Legomaniacs buy random individual pieces — big blocks for walls, chairs, pieces of fence, tires, wings — for their dream sets. There are monthly Mini Model Build sessions where kids ages 6 to 14 can build a Lego set and take it home for free. The next one, which features a racing plane, is Sept. 2 at 5 p.m.

L.L. Bean

(888-552-9876)

The southern-most L.L. Bean retail outlet offers everything from camping supplies to winter jackets. (Those who love the preppy rugby shirts and Bean Boots will find those, too.) Free weekly clinics introduce the basics of fly fishing, kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding and lets you put the new skills to use on adventures at regional parks (for a fee). Sign up in advance, as these clinics fill up.

Fritz Hahn

Eat

Dining in Tysons Corner brings to mind California Pizza Kitchen and the Palm. But there are plenty of other options, according to Washington Post critics Tom Sietsema and Tim Carman. Each of these restaurants sits within a mile of the Tysons Corner Metro station.

America Eats Tavern

1700 Tysons Blvd., McLean. 703-744-3999. www.americaeatstavern.com.

Last month, Sietsema gave two stars to José Andrés’s tribute to all-American food, singling out the Waldorf salad, the jambalaya and a Ramos Gin Fizz. Originally opened in Penn Quarter, it is now at the Tysons Corner location of the Ritz-Carlton.

Nostos

8100 Boone Dr., Vienna.
703-760-0690. www.nostosrestaurant.com.

“No matter the picture outside, it’s always sunny at Nostos,” was Sietsema’s 21 / 2-star verdict in his 2014 Spring Dining Guide, praising the Greek restaurant’s warm pitas, oregano-flecked lamb chops and Mediterranean fish filleted tableside.

Paladar Latin Kitchen
and Rum Bar

1934 Old Gallows Rd., Vienna. 703-854-1728. www.paladarlatinkitchen.com.

If you’re searching for a place to have a drink as well as a bite to eat, Carman recommends Paladar Latin Kitchen and Rum Bar, which also has branches in Annapolis and Rockville. “It’s a small chain with a pan-Latin menu,” he says. “It’s a little corporate and the food still needs refining, but it’s a worthy stop in the area.”

Fritz Hahn

Washington-area native Stephanie Merry covers movies, theater and art for Weekend and the Going Out Guide. She’s also the section’s de facto expert on yoga, gluten-free dining and bicycle commuting.
Fritz Hahn has written about bars, drinks and nightlife for the Washington Post Weekend Section since 2003, but he also writes about everything from Civil War battlefields to sailing classes. A product of Prince George's County public schools, Fritz majored in journalism at the University of Maryland and lives in the District.
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