A Toast to a Top Fitness Path

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

When the American Hiking Society and the Coors Brewing Co. named the Burke Lake Loop Trail one of America's top 10 fitness trails this spring, I wondered whether the judges had been drinking. No offense to our beautiful suburb of Burke, but I foresaw a trail encircling a pond, squeezed by housing developments and symmetrically planted trees.

Trails eligible for the distinction had to be within 20 minutes of a major metropolitan area, have elements that can be completed in 60 to 90 minutes and offer multiple uses, including trail running, hiking and biking.

What I found was a pleasant surprise. On a muggy morning, I started jogging the 4.7-mile packed-dirt trail at the "fitness course" entry point amid thick, secondary-growth forest, with the 218-acre lake located mere feet to my right.

I have seen these courses, with their sit-up benches, balance beams and chin-up bars, along other trails but have always slogged past them, focused on my running. But on this day I was obligated. Of the 18 helpfully signed stations spread over about a mile, I was challenged by at least a half-dozen, including a vault bar (place hands on a waist-high beam and swing legs over), a body-crunch board (a sloping plank with a handle to grip while lifting knees to chest), the chin-up bars and a log hop, which demands skiing-like bounds over low obstacles.

Thusly exhausted, I had only 3.5 miles to go! But I was enjoyably distracted from my effort by the lake. Burke Lake contains numerous coves and the trail is laid out to bring users within a toe's-breadth of the water on numerous occasions.

I counted at least eight people fishing, four of them out on small boats, and park manager Charlie Reagle told me the lake is Virginia's top largemouth bass fishing lake under 500 acres.

The trail, which roughly traces the lake shore, is mostly level, with a few very gentle grades, so this is not the course to run or bike if you seek hills. The path is forested for most of its length, save for a quarter-mile exposure.

The route wends through a Frisbee golf course and past a series of sand volleyball pits and a campground. The 883-acre park also includes an 18-hole, par-3 golf course, marina (with boat rentals and bait), ice cream parlor, carousel, miniature golf course and picnic areas. I passed other joggers, walkers (some with dogs or strollers), and light-core mountain bikers. (The park lacks the high challenge many mountain bikers crave.) What I didn't see were housing tracts or many other signs that it was a 30-minute drive from Washington.

Alas, it's 30 minutes only before or after rush hour: If you don't reside nearby, the trail could be punishing to access before or after work. And that's even more reason for other local governments to mimic this fine park. (Write your County Council!) Chastened, we now concur with the esteemed judges of the American Hiking Society and Coors Brewing. We think that if both groups had concessions at the trail's terminus, it would be nearly perfect. Well, all right, they should add a few hills, too.

Park hours are dawn to dusk; visitors who don't live in Fairfax County face a $6-per-car fee on weekends and holidays. More details at http://www.co.fairfax.va.us/parks/burkelake/index.htm .

Walk, bike, jog or cartwheel into our fitness chat room today, 11 a.m. to noon, at http://www.washingtonpost.com/ .

-- John Briley

© 2005 The Washington Post Company