Envisioning a path that connects nature and history

Prince William officials want to connect portions of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail, such as this part in the Belmont Bay area, potentially forming a 35-mile trail in the county.
Prince William officials want to connect portions of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail, such as this part in the Belmont Bay area, potentially forming a 35-mile trail in the county. (Joel Richardson For The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Jennifer Buske
Thursday, December 3, 2009

New hiking and cycling opportunities could be in Prince William County's future as officials work to complete a designated historic trail they say could improve residents' quality of life and make way for economic development in the county's eastern end.

"This is a fantastic trail that will be a jewel for Prince William, providing tourism, recreation and economic development benefits to the county and its citizens," said David Brickley, a member of the Prince William Trails and Blueways Council. "The potential here is incredible."

The stretch of trail is part of the roughly 830-mile Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail, which extends between the Chesapeake Bay and the Allegheny Highlands in the upper Ohio River basin, according to the National Park Service. The trail follows the Potomac River and consists of numerous locally managed routes in Maryland, the District, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

The Prince William portion of the trail runs through Occoquan and the Belmont Bay area, to Leesylvania State Park and Quantico Marine Corps base. There is also the potential to create an inward loop into Prince William Forest Park, Prince William Park Authority planner Michael DePue said, noting that with the loop, the county could have up to 35 miles of heritage trail.

Sections of the trail overlap with the East Coast Greenway, a 3,000-mile trail that stretches between Canada and Key West, Fla., and the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route, county officials said. The latter is the path Gen. George Washington and his French counterpart took in 1781 from the Rhode Island and New York area to Yorktown, Va., where the British army surrendered.

Small portions of the trail in Prince William are now open to the public, including sections in the town of Occoquan, Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Veterans Memorial Park and Prince William Forest Park. It will take easements, land acquisitions, memorandums of understanding with agencies along the trail, funding and volunteer hours to get the entire trail connected and operational, Park Authority officials said.

The project could take five to 15 years, park officials said, but once it is complete, residents could avoid busy roadways and instead hike or bike the eastern edge of the county.

"People are looking for additional pedestrian amenities not only for public safety but also for convenience and recreational purposes," said Occoquan Supervisor Michael C. May (R). "The Potomac Heritage Trail will give residents an opportunity to see some of the natural scenic beauty that Northern Virginia has to offer, and I think the citizens in my district are very excited about that prospect."

Woodbridge Supervisor Frank J. Principi (D) led Park Authority staff members and residents through part of the route in his district last month to get people interested in completing the eight-mile stretch between Belmont Bay and Leesylvania park.

If all goes as planned, the Woodbridge stretch would cross George Mason University's future science center; Rippon Lodge, one of the oldest standing houses in the county; and Featherstone National Wildlife Refuge, which Principi said he hopes would open for public use once the trail is in place.

"There are significant historic and cultural amenities along this stretch, and I want to ensure connectivity of all eight miles," Principi said. "This will improve the quality of life for those who enjoy the trail, and it's also a form of economic development. . . . Families or businesses [may look to] relocate or expand near a nationally recognized trail."

Principi said the National Park Service has offered to do some preliminary design work on the trail, starting within six months. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) also has sponsored legislation in the House of Representatives that could help with land acquisitions along the trail.

Connolly's legislation, the Complete America's Great Trails Act, would give a tax credit to private landowners who provide conservation easements to certified National Scenic Trails. The resolution, Connolly aides said, is in a subcommittee.

"This trail is a work in progress," Brickley said. But "when it's finished, it's something that will remain for future generations and be a real marvelous trail."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company