The folks who run Northern Virginia's parks have learned this much from surveys: People want paths.
The hikers, the bikers, the joggers and dog walkers -- they want paths. So do the Sunday strollers and the in-line skaters.
But Doug Pickford thinks that most Northern Virginia residents are unaware of the many pathways they can find a short distance from home. So Pickford, in his role as director of environmental and heritage resources at the Northern Virginia Regional Commission, has put together a slick, fanny-pack-size guide to some of the area's best trails.
The guide is a somewhat unusual project for the commission, a council of more than a dozen city and county governments. In large part, it is a response to popular demand for open-air exercise areas in a time of increased urbanization, Pickford said.
Several regional and statewide studies -- including the Virginia Outdoors Survey, conducted in 2000 by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation -- have found that hiking, walking and biking on trails are the most popular recreational activities in the state and that Virginians do not think there are enough places to do them.
"With the focus on walking for health as well as just for recreation . . . trails are what people want," said Kate Rudacille, land administration and planning manager with the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, which reviewed the guide before its publication in April.
Pickford wanted to point those trail-hungry Northern Virginians to nearby paths. The guide, a collection of 19 maps packed neatly in a plastic sheath, is a general introduction to 24 of Northern Virginia's most popular trails, he said. The featured corridors -- from the urban and flat Arlington Loop to the rolling backwoods of the Appalachian Trail -- span a wide range of difficulty and terrain to attract nature lovers and city slickers alike.
It fills a niche in the market for Virginia trail guides, many of which are cumbersome books with a few crude maps or statewide manuals meant for hard-core hikers, Pickford said.
The separate maps in the commission's guide were designed to be small enough to slip in a hip pack and detailed enough to reassure those less experienced in the outdoors, Pickford said. All the trails lie within easy reach of most Northern Virginians.
"It's just to get people familiarized with what's available in the region," he said. "But some of the feedback we've gotten is, 'This is great,' even from avid hikers and bicyclists."
The guide can be bought for $9.95 from the commission or at Spokes Etc., a cycling store with three locations in the region. If it sells well, the commission plans to produce similar trail guides for other regions in Virginia, Pickford said.
At Spokes Etc., the guides have flown off the front counters, where they are placed to entice the impulsive shopper, said Brandon Kelley, buyer for the stores.
"They're like, 'Well, I got a bike, where do I go now?' " Kelley said. "There's just so many nice places around here, and no one knows about them."
The colored maps feature descriptions of each trail and an elevation chart. They also indicate what activities the trails are suited to -- pushing a baby stroller or riding a horse, for example -- and rate their difficulty.
The guide, which cost about $35,000 to compile and design, was mostly funded by a 2002 grant for trail-oriented projects from the state Department of Conservation and Recreation. The grant money usually goes toward trail construction or maintenance projects, said John Davy, the department's director of planning and recreation resources. Nevertheless, Pickford's proposal was "very well received," he said.
"There's nothing better we can do than get people out and walking on these trails," Davy said.
Doris Wigglesworth, a day-camp teacher from Alexandria, regularly bikes and walks on the Arlington Loop. Paging through the guide near the Holmes Run Trail in Alexandria on a recent morning, Wigglesworth deemed the maps "very informative" and said they might get her to branch out of her routine -- if the price were right.
"I'd rather pay five dollars," she said. "And free is best."