Bull Run/Occoquan Trail
Fairfax County's best kept secretWrite-up assembled by Andy Hiltz
"The word 'Occoquan', translated from the Doag Indian dialect means 'at the end of the water'."
"Early colonial settlers adhered to the English custom of naming water courses by the tidal characteristics, A broad tidal stream was called a river and a small tidal stream, a creek. The water channels above the tidal level, however, flowed in one direction only and were named 'rundles' or 'runs'."
"The Bull Run-Occoquan stream valley was originally inhabited by the Taux and Doag groups of the Powhatan Confederacy which were rapidly diminished during the early years of European settlement. During this time the Run served as a wilderness highway and surveying landmark. Although virtually untouched by the American Revolution, the Bull Run-Occoquan stream valley was the site of the first and major Civil War battle fought over the defense of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad crossing. During the reconstruction years, this same railroad line brought prosperity briefly to the town of Clifton, famed for the 'paradise springs' and the first location in the county to be serviced by electricity. The power plant remains standing below Hemlock Overlook."
"During the Civil War, Bull Run was the site of military medical, supply and evacuation units during the first battle of the Civil War, the Battle of First Manassas. That battle is re-enacted at Bull Run every year on Memorial Day to help keep alive that sad part of our country's history."
(Excerpt from Happy Trails, a guide to Northern Virginia Regional Parks published by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority (NVRPA))
Every once in a while you can get surprised by a trail. The Bull Run/Occoquan Trail falls into the category of being a BIG surprise. Right in the midst of the urban sprawl of Fairfax/Prince William Counties is a small piece of paradise. Hikers going from the Hemlock Overlook Regional Park to the Bull Run Marina may pinch themselves to make sure they haven't been transported to a stream somewhere in West Virginia - it's that kind of experience.
The 5,000 acres of Occoquan parklands offer visitors a special hiking experience unbelievably close to a huge number of county and regional residents. Yet the trail is surprisingly unknown to most residents in the county. The trail system along the Bull Run stream/river and Occoquan reservoir (the fresh water supply for half of Fairfax County) offers hikers and horseback riders 18 to 20 miles of continuous blazed trails between Fountainhead and Bull Run Regional Parks. The run is simply beautiful, with small Class 1 rapids above Bull Run Marina (up to Rt. 28) during the spring-time months of the year. (During summer months, canoers might want to put in at the parking area at Rt. 28 and canoe downstream from there to avoid low water conditions.) At all times of the year, the trail is outstanding, and the fishing is pretty good too (license required).
From Bull Run Marina west, the trail (muddy in spots) roughly follows Bull Run, a "stream" of sizeable proportions. From Bull Run Marina east, Bull Run is actually the Occoquan reservoir which is more "lake-like" in nature. The eastern end of the trail crosses the small stream valleys that feed into the Occoquan and is hilly, following through mostly oak and some hemlock forest. The western end of the trail flattens out, following through oak forests that generally give way to overgrown fields, and becomes virtually level past Rt. 28.
My favorite stretches run from Popes Head Creek east to Bull Run Marina, and from Bull Run Marina east to Fountainhead Regional Park. The trail alternately follows along the Run/reservoir and courses in and out of small ridges and stream valleys that take off from the main stream. In spots, there are beautiful stands of hemlocks framing the sparkling waters of the run/reservoir. A great way to relax, and only 20 minutes from the hustle and bustle of Burke and Fairfax. Somehow, along the water, it's very hard to believe you're still so close to home.
The Bull Run/Occoquan Trail passes under this bridge over Bull Run. The original stone foundations from the Civil War era are still plainly visible. (From a June 1861 lithograph. Compliments to the artist of that day, who has accurately portrayed the locale.)
The area the trail crosses through is steeped in Civil War history. The Bull Run/Occoquan River comprised the boundary of the "Alexandria Line" thrown up by the Confederates to protect against a Union move towards Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital. During "First Manassas", the first major conflict between the Confederate and Union armies, Confederate General Beauregard placed forces at fords near Union Mills (just west of present day Hemlock Overlook area), Blackburn's Ford (at Rt. 28), Mitchell's Ford (at Ordway Road), Ball's Ford (just west of Interstate 66), Lewis' Ford (in the Manassas Battlefield Park), and the Stone Bridge over Bull Run (also in the Manassas Battlefield Park). The trail passes directly past the first three. Blackburn's Ford was the site of the first battle of First Manassas, where Union forces were driven back by determined Confederate forces hidden in a line of trees on the south bank of Bull Run. Between Blackburn's Ford and Union Mills ford, the trail crosses under the Southern Railroad trestle, site of the first battle of note during the Civil War. The wooden trestles of this bridge were burned repeatedly during the Civil War, and the stone foundations are still plainly visible. Further east, hikers are treated to more recent history as they pass by the ruins of an electrical generation plant that supplied power to Clifton, the first town in Fairfax County to receive electrical power. The remainder of the trail crosses numerous old wagon roads whose history is now lost to time.
Since this is a "straight-through" one-way hike, a car shuttle is recommended - but it's well worth the bother. Other hikers with only one vehicle might opt to do an "in and out" by retracing their steps back to their car. Hikers will be treated to wildflowers and flowering mountain laurel in the spring, and plenty of birds and other waterfowl on the reservoir section. You might even scare up a whitetail deer or two along the way. The views across the reservoir are especially nice.
Clever hikers who want to join with their friends for an outstanding Saturday or Sunday walk might opt for a "barbecue hike". A group driver can drop the hikers off at Bull Run Marina (or further west depending on the hiker's ability), then head east to the Fountainhead Regional Park Picnic area and set up the grill and fixin's. If your cook is a good fisherman, he might decide to rent a "john" boat at Fountainhead and see if he can bring in the "fresh catch of the day" for dinner. At the end of the hike, everyone can join in on an evening barbecue.
The ride to the trail is part of the fun. Individuals not well acquainted with the southern part of Fairfax County will be surprised at the rural nature of the region. This is what Fairfax used to be like before the development rush of the '70s and '80s - narrow country roads coursing between deep forests and open meadows. The Fairfax County government put the lands within the Occoquan watershed under special 5-acre lot zoning restrictions which has kept the land in forest and field, except in those areas where Fairfax's "well to do" have chosen to build their mansions. A ride into southern Fairfax can be a trip back in time.
The MapHere's a TRAIL MAP (163K) of the Bull Run/Occoquan Trail.
Detailed strips maps of the trail, suitable for printing on a 600dpi printer (but not viewable by your web browser due to size) are below. Right click on each map link, and "Save to Disk" or "Save Link As..."
Section 1 (2726 kb) - Bull Run
Regional Park to Route 28
Individuals interested in acquiring more information should contact the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority at 703-352-5900.
The Bull Run/Occoquan Trail is proudly maintained by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. The trail is well-marked in blue blazes and easily followed thanks to the management and oversight of PATC's Pete Gatje, and some very hard working volunteer trail overseers. In terms of hiking difficulty, I would classify this as an "easy" hike.