Mason Neck Wildlife Refuge
Administered by the Department of Interior, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge, 14416 Jefferson Davis Highway, Suite 20, Woodbridge, VA 22191 Tel. 703-690-1297. This area is located in Fairfax County, VA
Write-up assembled by Andy Hiltz
About the RefugeEighteen miles south of Washington, D.C. on the banks of the Potomac lies an 8,000-acre peninsula known as Mason Neck. Here on February 1, 1969, the first Wildlife Refuge specifically established for the endangered bald eagle was created.
Today, the 2,276-acre refuge encompasses approximately 2,000 acres of mature hardwood forest, the largest freshwater marsh in Northern Virginia, and nearly six miles of shoreline. Because of this unique blend of habitat, Mason Neck supports a diversity of wildlife throughout the year.
The recorded history of Mason Neck began around 1755 with the construction of nearby Gunston Hall, home of George Mason. Mason was an author of the Virginia Bill of Rights, predecessor to the United States Bill of Rights.
During the 1800's and early 1900's logging was the pinciple land use of what is now refuge lands. Roads were cut and much of the mature pine and hardwood timber removed. This human disturbance and the elimination of nest trees reduced bald eagle populations.
By the 1960's, timber had grown back but residential development posed a new threat. Local residents worked with the Nature Conservancy to protect the land. In 1969, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service purchased 845 acres from the Conservancy and the Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge was established.
The primary objective of Mason Neck NWR is to protect essential nesting, feeding, and roosting habitat for bald eagles. The eagles are best seen in winter, with nesting season occuring during April and May. The refuge also enhances species diversity by managing habitat for a variety of wildlife, from tree frogs to great blue herons. Managing one of the largest great blue heron rookeries in Virginia (700 pairs) includes protecting the nesting birds from human disturbance. Wood ducks, screech owls, and bluebirds are provided with nesting boxes to supplement natural cavities. Management of migratory and wintering waterfowl is done by providing native food plants, by monitoring flock sizes, and assessing habitat use. Over 200 species of birds, as well as 16 species of accidental occurance, have been documented in the Refuge.
Weather and SnowThe local climate is typical of the weather experienced in Washington, D.C. Summer temperatures are usually in the low-90's, and normal mid-winter daytime temperatures are around 42 degrees. Late afternoon and evening thunderstorms can occur on any given day during the summer months, along with very warm temperatures, and oft times withering humidity.
About the area......This area is ornithologists heaven, but also provides the hiker with a unique opportunity to explore the unusual country bordering a huge freshwater marsh. When combined with a visit to Mason Neck State Park a long afternoon of extended hiking is possible.
Trails worth hiking?Looking into Great Marsh from the observation deck on the Great Marsh Trail.
You have a choice of two - the Woodmarsh Trail and the Great Marsh Trail.
The Woodmarsh Trail departs from a parking area off the access road to Mason Neck State Park and follows through woods typical of this region for about .8 mile. A loop hike is possible at this point. I recommend turning left and heading right for the marsh. Some restricted views of the marsh are possible through the trees, and an excellent view is soon available at an observation point. Great Marsh is truly beautiful, and waterfowl are abundant. Continuing along the trail bordering the marsh, you will soon cross a wide footbridge that takes you right through a small section of the marsh. This is a great opportunity to take a close look at the marsh plants which crowd the boardwalk. The only other way to see these plants this closely is in a boat.
At the southern-most tip of the loop, there is an outstanding observation platform that takes you about ten feet into the marsh for some spectacular views. The return hike is nice, taking you past an interpretive board and old sawdust pile left over from a more recent 1930's logging effort. This is also an interpretive trail, and numbered wooden posts correspond to information contained in the free brochure available at the trailhead (the brochure also contains a map). I found the interpretive literature to be pretty basic, but it might be of great interest to small children.
The Great Marsh Trail departs from Gunston Road, about one mile past the turnoff to Mason Neck State Park. Care must be taken not to miss the somewhat hidden parking area nestled back in the woods. The Great Marsh Trail follows an old road from the parking area and basically follows in a straight line through pretty woods to an ending point one mile away at a wildlife observation deck. This is an outstanding area to observe the bald eagles that frequent the marsh. Hikers can then retrace their steps back to the parking area.
PermitsAccess to the Refuge is free.
Mountain BikingStrictly prohibited on all refuge trails.
Cross-country SkiingIf you wanted to ski in this area, I suppose you could. The trails are virtually level, and I suppose it would be an excellent area for beginner skiers.
AccessFrom I-495, take I-95 south towards Woodbridge. Take the Lorton exit, and follow the signs to Gunston Hall/Pohick Bay Regional Park/Mason Neck State Park. Once on Gunston Hall Road (State Route 242), pass Pohick Bay Regional Park and Gunston Hall on your left, and look for the sign to the State Park on your right at High Point Road. On High Point Road, keep your eyes open for the parking area for the Woodmarsh Trail on your left. Don't blink, or you'll miss it.
The MapClick here to download a TRAIL MAP 155K of the Mason Neck Wildlife Refuge.