Prince William Forest Park
Prince William County, Virginia
Administered by the National Park Service, Box 209, Triangle, Virginia, 22172 (703) 221- 7181.
Write-up assembled by Andy Hiltz
About the ParkThe land that is now Prince William Forest Park has long been used by man. American Indians used the land along Quantico Creek for hunting and gathering. Scottish settlers established a settlement and port on the estuary of Quantico Creek after the bars to Virginia's profitable tobacco trade were lifted by the Navigation Law of 1707. West of the port, the land was rapidly cleared and planted with crops such as cotton and tobacco. These were harvested and shipped out through the port of Dumfries at the head of the Quantico harbor.
Over the years, poor farming practices depleted the soil and caused extensive soil erosion. Soil eroded from the farmland was carried down into the harbor by Quantico Creek, gradually filling in the harbor, which became a marsh. By the late 1700's, boats in search of flour as well as tobacco began loading goods at the more accommodating wharfage in Alexandria. Eventually, Dumfries dwindled into comparative nothingness.
In 1889, the northern limits of the park were the site of a large, pyrite (fools gold) mining operation owned by the Cabin Branch Mining Company. Pyrite was in great demand as a source of sulfur used in making gunpowder, glass, soap, fertilizer, and metal cleaning products. The Amercian Agriculture Chemical Company took over operations in 1916 and profited until the mine closed in 1920 as more profitable sources of sulfer were located elsewhere. Three main vertical shafts were mined by crews 24 hours a day in 12 hour shifts. At the height of operations, the mine employed 200 to 300 men.
As for the rest of the park, by the turn of the 20th century, the remaining farmers were barely able to make a living. In 1933, the Resettlement Administration acquired the land and established the Chopawamsic Recreation Demonstration Area. The civilian Conservation Corps was put to work to show how land could be reclaimed and used for recreation. The area was later renamed Prince William Forest Park and turned over to the National Park Service.
When the old farmsteads were first acquired, much of the land was in very poor condition. In the years since, most of the old farm sites have become overgrown with vegetation. Pines were usually the first trees to come into the cleared areas, to be followed later by the shade-tolerant hardwoods, such as oak and hickory. Today, blackberries and blueberries can be found growing wild in the park, many of them marking old homesites. The park also supports populations of whitetail deer, wild turkey, and beaver, as well as numerous smaller animals such as raccoons and gray squirrels. Prince William Forest Park has a short history as a park, but the land here tells a longer story of man's use, and abuse, of the land.
Weather and SnowWeather is typically mild - characteristic of conditions that occur along the Virginia coastal plain. Measurable snow occurs on occasion, but it is rarely over 6 inches deep. During these times, the roads into the park are typically closed until they can be plowed or sanded.
About the area......The land in PrinceWilliam Forest Park is typical of the type found near the Potomac/Chesapeake Bay coastline. The entire park is hilly, except in the larger stream valleys. Hikers should exercise extreme caution in traveling off established trails. In many sections of the park, it is very easy to get "turned around" and lost in the maze of bisecting ridges and small stream valleys. The area is often used by local orienteering clubs for competition, which should tell you something about the difficulty in finding your way around off-trail.
This is a beautiful park often overlooked by many in the Washington, D.C. region. The hilly areas are wonderful, with trails climbing small ridges and dipping into small stream valleys lined with ferns. This is one of the few parks in the hilly Potomac coastline region that is large enough to give you a true sense of what the area was like before man visited. In the autumn, the reflections of fall color off the quiet pools in the larger streams are magnificent. The Park closes at dark, except for campground users.
Trails worth hiking?Prince William Forest Park has 35 miles of trails and fire roads. My favorite trails are those than run along the larger streams coursing through the park. While many of the trails have now been given formal names, I will make some suggestions based on the map available at the bottom of this page which identifies trails by number (i.e. "T7", "T8", etc.)
The western portion of T8 provides an extended hiking opportunity along the South Branch of Quantico Creek and is worth visiting. Just below the dam near Cabin Camp 5, the Sierra Club has constructed an extraordinary foot bridge based on a design by Michelangelo. It is worth seeing, as well as the beautiful pond/lake located behind the dam.
The eastern portion of T8 is also very beautiful, with a very pretty waterfall located in the eastern region.
T7 will take you down to Quantico Creek, bypassing some very nice beaver ponds along the northern stretch prior to hitting Quantico Creek. The hike along Quantico Creek is very nice.
T10 between the parking area and Nature Center will give you a glimpse of one of the few stream valleys completely enclosed by the park. As the trail approaches the nature center, it passes through an old homesite with an historical marker.
In August 1995, the following trails were temporarily closed until summer (or possibly fall 1996):
- North Valley Trail (old Trail 11) between Quantico Falls
Trail and North Orenda Road
These areas were the site of a mine reclamation project to cover soil around (and downstream) of the mine site to prohibit sulfer from leaching into Quantico Creek. As a reclamation project, no attempt was made to "rehabilitate" the site. As a result, there are many sections along this portion of the creek that are devoid of trees and covered with a new growth of seeded grass. There are also a number of capped mine shafts in the area which can be spotted by the distinctive four metal posts, and a central post designed to flag the site if the cap starts to fail. Below the caps are old mine shafts. Originally, it was thought that only two shafts were drilled, however at least eight have been located, and more may be hidden in the woods. Please stay out of this region of the park for safety's sake. Some of the shafts are over 100 years old, and the caps that were installed in the 1930's are no longer solid.
The remaining roads/trails are nice woods walks, with gentle grades and plenty of small ups and downs. All in all, well worth checking out.
PermitsCamping is not allowed in the backcountry, except at Chopawamsic Backcountry Area, which is well removed from the main park. The park Superintendent has carried on discussions with the Quantico Marine base about a possible land exchange to make a backcountry camping area contiguous to the park, but nothing has come to fruition as yet. Permits are required to use the backcountry area. As an alternative, backpackers might consider acquiring a campsite at the Oak Ridge area, then drive to a starting point well away from the campground and backpack back to Oak Ridge. An excellent backpacking circuit is possible using this technique (if you don't mind staying in the campground with other car campers).
Individuals interesting in using the Oak Ridge camping area must use the self-registration board located at the campground entrance. Campsites are first come, first served.
Mountain BikingStrictly prohibited in ALL trails. However, the paved loop road in the center of the park is often used by riders.
Cross-country SkiingSuitable for semi-experienced skiers. The trails can drop steeply in areas with sharp turns.
CampfiresLegal only in the Oak Ridge campground.
AccessThe entrance to the park is less than 1/2 mile off Interstate 95 at the exit for Triangle.
The MapHere's a TRAIL MAP (75K) of the Prince William Forest Park.
Trails in the Prince William Forest Park are maintained by the Annapolis Chapter of the Sierra Club under the leadership of Walter Wells.