Mason Neck State Park (Virginia)
I love to hike, but having been in the DC area since 2008, I’m running out of parks to try. It’s gotten so dire that I’ve resorted to using Google Maps to spot areas that are colored green, then zooming in close enough to where the name of the park shows up. It’s not the most efficient process–sometimes the green spaces are just golf courses. But I used this technique today to discover a park, about 45 minutes from DC, called Mason Neck State Park.
It’s located south of Fort Belvoir not far from I-95 on the west coast of the Potomac River. The park consists of 1814 acres of forest and marshland and several hiking trails, all accessible by the main road that ends at the visitors center overlooking the river.
While I didn’t set foot in the visitors center because I had Ollie with me, I’m glad I started out there. There were several bird houses set up nearby and I had the chance to view all sorts of birds I hadn’t seen before. High above the shoreline, about 200 feet down from the visitors center, is an osprey nest perched on top of a steel tower. I snapped a few shots of the osprey’s head as it peered out over Belmont Bay, a mile-wide inlet of the Potomac. You can see photos of the birds below.
Previous Yelp reviewers suggested Bay View Trail, so I started there. The trail begins near the Visitors Center and leads down to through a small section of woods to the shoreline. There’s a little dock where you can rent kayaks to go out on they bay. I didn’t want to risk drowning Ollie so I passed that up and continued along the beach. It was a really beautiful day so I enjoyed relaxing on the beach, catching some rays until I noticed a little reptile head pop out of the water about 10 feet from me. I stood up to get a better look and realized it was a water snake, so I grabbed my stuff and moved away. It slithered past me and Ollie on its way to the marsh behind us. A quick internet search when I got home showed that it was the non-venomous Northern water snake. According to the article, the snake is often mistaken for the venomous water moccasin and killed because of it.
Unfortunately the Bay View Trail was closed off just as it turned towards the large marsh the snake was headed to.
Not satisfied with my physical activity for the day, I stopped at another trail head on my way out of the park. The trail I took is not located in Mason Neck State Park, but a National Wildlife Refuge area called Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. I took the Woodmarsh Trail, which led through another stretch of forest up a small incline for about 1/2 mile, ending at a viewing platform overlooking a huge marsh called The Great Marsh, where you can spot bald eagles in the mornings and evenings. I was there at 3pm and did not see any.
Overall, this was a great trip for a morning or afternoon in the DC area. You can also make a day of it as there is a picnic area around the visitors center.
Notes: There is a $5 fee per car on the weekend; $4 on weekdays. In several areas of the park, there is no cell phone signal (at least for AT&T). Dogs allowed, but on leash.