Biking the W&OD Trail

East or West? On the Washington & Old Dominion Trail those are your choices. It is a 45-mile bike trail that stretches from Shirlington (in Alexandria, Virginia) to Purcellville, Virginia. There is no going north or south on the W&OD. Sitting on top of what used to be the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad the trail has become something of a bicycling Mecca for Washington area bicyclists.

Arguably there are prettier biking trails in our area. The C&O Towpath, which follows next to the C&O canal and the Potomac River is clearly more bucolic and four times as long. But it is not kind on the buttocks and was not designed with the bicyclist in mind. Except for places near Washington you don’t want to ride the C&O very far unless your bike has wide tires and excellent shock absorbers. Like riding a horse you can exit that trail more than a little saddle sore.

But not the W&OD Trail. It’s a ribbon of smooth asphalt. There are a couple spots where you might want shock absorbers. For example between Sterling and Leesburg there are two wooden bridges. Except at low speeds riding over their wooden planks can be teeth rattling. Happily though neither bridge is very long and you are soon back on pavement and cruising at high speed again.

Speed is the trail’s primary attraction for us cyclists. While not quite a biker’s superhighway, it comes close. No paralleling noisy major roads on the W&OD. Bikers get to cruise over many major road intersections. The trail’s bridges spoil us because eventually we also cross the old fashioned way: at intersections. Some intersections like the one at Sterling Boulevard are no fun at all to cross. Fortunately most of the crossings have a walk light. But just as most distance drivers prefer the interstate to regional highways, so we high-speed bicyclists want to travel nonstop too. Crossings like the one at Elden Street in Herndon, where there is no walk light, can be impossible at certain times of the day. It is often best to jog a block and cross at a traffic light.

But then there are occasional glorious miles of bucolic wonder. I haven’t made it to either extreme of the trail yet, but I am struck by about three miles of the trail between Hunters Wood Road near Reston and Maple Street in Vienna. It is three miles of no intersections. Houses, when they are seen at all, are way back in the woods. The trail straddles and crosses over Difficult Run several times. Woods border the northern side of this part of the trail. Northern Virginia is such a chronically overdeveloped place that it is simply a delight to find a few miles where you can feel the presence of nature instead of humanity.

But the trail’s success can bring a lot of humanity. If it is a weekend and the weather is gorgeous then you will likely find the trail busy. At those times it is harder to enjoy. On some weekends I have come close to experiencing traffic jams on the trail. This is because walkers and equestrians are also allowed to use the trail. And casual users of the trail often don’t read or take to heart the trail rules. Most learn pretty quickly to stay to the right and get off the trail if they need to stop. I consider myself a fairly high-speed bicyclist. But I can’t begin to compete with some of the bicyclists on the trail. They zoom past me when I am in 18th gear and really cranking on the pedals. Many of them won’t cut the casual user of the trail any slack. Some won’t warn you that they are coming. By the time they could get the words out of their mouth they would be past you anyhow.

My goal continues to be to make it to both ends of the trail. I have to bike three miles up the Fairfax County Parkway to get on the trail. I usually get on where it intersects the Parkway. From there the choice, of course, is east or west. I usually go the opposite direction that I traveled the last time. As soon as the trail allows I am in high gear and pressing the metal. Even on cool days it’s not hard to work up a sweat. I made it as far west as Leesburg on January 1st. Last autumn I made it to East Falls Church.

Mother Nature has slowed me down. Winter is not kind to us bicyclists. I went through the rest of January without favorable conditions for bike riding. A lot of snow needed to melt first. The elliptical machine in our basement was not much of a substitute for a bike ride.

We frequent trail riders probably share favorite spots on the trail. My favorite spot so far traveling east is the stretch that I already mentioned between Reston and Vienna. Heading west a stop at Goose Creek between Sterling and Leesburg is most welcome. Goose Creek is much more like a river than a creek. From the trail bridge its swirling waters are impressive and somewhat hypnotic to watch, particularly after a rainstorm or snowmelt. There is hiking adjacent to the bridge, if so inclined. But a few hundred feet away from the creek itself is perhaps one of the most unusual things you will ever see on a bike trail: the Luckstone Quarry. Most people in Loudoun County I suspect have no idea the quarry is even there. But for regular trail riders the quarry is a special treat. There is a lovely outlook along the trail looking south into the quarry. You can park your bike, sit on a park bench and enjoy the view. This is one view that is perhaps better experienced on the weekend. During the week it is a working quarry, and the noise of the trucks continually going up and down into the quarry can spoil much of its pleasure.

There are a couple downsides to the trail. While there are restrooms along the trail they are pretty much the chemical toilet type, so it helps to take care of Mother Nature before leaving home. And even the toilets are many miles apart. Still at least there are toilets if nature calls. There are also occasional watering holes. The Vienna and Smith Switch Stations have water fountains. There are places on the trail for those who want to dine. Naturally the closer you get to DC the more options there are. In Vienna, Herndon and Leesburg it easy to find food near the trail. Herndon perhaps does it the best, and seems to actually cater to its bike traffic. Passing through downtown Herndon the upscale Dairy Queen is hard to miss.

To anyone who appreciates the outdoors the other downside to the trail is the encroaching development. In the year I have been riding the trail, I am more than a little appalled by how fast the wild places of the trail are disappearing. They disappeared years ago in Fairfax County and now it’s Loudoun County’s turn. I remember in the 1980s I used to see lots of bumper stickers that said “Don’t Fairfax Loudoun!” What they meant was don’t take nice and undeveloped Loudoun County and turn it into another densely packed bedroom community like Fairfax County. But it’s clearly too late. Bulldozers are active along both sides of the trail. Housing developments in particular are springing up quickly. There are a couple miles between Sterling and Leesburg that sit between genuinely undeveloped land. But it’s clear that they won’t be there much longer. Sterling and Leesburg are joining in the middle, and regular bicyclists on the trail are watching it happen.

Yet I am very grateful for the trail and for the foresight of the last generation that found the time, energy and money to create this 45-mile long park. Open fully since 1982 I find it still to be a delightful ride. Riding the trail gets a tad boring at times, but it is almost always fun to ride on it. On the trail and largely away from the traffic I can escape into my own world. For a little while I don’t feel the press of humanity and its cares so much. Instead I often feel at one with the universe. Its sounds are the low hum of my bike’s tires on the pavement and the gentle roar of wind passing through my helmet.

Update 4/12/05: Concerned about the W&OD Trail? Help stop development along its most pristine stretch: between Reston and Vienna!

Wedderburn Neighborhood Site

Hi — I saw your blog (I’m also a frequent dKos commenter) about the Trail and
how pretty the section just north of Vienna is. Well, the Vienna section is
going to deteriorate further if the proposed development at Cedar Lane goes
forward as planned. We are fighting desperately to get adequate Trail buffers
(50 feet) in connection with any development, particularly in light of the
wholesale tree-clearing adopted by Dominion Power in lieu of a more reasoned
approach to tree maintenance. Please take a look at our website and feel free
to link to it if you wish.


Deborah Reyher
Wedderburn Neighbors Steering Committee

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