Wanderlust: Your Guide to Hiking Huntley Meadows Park
May 12, 2023 @ 11:00am
Our Wanderlust column clues you in on all the best hikes and parks in the greater D.C. area. This month, we zoom in on Huntley Meadows Park in Alexandria, Virginia.
Huntley Meadows Park is the best park in the DMV to observe and photograph wildlife. The half-mile long wetland boardwalk curves through a 500-acre marsh filled with the most vibrant ecosystem in the region. Each time I’ve visited Huntley Meadows Park, I’ve spotted something new: a pickerel frog being eaten alive by an eastern ribbon snake, two snapping turtles mating in shallow water, a muskrat just a couple feet away completely unbothered by my incessant camera clicks. Cue the “Circle of Life” from “The Lion King,” because that’s exactly what will be running through your head with each interactive visit to this wildlife sanctuary.
Walking through Huntley Meadows is like a real-life “Hidden Objects” puzzle — and if you bring kids with you to this park, I suggest making a game out of how many animals you can spot. There is also a wide variety of waterfowl, including the great blue heron, which you are almost guaranteed to find stalking fish not too far off in the distance. Be sure to bring a camera or phone with plenty of storage space available for all the pictures you’ll be taking on this nature outing.
How Long and How Difficult?
The duration of this trail depends on how much wildlife watching you want to do. You can power through this flat and easy path in 45 minutes end to end. However, if you love birdwatching, snake spotting or finding frogs and giant turtles among the wetland reeds, then chances are you could spend hours winding your way through this 1.8-mile loop.
Huntley Meadows Park is on Piscataway and Doeg land. There is parking on the premises. However, if you choose to Metro, it is a 10-minute rideshare from the Huntington metro station. You could also walk the remaining three miles to the park if you’re interested in getting your steps in for the day. It is a 15-minute drive from Old Town Alexandria, and if you are visiting on a Saturday, I highly recommend stopping at the Old Town Alexandria Farmers’ Market (open from 7 a.m. – 12 p.m.) before heading out to Huntley Meadows to pick up some picnic supplies for your visit. Just be sure to leave no trace behind — take any wrappers, bottles, peels, seeds or shells back home with you or deposit in a trash or recycling receptacle in the Visitor Center on your way out of the park.
Who Should I Bring?
This is a great spot for a first date. Or for a solo meditation walk. Or when your parents come to visit. It’s also a great place to bring children to check out all the incredible creepy crawly creatures this park has to offer. The boardwalk is stroller-friendly, but if you come on a busy day, it may be hard to navigate.
No dogs are allowed on the boardwalk section of Huntley Meadows Park, and, to be honest, the boardwalk is the best part of this park so just leave your furry friend at home for this adventure. Dogs are prohibited because Huntley Meadows is a wildlife sanctuary and several rare bird species call this park their home. Dogs will be perceived as predatory in their environment and may cause these rare species to migrate elsewhere. I have seen people carrying their dogs on the boardwalk because they think that if the dog can’t walk the boardwalk, they can surely be carried. Nope. Don’t do that, folks. You will scare the birds.
The wetland, which is beautiful in every season. The abundant wildlife: waterfowl (herons, egrets, ibises and sometimes roseate spoonbills), amphibians, reptiles, aquatic rodents (beaver, muskrat and the occasional river otter) and even raptors (red-tailed hawk and barred owl).
This trail is wheelchair accessible. The boardwalk is wide enough for a wheelchair, but it can get crowded, and thus harder to navigate, on weekends with good weather.
What is the Best Path to Take?
There are two trail entrances at Huntley Meadows Park. I recommend the trail entrance at 3701 Lockheed Blvd. This entrance will bring you to the half-mile boardwalk with optimal wildlife viewing opportunities. The other trail entrance is a hike in, hike out trail that ends at an observation deck where you can see the wetlands from a different angle. Worth trying out eventually, but the main attraction is the boardwalk, so I suggest starting there.
Once you arrive in the parking area, you’ll see a park sign featuring a big green frog and the park name. Walk toward that sign and you’ll see the trailhead. Follow the trail until you arrive at a building that looks perfectly placed among the deciduous forest surrounding it, the Norma Hoffman Visitor Center. This trail starts and ends at the center, which is convenient because there are bathrooms, park staff and a fascinating educational display inside the building where you can learn about the wildlife and history of the park.
When you’re ready to head toward the boardwalk, continue down the same trail you started on heading away from the parking lot; this is the Cedar Trail. Continue along the Cedar Trail for roughly a half mile before arriving at the entrance to the boardwalk which is the appropriately named Heron Trail. Follow the boardwalk as it snakes its way through the wetland. There are a few different routes to take, but they all lead in the same direction to the other side of the wetland. About halfway through this section of trail, you’ll find an observation tower with benches at the top. This tower is unfortunately not wheelchair accessible. But if you are at the park with little ones and need a place to stop and have a snack while still observing all the wildlife flying by, this is the place for you.
Continue to the end of the boardwalk and you’ll reach the final section of trail, the Deer Trail. You’ll notice some skinny trees bent across this section of trail, forming an archway, as if they were molded this way by harsh winds. You may also find some thick trees with chunks taken out of the trunks; these markings are almost certainly made by some busy beavers. Eventually you will loop back to the intersection with the Heron and Cedar Trails. If you’re ready to head home, turn right at this intersection toward the Cedar Trail and head back to the Visitor Center and parking lot. Or if you’re already missing the wildlife you just observed and you want to see it all over again, you can turn left at this intersection and see the Heron Trail once more. Chances are you’ll see some critters you missed before on the second time around.
Huntley Meadows Park: 3701 Lockhead Blvd. Alexandria, VA; fairfaxcounty.gov // @fairfaxcounty
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