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Northern Virginia's rife with opportunities to hike. Sure, VA isn't one of the states known for being an outdoorsy paradise, but with several national, state, and county parks in the NoVa area there's one or two great hikes within a 30 minute drive of nearly everywhere (albeit to varying degrees of "wilderness").
The Bull Run Occoquan Trail, or BROT, is a 17-mile trail which runs along Bull Run, a tributary to the Potomac. Nearly the entire length runs through forested area (meaning there's shade!) and there are several access points. It goes through more than 5000 acres of scenic woodlands!
Individual posts to each access point are in the works, but for this post I will list the ones I am familiar with, from north to south. Know of one I missed? Get in touch!
Bull Run Regional Park
Bull Run Regional Park is in Centreville. The park has lots to offer; see their website for more information on programs and facilities. Residents of jurisdiction counties and cities (Arlington, Fairfax, and Loudon Counties; Cities of Alexandira, Fairfax, and Falls Church) can enter the park free of charge; others must pay an entrance fee – though I live in Manassas and was admitted free.
To access the trail, follow signs (or the map) to the parking area for the water park. This trail is popular, so you'll likely see people walking from the parking area to the trailhead. If you don't, head along the road, turning left as you walk out of the parking lot. You should see posted signs marking the start of the trail on your right.
During the spring, Virginia bluebells bloom along this stretch of trail. The bluebell-viewing trail is a loop and makes a convenient family hike. The BROT will go to the left and the bluebell trail to the right. The BROT has light blue blazes (blazes are painted marks on trees along the trail which tell you you're a. on a human-made trail and b. which trail it is). The trail is roughly 1.5 miles long. Depending on your speed (i.e. if everyone small is riding in a backpack), it will take anywhere from 30 minutes to over an hour (though if you are slow enough, it could take forever).
Hiking the BROT itself here will be an out-and-back affair, but you can use the loop trail to make it loopier.
Bull Run Regional Park address:
7700 Bull Run Dr
Centreville, VA 20121
A bit more info is available from the Virginia DWR.
See our dedicated post on Hemlock Overlook.
Hemlock is great. There are multiple ways to start from the parking lot: past the winery parking lot and by the large sign, up the paved road through the AdventureLinks area, or down the area cleared for electric lines (the path coming off the parking area).
There's some fun water access in this park that's great for kids to play in. Especially good is Pope's Head Creek, which is accessed most quickly by going up through the AdventureLinks area and down the hill. Alternatively you can head down the main trailhead past the sign and turn right when you arrive at Bull Run. The creek is a ways up the river, and most of the other water access spots are not to our liking (too muddy, too deep, too many lost fishing hooks).
Another great hike here is to turn left onto the red trail after heading down from the parking lot. Take note: this turn was recently moved about 100 feet down the path. The red trail winds around to meet the blue trail at a spot where AdventureLinks takes out canoes. From this point you can continue farther away from the parking area by going to the left, or you can start to loop back by heading to the right along the blue blazed trail.
The big bonus for many people is that this park is next to Paradise Springs Winery. Be sure to park in the winery lot if you're going to the winery and in the hiking lot if you are hiking. Parking can be hard to find here on really nice days, and my advice is to get to Hemlock as early as you can to avoid a crowd.
Hemlock Overlook Regional Park address:
13220 Yates Ford Road
Clifton VA 20124
More info coming soon! I've only hiked this one a few times. You can park at the soccer fields where Kincheloe Road goes from gravel to pavement. People often let their dogs off leash on the soccer field (which is illegal and I am not suggesting you do, of course). Heading off over the bridge will take you through a low-lying area where there are a few raised wooden walkways and toward the marina. Alternatively you can go along the fence and around the fields to head toward Hemlock Overlook.
This section of the trail has a few open fields.
Kincheloe Soccer Fields address:
8000 Kincheloe Rd
Clifton, VA 20124
Bull Run Marina
Bull Run Marina is along Yates Ford Road near the intersection with Kincheloe Road. The parking lot for the marina itself is gated – don't park there without one of the keys available to boaters, as I learned when I got locked into the parking lot. Another fun fact – there is no cell reception there! But that's a story for another time.
Directly across from Kincheloe Road is another, larger parking lot, this time without a gate. Here's where hikers can park. There are entrances to the trail in several places, so as long as you park close to the trees you will be close to a trailhead. We find the spaces to the left of the entrance to be less populated.
From the left side of the parking lot, the trail winds down a slope and curves to follow a creek before meeting with the main trail by a signpost. From the right side of the parking lot, the trail branches: to the right will go toward Yates Ford Road, which you can cross but it never feels very safe; to the left will go down the hill to meet up with the main trail. If you go to the right on the trail, you can pass underneath the bridge on Yates Ford Road and come out at the marina. Caution: there are often snakes in the riprap around the bridge, and I have seen more than one copperhead there.
The trail going north from the marina is quite nice. If you choose to go this way, you'll be doing an out-and-back.
We typically do not cross under the bridge or over the road (to grandmother's house we go?) and instead continue south(ish) past the signpost. There are some bridges along the way, and our family typically stops at the second one to play in the small stream, rest, and then turn around. You can turn off the blue blazed trail onto a yellow-blazed trail which is much less trafficked. The yellow trail goes close to the rear of some houses, so it doesn't feel quite as "wild," but it helps to make the hike more of a loop. Fun fact: we helped with some trail work on the switchbacks. If you ever want to swing tools in the forest and work up a sweat, check out the PATC.
Because there is always somewhere to park and there are a few good options for your route, this is our family's go-to hiking spot.
12619 Old Yates Ford Road
Clifton, VA 20124
Wolf Run Shoals
This entrance to the BROT is perhaps lesser known. Parking is at the end of Wolf Run Shoals Road, and it's limited. After a short 50 yards hiking from the parking lot you'll meet up with the blue-blazed trail. This hike will be out-and-back.
Because the parking is so tight and it's out-and-back, we normally save this hike for when we need a change of pace. There are some fun water crossings and potentially good places for kids to play in water, but we have not done that here so I have no specific recommendations.
See some more detail on the hike here.
Fountainhead Park deserves its own post. It's got boating, fishing, mountain biking, hiking – heck, I think you can bring your horse. For our purposes here, the focus is on Fountainhead Park as the southern end of the Bull Run Occoquan Trail.
The trailhead is easily found from the parking lot; there's a kiosk at the start. Unless you've really got your trekking clothes on, expect this hike to be out-and-back.
Fountainhead Park address:
10875 Hampton Road
Fairfax Station VA 22039
Maybe you dream, as I do, of hiking the entire length in one day. Maybe then we will find out if it's really 17 miles or, as a few sources report, 19. I've seen most of those miles, but between sections I've hiked are unseen views – maybe even something amazing.
I hope you get out and hike even one tiny bit of the longest trail in Northern Virginia. Be sure to take plenty of water, more snacks than you think you need, and a whistle in case of emergency. But I don't recommend letting your child play with the whistle.
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