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About the Basin: Scott’s Run Nature Preserve

Waterfalls, boulder hopping, and rare flowers can be found right off the beltway — you just need to know where to look.

A small waterfall in the background leads to stream pools in the foreground.

Scott’s Run Nature Preserve (Photo: MostlyDross, 20131122_7739)

Scott’s Run Nature Preserve is a choose your own hiking adventure type of place. Want a short, meandering walk with the kids? There’s a trail for that. Want to jump boulders while clambering up steep, rocky trails? There’s a trail for that. Want breathtaking views of waterfalls and the Potomac River? Yep, there’s that (but for safety reasons, swimming and wading are not allowed).

The trails are not blazed, but the park is small enough that there is little chance of getting lost. The park’s 384 acres is bordered by I-495, Georgetown Pike, the Potomac River, and a subdivision. The Fairfax County Park Authority provides a detailed topographic map online as well as at kiosks throughout the park.

The only blazed trail is the Potomac Heritage Trail (PHT), which runs through the park. The PHT is a network of trails that run from the tidal Potomac to the upper Youghiogheny river basin.

Spring is a popular time to visit the park due to the carpets of wildflowers found amongst the trees.

The park truly is an oasis amongst the traffic, noise, and hubbub of city life. That was by design. The land was bought in the 1920s by a D.C. attorney, Edward Burling, as an escape from the city. Mr. Burling would visit his cabin well into his 90s and yet refused to let trees be cut down to install a phone line. When Mr. Burling passed in 1966, the parcel of land became the poster child for the nascent environmental movement when the local community fought developers from turning it into a subdivision. The story even made it into the New York Times (The Making of a Park, 1970).

Study the topography of the map before heading to the park. This will help decide which of the two parking lots to use and which adventure to choose.

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About the Basin: Birding in the Basin

This is a busy time for many species of birds. The northern migration is ramping up and they are moving out of their summer homes. For us less-feathery folk, it is a great time to get outside and discover our avian friends.

Do you find it hard to believe there are other birds besides the ubiquitous pigeons and Canadian geese throughout the Potomac River basin? In fact, there is a wide variety of beautiful bird species in the region.

A bluebird sitting on a wire.

Right outside of the District and smack dab in the middle of the Potomac River is Theodore Roosevelt Island. In this oasis outside the city, you will see species that are commonly found in swampy and marshy areas, such as green herons and wood ducks. Bald eagles have also been known to nest on the island. For those fans of the movie “The Big Year”, the National Park Service provides a brochure to keep track of your finds.

The Audubon Society of Central Maryland maintains two large wildlife sanctuaries in eastern Frederick County, Maryland. Explore the flora and fauna on your own or join the organization on the third Saturday of every month for an informative nature walk.

At an unexpected haven in the southeast area of Fairfax County, Va., known as Huntley Meadows Park, you will find such striking birds as Eastern Bluebirds, Common Yellowthroats, and Northern Flickers. The land, which was once owned by Mr. George Mason IV, is now a 1,500-acre park with trails and watchtowers for your bird-watching pleasure. This park is known for being a prime birdwatching location with more than 200 different bird species spotted over the years. There is a Monday Morning Birdwalk that has been held, rain or shine, for the past 30 years.

With as many as 430 bird species in the area, there are plenty of opportunities for birding. Other local areas known for excellent birding include the Antietam Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland, Yankauer Nature Preserve along the Potomac River in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, and Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge in Lorton, Virginia.

Can’t get out to see birds this weekend? Explore a live migration map and other birding-geekery on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website, BirdCast, or check out one of the many live bird-cams located throughout the basin.

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Algal Blooms in the Basin

The ICPRB is fielding calls about the blue-green algae that can create toxins that harm people and pets who come in contact with blooms. News stories about dogs dying after swimming in contaminated ponds and lakes are getting heavy circulation. Lakes Needwood and Frank in Montgomery County, Md., have annual blue-green algae blooms and people and pets should avoid contact with the water. Blue-green algae lives in the Potomac, but large blooms are not currently common.

Blue-green algae is capable of producing toxins that could be harmful, but does not always do so. Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia all monitor these blooms and welcome reports from the public. The Environmental Protection Agency  works on harmful algae blooms as well. Blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, is just one type of algae. Many other kinds of algae, such as filamentous types that look like hair attached to rocks, do not produce toxins, although any blooms of algae indicate an imbalanced system usually high in nutrients. Algal populations are an important part of aquatic systems, but can cause problems when they grow rapidly out of control.

As a general rule, humans and pets should avoid water that is discolored, has a layer of algal scum on the surface, or has a strong odor.

While instances of blue-green algae seem to be growing with hotter, wetter summers, it has been much worse. Into the 1970s, the Potomac and Anacostia rivers in the District were covered by florescent green mats of blue-green algae every summer. The blooms greatly decreased as Potomac restoration efforts took hold.

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About the Basin: Occoquan Regional Park

The Occoquan Regional Park in Lorton, Virginia, provides a steady dose of history, waterfront views, and a relaxed pace.

A path surrounded by trees. A building can be seen at the end of the path.

Photo courtesy of NOVA Parks

Before it was a public park, the Occoquan Regional Park was home to a plethora of brickmaking kilns run by prisoners housed at the nearby Lorton Work House Prison. The ovens were known as beehive kilns for their rounded form, a shape that has been used since the Middle Ages. The bricks from this area were used to build public buildings in Washington, D.C. and throughout northern Virginia. Visitors can explore the last remaining beehive kiln at the park.

The park has baseball fields and a boat launch (for carried craft only) and beautiful views of the Potomac River. The highlight of this park is the recently renovated trail. The paved, easy trail was expanded to a 5k-length in 2018. This park is ideal for families with strollers or kids learning to ride a bike.

Just downstream of the Occoquan Reserve, the river is an important source of drinking water for the region. The Occoquan Regional Park sits at the intersection of hiking and history, where water resources meet water demand.

Want to learn more? Join ICPRB’s Executive Director, Mike Nardolilli, as we explore the interplay of water demand, politics, zoning, water quality, and the challenges they present during an easy 3-mile walk. We will learn about the triumphs and challenges of relying on Occoquan Reservoir as a source of drinking of water for the region. The hike is free and open to the public. We will meet at the Brickmaker’s Café (9751 Ox Rd, Lorton, VA) at 10:00 am on Sunday, September 15.

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About the Basin: Potomac State Forest

Archery, hiking, hunting, fishing, equestrian trails, mountain biking are popular in the Potomac State Forest. Winter sports like cross country skiing and snowmobiling are also a possibility.

Don’t expect to see many people enjoying these opportunities as this rural state forest competes with many state parks in the region for outdoor entertainment opportunities. Even in the height of summer, you will feel like the trails and creeks exist only for you.

The cool, shaded streams make for excellent trout fishing. The majority of the forest is a Delayed Harvest Trout Fishing Area (Group II) which means an angler can possess up to 5 trout during the summer months (check local licensing restrictions).

A 3-D archery range offers the opportunity to practice your aim at 30 life-size 3-dimensional targets.

Potomac State Forest’s claim to fame is that it has one of the highest elevations of any Maryland state forest. At 3,200 feet, Backbone Mountain reigns over this small state forest in the headwaters of the Potomac River in Western Maryland. It also provides for challenging, and rewarding, hiking trails.

One such trail is the Lostland Run Trail. It is a challenging hike with varied terrain and many stream crossings. With appropriate preparation, this trail will reward you with beautiful views, wildlife sightings, waterfalls, and fun swimming holes. Keep your eye on the trail blazes though, as they are easy to miss.

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About the Basin: Monocacy Aqueduct

The Monocacy Aqueduct on the right. Trees on the left. Green grass in the foreground. The Monocacy Aqueduct has a storied past. In its long history, it was used as an important transportation route for goods, goods, animals, and arsenals. Placed at the mouth of the Monocacy River, it was a vital passageway during times of peace and war. Thanks to a recent stabilization and reconstruction effort by the National Park Service, you can still see the structure as it was originally constructed almost two centuries ago.

The aqueduct spans 560 feet across the Monocacy River, connecting the 184.5 miles of the C&O Canal towpath from Cumberland, MD to Washington, D.C. The trail on the canal is flat and easy, making it especially nice for families with bikes, strollers, and bike trailers.

A boat ramp at the Monocacy side of the aqueduct is the final exit point for boaters on the Monocacy Scenic Water Trail and a popular entrance point for anglers.

There is ample parking and a restroom available should you need it.


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About the Basin: Mallow’s Bay, the Graveyard Teeming with Life

An iconic spot on the Potomac River recently acquired a new name. The ghost fleet of Mallows Bay is now known as the Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary thanks to its new designation by NOAA. It is the first such sanctuary in almost two decades. Kayak alongside a sunken ship barely sticking out of the water at Mallows Bay

On the Maryland side of the Potomac, just south of Washington, D.C., historic ships sit at the bottom of the river like an apocalyptic scene in a war movie. Mallow’s Bay is the final resting place for almost 200 boats that cover two centuries of history. Paddleboarders and kayakers alike feel a sense of magic while floating through the water, knowing that at any given time they are only inches from rich history. As the largest concentration of shipwrecks in the Western Hemisphere, there is nary a spot in the bay where there is not a ship decaying on the floor below. These salvaged, and then sunk, ships are now home to a wide variety of fish, crustaceans, and aquatic vegetation. Some ships have created islands where osprey nest and crabs skitter across the sand.

The next few years will most likely see many changes for Mallows Bay. Possible plans for the area include paddle-in campsites, hiking trails, interpretative signage and additional public access amenities. Designation as a National Marine Sanctuary will only increase the speed and intensity of the additions and the public exposure it receives. These changes will bring their own benefits, but in the meantime, now is a great time to visit this primitive and isolated area. Take advantage of the quiet, meditative bay with the beautiful, sunken boats.

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About the Basin: Pyrotechnics on the Potomac

Celebrating Independence Day with fireworks is almost as old as the country itself. Fireworks were used to mark the occasion a year after the Declaration of Independence was signed.

We continue to celebrate our independence with grand pyrotechnic displays in the sky. There are many options throughout the area to enjoy a magnificent show. Here are just a few:

George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Virginia (June 28 and 29) – Take this special opportunity to enjoy a piece of history after dark. Special tours, musical performances, and games will be followed by a patriotic fireworks display overlooking the Potomac River.

Dumfries, Virginia (June 28-30) – Known as the “Not on the 4th” Fireworks, this annual display is launched from a barge on the Potomac River and organized by a local restaurant.

Colonial Beach, Virginia (July 4) – Auto races, parades, and children’s activities will be part of the town’s festivities. A star-spangled fireworks display will emanate from the municipal pier and over the Potomac River.

Washington, D.C. (July 4) – This year’s theme of “A Salute to America” honors the armed forces with a speech from President Trump, special tributes, flyovers, and military demonstrations. There will be a free concert with Carole King, Vanessa Williams, and other big names in the business. A massive display of fireworks will be launched from West Potomac Park shortly after 9:00 pm. The new location for the fireworks display will mean restrictions for boat traffic in the river, so please plan accordingly.

Sharpsburg, Maryland (July 6) – The Maryland Symphony Orchestra will be playing at the Antietam National Battlefield in a “Salute to Independence” performance.

Kayakers paddle the Potomac River in front of the Washington Monument.

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About the Basin: Cedarville State Park

Cedarville State Forest

A boy and his father are fishing in a pond at Cedarville State Park. The Maryland Forest Service manages 214,000 acres of forest spread among 13 different State Forests.  At 3,510-acres, Cedarville State Forest is one of the smallest, but not the smallest, of these managed forestlands.

Before European settlers arrived, the Piscataway Indian Tribe would travel to this area of Maryland to enjoy the cooler climate and plentiful hunting and fishing during the summer months. On the fourth Sunday of the month (other times by appointment), stop by the Piscataway Indian Museum and Cultural Center in the nearby town of Waldorf to dive deep into the history and culture of the Piscataway Indians and other native people.

The headwaters of Zekiah Swamp Natural Environment Area are found within Cedarville State Park. The swamp drains into the Wicomico River, a tributary of the Potomac River. This area has been claimed to be one of the most significant ecological areas in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The Cedarville State Forest campground has 27 family camping sites. Twelve of the sites include an electric hookup and several water spigots are located throughout the campground. Dogs are allowed throughout the campground. There are also sites especially reserved for youth group camping and equestrian camping.

Picnic tables are located throughout the area on a first-come first-served basis. Two pavilions are available for rent for large groups.

Fishing and hunting are allowed (within designated areas and with the correct license). A fishing pond, with benches and shade, is stocked with bluegill, catfish, sunfish and bass.

There are 19-miles of hiking trails throughout the forest, including mountain biking and equestrian trails.

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About the Basin: Piscataway Creek

Piscataway Creek

We’re switching gears for this week’s About the Basin. Instead of extolling the virtues of a nature reserve or state park, we’ll be travelling down a short stream just south of Washington, D.C. called Piscataway Creek and discovering all the natural and historical treasures it has to offer.
Beginning just north of Rosaryville, Maryland, the Piscataway runs just 4.5 miles long. The headwaters pass through Piscataway Creek Stream Valley Park. This park is difficult to access and has few trails. However, if you are in the area, stop by Cosca Regional Park. The main feature of this park is Lake Cosca, which runs into Butler Branch, a tributary of Piscataway Creek. Boat rentals and overnight camping are available in this 690-acre park near Clinton, Md.
About the time Piscataway Creek flows under Indian Head Highway (Route 210), it opens-up into an embayment that provides a variety of recreational opportunities, including hiking, boating, fishing, and educational adventures. The Piscataway Creek Trail can be found on the north side of the embayment. The highlight of this park is a short, easy hike with beautiful views of the river. Just west of the trail is Fort Washington Marina which offers two boat ramps and lots of parking.
Beyond the recreational opportunities, this area is rich with history. The mouth of the river is directly across from George Washington’s Mount Vernon and is largely protected because of its view of this historic piece of land. But long before George Washington dug a hoe into the ground, the Native Americans considered the area a special place. Many organizations work to preserve the history of this creek and its embayment.
On the west side of the marina is Fort Washington Park, one of the few forts still in its original form along the east coast of the United States. An important Potomac River stronghold, this fort showcases how it has adapted to the advances in artillery, ships, and warfare over the past two centuries.
Across the creek from the fort is National Colonial Farm at Piscataway Park, managed by the Accokeek Foundation. In addition to a boat ramp, hiking trails, arboretum, and forest restoration projects, the park hosts a living history farm from the colonial period. Visit the farm to learn what it was like to live as a middle-class family before the American revolution (spoiler alert: they didn’t have wifi!).
Just west of National Colonial Farm is Alice Ferguson Foundation’s Hard Bargain Farm, an environmental center focused on sustainable agriculture and cultural heritage. Most of the farm’s programs are for local students and teachers, but the center occasionally opens to the public for special events, such as last Saturday’s Pinot on the Potomac.