- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 23, 2008

WOODBRIDGE, Va. — An almost-unknown hiking, birding and photography treasure waits for visitors a few minutes south of Woodbridge. This less-traveled area was a top-secret research base for the U.S. armed forces until the late 1990s. That may be why the wonderful Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge remains less traveled.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has managed this Northern Virginia site since it was established in 1998 as one of more than 540 national wildlife refuges in the United States. It is nestled between Route 1 and Occoquan Bay on the Potomac River.

After paying the $2-per-car entrance fee at the front gate, pull away from the busy Route 1 corridor and drive into the home of large numbers of upland nesting and migrating waterfowl as well as year-round birds and numerous mammals, amphibians and fish. Be sure to pick up a brochure at the front gate — or download it from the refuge’s Web site.

The Occoquan Bay refuge also is a diverse grassland, marsh and river-forest environment filled with songbirds, raptors and butterflies. It contains more than 640 acres of hardwood, tidal marshes and meadows and is one of the last undeveloped large grasslands in Northern Virginia.

This is a special place, managed differently from a state or national park or a national forest. Its mission focuses on preserving habitat for wildlife. No picnicking, pets, camping or campfires are allowed in this or any wildlife refuge, which minimizes stress to nesting and migrating birds. If you want to take part in the natural rhythms of this refuge, come to hike the trails and cruise the wildlife drives. These two-trackers were once military patrol roads.

After a short drive from the entrance, you will pull into a large parking lot. Around the edges of the lot are many colorful information boards relating facts on the refuge, such as what migrating birds visit and what animals live there year-round. Benches in a shady butterfly garden next to a marsh offer visitors an opportunity to enjoy the peaceful environment.

For photographers, this is an excellent place to preserve memories of your visit. In the warmer months, you might be lucky enough to see an orange-and-blue butterfly gliding past your seat. Be prepared to spend at least 30 minutes just checking out the sights and information available in the parking lot.

With the information gleaned from the boards, and before the hike, return to your vehicle and drive the old patrol roads. These refuge roads offer wonderful vantage points to see wetlands, tidal marshes, hardwood forest and Virginia meadows. These markedly different environments are within a few minutes’ drive of one another. Stop occasionally for the many photographic and birding opportunities. The refuge’s rules require visitors to stay in their vehicles when driving on the old patrol roads.

Nothing beats a hike through the national wildlife refuge, so return to the parking lot, put on your day pack and hike down Charlie Road, which heads nearly straight east toward Belmont Bay on the Potomac River. Soon Charlie Road turns to a wide, worn dirt path cutting through a large meadow surrounded by marsh and distant forest.

As noted, Occoquan Bay NWR is home to numerous species of migratory and resident birds. Meadowlarks, bobwhites, grosbeaks, great horned owls, sparrows, red-tailed hawks and American kestrels all live in these meadows and forests. From spring through early autumn, many wildflowers and nearly 70 species of butterflies call this special area home.

When Charlie Road ends at Belmont Bay, turn right onto Deephole Point Road and begin a peaceful walk along the bay, with water on your left and marsh and woods to your right. This long stretch of the refuge is a fantastic place for quiet wildlife photography and birding. Terns, egrets, herons, bald eagles and numerous species of duck migrate and nest in this area. Walk quietly and keep your eyes and ears open, with your camera or binoculars at the ready.

The winds and tides on Occoquan Bay and the Potomac constantly push trash up on the shores of this wildlife refuge. You are almost sure to see some as you walk along Deephole Point Road. Despite strong volunteer efforts, groups such as the Audubon Society and the Girl and Boy Scouts can’t keep up with the trash that washes up.

If you take a plastic grocery bag with you, do your part and help make the refuge a better place for future hikers and outdoor enthusiasts.

Boats frequently are visible from the refuge’s shore trail, and there are duck-hunting blinds several feet into the water, which is outside the refuge’s boundary, for no hunting is allowed in the refuge. They look a bit forlorn standing silently in the shallows. Keep your eyes open along this stretch; you might spot deer or raccoon tracks in the mud along the trail.

After walking farther, you’ll see Easy Road coming in from your right. This wide dirt road passes through thick stands of forest and can return you to the parking lot. Instead, continue walking along the bay, for there may be birds along the fence line bordering the trail for you to see and identify.

Next, Fox Road comes in from the right, but this forested road also leads you back to the parking lot. Continue on Deephole Point Road as it pulls away from the shoreline. You will ascend a small rise and see a well-constructed gazebo on your left affording a wonderful view of Occoquan Bay. In addition to the bay view, the gazebo offers shade, benches and a public telescope that enables the user to study distant fishermen and waterfowl in the area. There also is a refuse can where you can drop off the bag of trash you collected along the shoreline walk.

Continue up Deephole Point Road with your back to Occoquan Bay. Soon your trail leads to Painted Turtle Pond, which has a viewing dock with railings. Take a few minutes to explore this quiet corner of the refuge.

There are picnic tables here, but they are only for sitting and sipping water and watching wildlife, not picnicking. There also are restroom and hand-washing facilities.

If no groups are using the area, enjoy a few private minutes at the pond. If you are there spring through late September, you may see many of the local pond residents going about their lives. Hawks inhabit the refuge the entire year, and if you are there in the warmer months, you might see a turtle or two.

Stroll back onto Deephole, turning left (north). Farther on, there is a bird-banding station to your left, below the road in the trees next to wetlands. You are allowed to walk off the trail to view the surroundings, but the banding station is a closed area. You must view it from several dozen yards away. Signs will point out the boundaries.

Another five-minute stroll up the road brings you to the road that leads to the parking lot. Turn right, and it is just a few minutes’ walk to your vehicle.

The Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge offers many educational programs throughout the year for children and adults. Information on the programs can be found by calling the refuge’s headquarters.

To drive to the refuge from Washington, take Interstate 95 south to Exit 161 (Woodbridge); travel south on Route 1, also known as Jefferson Davis Highway, for about a mile, and turn left on Dawson Beach Road. The refuge entrance is slightly more than half a mile down the road.


For more information, contact the Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, 14040 Dawson Beach Road, Woodbridge, VA 22191; phone 703/491-6869, or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge, 14344 Jefferson Davis Highway, Woodbridge, VA 2219; phone 703/490-4979 or visit www.fws.gov/northeast/va/mro.htm.

To download a brochure in PDF format, go to library.fws.gov/refuges/Occoquanbay04.pdf.

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