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Fairfax County agrees to promote Potomac Heritage Trail

A Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail marker in Great Falls Park (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Fairfax County will add its voice to the chorus of local governments touting the presence and benefits of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail.

The Board of Supervisors authorized staff on Tuesday (Oct. 10) to sign an agreement committing the county to developing, maintaining and promoting its segments of the trail, which spans almost 900 miles from the Allegeny Highlands in western Pennsylvania to the Potomac River’s mouth in Northern Neck.

The roughly 137-mile Northern Virginia section includes segments in Great Falls, McLean and along the George Washington Memorial Parkway and Route 1 (Richmond Highway) from the City of Alexandria to Lorton.

“This is a mostly unknown trail connection that we’ve all been working on, believe it or not, for years,” Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck said before the board’s unanimous vote.

Designated in 1983, the Potomac Heritage Trail is overseen by the National Park Service, but it has enlisted local governments to manage segments in their borders under the memorandum of understanding (p. 413), which was initially developed in 2020.

In addition to Fairfax County, participating localities include Arlington, Loudoun and Prince William counties, along with Alexandria and the towns of Dumfries, Leesburg and Occoquan.

Per the MOU, the county’s park authority and transportation and public works departments will maintain trail segments, place markers at key points like major trailheads, promote the trail with media and way-finding or interpretive exhibits, and report on “visitation, volunteerism, and challenges and needs for completed segments.”

“The purpose of the agreement is to recognize the Trail network in northern Virginia and to realize fully the benefits associated with such recognition, including increased opportunities for outdoor recreation and nonmotorized transportation; for education, health, and heritage tourism; and for contributions to a vibrant regional economy,” county staff wrote in a summary for the Board of Supervisors.

The MOU also directs trail managers to “consider requests to plan, acquire lands and easements for, and develop segments of the Trail within respective jurisdictions.”

Fairfax County recently filled some gaps with the Mount Vernon Highway Trail Project, which added a shared-use path from Route 1 to Southwood Drive and was completed in May.

Storck said at Tuesday’s board meeting that his office has been working over the last few months to adjust some of the new trail segments “so they’re not right on Route 1.”

Working with Fort Belvoir to move its segments off the road has proven to be a challenge due to Defense Department rules on “what you can do and where,” but Storck said there has been “great progress” made on the trail.

“We’ll need to continue [that progress],” he said. “This will be something that gets worked on long after I’m gone, to find better ways to have it be more scenic and less urban…We’re doing the right thing, and as you see, it’s taken 50 years just to get this far, so we’ll keep plugging away.”

According to a trail map maintained by the Northern Virginia Regional Commission, Fairfax County still has gaps in the Mason Neck Trail along Gunston Road, on Old Colchester Road to connect Route 1 to the Mason Neck Peninsula, and between Great Falls Park and Scott’s Run Nature Preserve.

The Great Falls-to-Scott’s Run segment is unfunded, though one needed easement has been obtained at the Madeira School in McLean. The Gunston Road segment will cost an estimated $9 million and has gotten $4 million funded so far.

The route connecting Route 1 and Mason Neck may be tweaked as the county updates its overall trails map as part of its ActiveFairfax Transportation Plan, which is “tentatively” expected to get adopted in 2024, according to NVRC.