by Russ Evans
I first heard of the Fairfax Cross County Trail (CCT) in late 1999, when it was announced in the local news. I had just recently discovered the Difficult Run Trail between Reston and Great Falls, which was to be included as a part of the CCT. Basically the CCT was going to be formed from primarily existing trails that ran through the Pohick, Accotink, and Difficult Run stream valleys, with some connectors added, to form a single continuous trail that ran from one end of the county to the other. I was very curious to hear more about it, learn the details of its route, and to do some trail running on it. In the back of mind, I thought it would be very cool to do the whole trail, perhaps in a single day.
As time passed, I did not hear too much more about it. Occasionally I would read something - the two cross county hikes over it, budgeting for it, etc. - but I could not locate any details about the exact route. Then I noticed a Cross County signpost, during one of my runs, on the corner of Glade and Twin Branches in Reston.
Around the same time, I came across the website of the Fairfax Trails and Streams (FTAS - http://www.mindspring.com/~potomacgreenways/crosscounty/index.html). Bill VanAntwerp and I both started looking over the information about the CCT provided on this site. Here I found more information than I had ever seen about the trail - including USGS topo maps with the route detailed on it! There were also some navigation cues for parts of the Difficult Run section, but I was already familiar with most of that part of the course. Unfortunately, there wasn't any description of the other sections.
I decided to start exploring sections of the route to see if I could follow it. Bill, separately from me, also started to do the same thing. We had both talked about the idea of trying to do the whole thing in a single day. We increased our knowledge of its route so that we knew about the last 15 miles. But we still didn't know the first 20 to 25 miles and I was sure that any attempt to learn it all would include a lot of "getting lost" time.
Bill and I have been doing a fair amount of mountain trail running together for the past couple of years. Our favorite adventures, often with some other friends, are to go to Shenandoah National Park or out to Massanutten Mountain and do trail runs ranging from 22 to 30 miles. These runs usually take up most of our day, but we always have a great time - no matter what the time of year or weather. We had both successfully trained for and completed the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club's ( VHTRC - www.vhtrc.org Massanutten Mountain 100 Mile Trail Run the previous May. For both of us, this had been our first hundred miler.
About a week before the President's Day holiday weekend, I found out my wife was going to be working all day on that Saturday. Upon checking with some friends about the possibility of a mountain run, I found they had already made plans for a Sunday run. I knew I could not make Sunday so I started thinking that maybe the Saturday might be a good opportunity to try and locate more of the CCT and do some exploring of the course. I still did not have anything but the maps with the route charted on them. I also knew that having only this would make it very difficult to stay on course. But that is what exploring is all about and I thought it would still be a fun adventure. As I considered it some more, I thought if someone else joins me, we can probably cover more of the CCT by setting up a point-to-point course with a car at each end, rather than doing an out-and-back, which would reduce the amount of trail we could cover. Finally, I decided to call Bill on Wednesday morning and see if he was interested in trying to do the whole thing in one day or to cover as much of it as we could locate. "You bet," he exclaimed, "I have been wanting a chance to try to run it and my Saturday is free!"
Around the same time, I received my first e-news letter from FTAS announcing plans for John Coogan's Cross County Jog plans, where he was hoping to be the first to cover the whole course in a single day. I knew I would not be able to participate in John's event, because it is one week before I attempt another long race and I will be tapering at that point. I still also wanted to see if I could be the first to complete the course in a single day. The e-newsletter indicated that more details regarding John's planned run would be available soon. I figured that even if Bill and I were not successful in covering the whole course, we would learn enough that we would probably be successful on a second attempt.
Then, on Thursday evening, after returning from picking up the USGS Quad topo map containing the last course section that I was missing, I received an email from the VHTRC webmaster, Anstr Davidson. "You going to beat this guy to being the first to do this? I hope so.", he wrote. I had previously expressed my desire to Anstr to be the first to do the CCT in a day. Attached was an email he had received from John Coogan asking Anstr to post information about his planned Cross County Jog on March 31st. Included in the attachment was John's website (http://home.cox.rr.com/jcoogan/crosscounty.html) with details of his run plans - including an extremely detailed course description! At long last, I finally had the navigation cues I had long sought and now I believed that Bill and I stood an excellent chance at being able to complete the whole CCT on our first attempt.
I also started to feel guilty that I was snatching John's opportunity to be first, particularly when I knew I would be using HIS course directions. I finally decided to email him with our plans and ask if he was interested in joining us. I have never heard back from him, but I know now that Bill and I would never have been successful at navigating the whole course in one day without his detailed instructions. They were excellent. Our maps would have been of limited usefulness in navigating the trails. It was his instructions that always allowed us to locate where the next trail started whenever the one we were on came to an end. Thank you, John.
For the last few days before the run, it steadily rained. On Friday, it rained quite a bit over the course of the day and long into the night. I called Bill on Friday evening to confirm our plans. "The streams are going to be pretty swollen," I said. "Yeah, the fair weather stream crossings are not going to be very 'fair', I'm sure," Bill replied. But we were both still excited about starting out on our adventure.
We had agreed to try and meet up at Great Falls Park at 5:45 AM and hopefully leave a car at the park. Unfortunately, the park was closed and it had a wooden gate across the entrance, so we could not leave a car there. We had considered this possibility and decided to leave a car at the wayside by the Difficult Run Trail, just off Georgetown Pike. This meant that we would have to hike back out of the park for an additional couple of miles, to get back to the car after completing our journey. Oh well!
We decide to leave my truck at the end of our run. Bill leaves some stuff he wants at the finish in my vehicle and I load my Camelbak into his car. Off we head to the start, at the intersection of Wakebrook Terrace and Rollins Road. When we arrive, it is still totally dark out, but we know it will start getting light soon. We get our gear ready to head on out. Bill and I both own bright red Camelbak HAWGs (Holds A lot of Water and Gear), which we have both found to well-prepare us for our trekking journeys on the trails. We step out of the car about 6:30 AM, shoulder our packs, adjust our straps and then head downhill on the walkway at the dead-end of the street. The earliest glimmerings of first light are just starting to shine through the night sky. At the bottom of the hill is the first "Cross County" pole marker, signifying the trail head. It's a "Kodak moment", so we stop and snap a couple of quick pictures and then start up the trail.
The trail we are on gradually goes from asphalt to a stone-dust trail that is very pleasant to run along. The stream is just to our left, and it is quite pretty; its banks full of a lot of fast-running water. After awhile, we get to the power lines, and then backtrack slightly to the trail turnoff, just like John's instructions said.
After some navigating, we come to the first of the four "fair-weather crossings" (FWC) on Pohick Creek. Typically, an FWC is a series of raised concrete pillars that you can walk across a creek; but all Bill and I can see is fast, rushing water. Either the pillars are covered with the water, or there are none here. We know these are the conditions we are going to encounter, so one-at-a-time, we slog to the other side. Whenever I wade through a stream, over the course of the day, my feet will always feel cold as soon as I step out. Once we start running again, within a couple minutes my feet are fine again. This cycle repeats itself numerous times over the course of the day. I am only hoping we will not encounter a crossing that is uncross-able.
Eventually the trail becomes asphalt again and wanders through some residentially-developed areas. Fortunately, the next three FWCs are all easily navigable and we don't have to wade any of them. After criss-crossing the creek four times and hopping over numerous, small tributaries, we pop out onto Hooes Road. We cross Hooes and then follow the creek underneath the Fairfax County Parkway, skirting its right bank, crossing some small tributaries and then cutting up behind some backyards to follow the trail through a small wooded area. Finally it pops out at the end of a dead-end street - Barnack Drive. We snap a picture and then head down the street.
Now we are leaving the Pohick stream valley and head over towards the Accotink's. Even though it is still pretty early, we are definitely moving along in a comfortable rhythm. Not hurried or rushed; enjoying all the scenery about us, but making good progress nonetheless. I am just starting to gain confidence that we are, indeed, going to be able to navigate the whole course successfully. So far, we haven't gotten off track once.
From Barnack, we turn right onto Springfield Village and go for a few blocks. At one point, we are counting the houses searching for a trailhead that exists between two of them. Somehow we miss it the first time, and then when we find it, we wonder how we ever missed it. We then get on a trail that follows along a small streamlet. We cross some quiet street and then keep following the streamlet. Then we come to Hunter Village Drive, cross over and take a path behind some townhouses, still following the streamlet. After the townhouses. The path enters a wooded area and turns to start following Accotink Creek.
This section is pretty short, but very pleasant as the trail is in a nice wooded section. Bill and I are feeling great and starting to really enjoy our adventure. The temperature is still pretty chilly, but we have started to see some blue skies and some sunshine. The wind is a bit blustery, sometimes seeming like it wants to suck whatever warmth we have, right out of us. But as long as we keep moving, we are fine. We now pop out onto Old Keene Mill, which we use to cross over to the other side of the creek. Soon enough, we are back in a wooded area alongside the creek, after passing by a series of Little League baseball parks.
Now the trail meanders through the woods, often quite wet in places, always close by the creek. Eventually, it gets just a bit further from the banks and I start to notice people along the bank. As I keep looking, I realize that they are all men or boys, and as we get closer to Accotink Lake, there are more and more of them. Fishermen! I realize. And they all have their poles out and are intent on whatever is happening in the water. At first it is a bit startling to see so many other people out at this early hour. Nowhere else have we seen hardly anyone, except an occasional dog walker or pedestrian. I presume the heavy rains from the night before resulted in a lot of fish from Lake Accotink - just upstream - being released and the fisherman are all out on this cold morning to take advantage of the opportunity. Certainly, they are no crazier than Bill and I.
As we finally get to the railroad trestle and dam, we come across another Cross County pole marker and shoot some more pictures - evidence of our passage. We then decide that a picture of each of us in front of the dam, with the water spilling quickly over it, is a definite must; so we snap a couple more shots. We then start to follow around the right side of Lake Accotink, over towards the snack bar. It appears to be open, but neither Bill nor I wishes to stop and take advantage of it. We still have plenty of food and drink and are still feeling fresh. It is about 8:40 AM and we have been running for just over two hours. John's course plan indicates we have now covered 8.8 miles.
We start to follow a little streamlet as it angles away behind the snack bar and on the other side of some strange, new structure being constructed. When we get to the point where we are skirting the edges of some backyards and bushwacking through a small residential wooded lot, we finally decide to turn back to Lake Accotink and eventually come across the trail that leads us the rest of the way around the lake. We probably lost 10 - 15 minutes stumbling around before we get back on track.
The whole trail around the lake and then along the stream, all the way to Braddock Road is in great condition, easily wide enough for two people, and through nice, wooded areas. After we cross under Braddock, we come to a little bridge and another Cross County pole marker, as we are entering Wakefield Park. Another runner sees us and asks "Would you like me to take pictures of you both?", "Yes" we say and pose by the CCT pole marker. We chat with her a moment, and find out her name is Sue Jewel and she is a marathon runner who prefers training on trails. We told her about our adventure of the day and the Happy Trails running club. "Well, I can vouch that you made it this far!" she affirmed.
We then restart our trek and head through Wakefield Recreational Park. We note the snack bar is closed here, but we are now finally hungry enough to want to eat. It is very windy in the park, so we decide to wait till we got to a warmer location. Soon we head out the back of the park and back onto a dirt path along some power lines. There is no wind here, so we stop and take off our packs and get out some food. I have an already-open bag with some Fritos. Bill and I make short work of them and soon start walking along while we continue to eat. As we finish up our eating the trail starts to angle away from the power lines and back into a little wood. Then we cross a bridge and are now running on the left side of Accotink Creek. We continue on through the wood for awhile and then the trail ends and comes out near a small road, with a baseball field at the other end.
We now know, from John's instructions, that we are getting near route 236 and its junction with I-495. On the map, this looks like an interesting part of the hike, as we go underneath two loops of the cloverleaf interchange via three different bridges. Basically, we are on a rough path along the stream bank as it passes underneath the interchange bridges. Interestingly enough, from our perspective down by the stream, we can never see the cloverleaf structure of the interchange as we are passing. To us, it just looks like we are crossing underneath three different bridges, each spaced a couple of hundred yards apart from the others. We both comment about how no one would ever dream there was a hiking trail underneath here, taking a couple of pictures as we pass through.
Shortly after passing route 236, we start angling away from I-495, which we have been paralleling since we got to Wakefield Park. Now we are starting to head in towards Fairfax City. We come to a stream crossing we are supposed to be able to do by stepping on a series of boulders. All the boulders are covered by the high water rushing in the stream. This will be our second significant wading since we started our adventure this morning. Following the cold crossing, we soon get to a section that is quite muddy. After navigating through some turns, eventually we arrive at King Arthur Road where there is another Cross County post marker. Just as we are getting ready to snap our pictures, we notice a guy walking down the trail and ask him to take our picture together.
We then follow an asphalt trail for a long way - about two-plus miles. Actually, it is quite nice and peaceful as we are running along here; a good change from when we were so close to the interstate for so long. I remember noticing a small sign saying "Please Do Not Feed The Pony", as we come up to our first street crossing. But there is no pony around to be fed. Shortly after the third and final street crossing, we turn left where some apparent road building is going on. The ground is all torn up, as if a new roadway is being built here. We follow this new "road" for about a half mile and then get back on asphalt again as we approach the Fairfax City boundary at Pickett Road. The trail then goes through a lighted tunnel with a raised, grated walkway. We stop and shoot some pictures by the tunnel entrances on each side. Bill tries to use the timer feature of his camera to get both of us in the picture. Then we go about another half mile on the asphalt trail until it crosses the Accotink Creek on a small bridge and then heads through a low walkway underneath Old Lee Highway.
Just as we are preparing to duck under Old Lee Highway, I notice that there is a 7-Eleven about a block up the street. "Bill," I say, "do you think we should stop and get some Gatorade at that 7-Eleven?" "Naw," he replies, "there is another one just a bit ahead where we can stop." I didn't know where he was talking about, but I figured he was more familiar with Fairfax than I was. I was, for sure, hoping he was right. So far, we had not passed many places to stop and buy the re-stocking supplies we knew we were going to need somewhere along the route. Just as we get to the other side of the underpass Bill says, "You know, maybe we should go ahead and stop here." No complaints from me! We retrace our steps under the road and over the foot bridge and trot on up to the 7-Eleven.
While inside the 7-Eleven, I look across the street and see a McDonald's. Visions of cheeseburgers start dancing through my head; I ask Bill what he thinks. "Great idea!" he quips, as we head over there. The lady at the counter informs us that lunch is not yet being served. It is 10:45 AM and the cheeseburgers won't be available until 11:00 AM. Bill and I settle for some breakfast fare and decide to enjoy the warmth of the restaurant as we take our little break. I use the opportunity to change my socks (Yes, in the restaurant! I have no class.) Fortunately, no one is sitting near the two sweaty runners in the back corner of the dining area.
I look over John's course measurements and they indicate that we have come about 18 miles in the 4 hours and 15 minutes since we started. We aren't setting any speed records, but we are making steady progress. I know we are preparing to leave the Accotink stream valley and start working our way over to Difficult Run. I am particularly looking forward to this section of Difficult Run since I have never seen the trails here before, but know this is a beautiful section of the county from driving on Vale, Stuart Mill and Fox Mill Roads. But first, we have to finish crossing through Fairfax City. As we prepare to leave the McDonald's, it is now about 11:10 AM. Bill stops and picks us up each a cheeseburger! What a treat! We munch on them as we prepare to head back out.
Very soon after again crossing under Old Lee Highway, we come up to Lee Highway. We follow it west for about a block and then cut into a grassy clearing and come out to a creek in the back that we must ford. And after just changing into dry socks too! I'd expected as much. We slosh on over to the other side. Now we twist and turn quite a bit and are barely sure we are on the trail. There is no real single, clear trail for this next section and the constant course checking is slowing us way down. Neither of us is very familiar with this area of Fairfax - at least from this running/hiking perspective.
Eventually, we cross Plantation Parkway by the 7-Eleven, so we know we are still on track. But this next section also is very slow going because, again, we are never sure if we are really headed in the right direction. We thrash around a bit, but always opt to keep following along the stream until eventually it starts to gradually turn off to the right. I am sure we do not exactly follow the "true course" on this section. It is basically a long grassy clearing, that is quite muddy, that runs between a bunch of office buildings on the left and a housing development on the right. When the creek starts to bend away to the right, we think we can start to hear the traffic on Chain Bridge Road. So we exit the grassy clearing by a parking garage, then across a parking lot and out onto Eaton Road, right by its intersection with Chain Bridge Road. All in all, I believe our stumbling and bumbling in these last two sections has slowed us down by about 20 minutes to a half hour. It feels like our progress has been slowed way down.
We cross over Chain Bridge at the light, make a quick right and then left onto Norman Avenue. As we are running up Norman, we know our next turn is going to be on Hill Street. "I bet there's a reason its called 'Hill' street," Bill comments, as we watch cars turn up a steep side street in the direction we are headed. Sure enough, this climb is Hill, but it is only for a short block and then we turn right onto Carol and follow it to Jermantown Road.
We turn right onto Jermantown and this is what takes us across the top of I-66. We go ahead and shoot a couple of pictures from the top of the I-66 overpass on Jermantown, and then continue on down the highway towards Oak Marr Park. I remember Bill and I noticing some large amount of construction/development happening on our left as we are running along.
Just before we are getting to Oak Marr, Bill notes some wooded area to our left and asks if we should be headed back into that. We both know that ultimately, Difficult Run is back through there somewhere, but John's instructions clearly have us going all the way to the park. So we proceed to the park, cross the parking lot and head down a dirt road. In no time, it brings us back to the same section we were looking into while running along Jermantown Road! We spot the golf driving range mentioned in John's instructions, but this area has recently been all torn up by some earth moving equipment. We cannot find the rest of the trail that John's instructions refer to. After fumbling around for about 15 minutes, we decide to take out the maps and come up with a new plan.
"Bill," I note, "from looking at this map of the trail, it appears as if Miller Street was considered as a possible route for the CCT." "Well let's head back the way we came and give that a try," he replies. We return back to Oak Marr and start to head around it and back towards Jermantown Road. "I think we need to cut across the golf course and go out the back of it to get to Miller," I say, "it doesn't appear to come out on Jermantown." Bill, after re-checking the maps, agrees with me, but is clearly not too comfortable with cutting across the golf course and becoming a living hazard for the golfers to have to deal with. Fortunately, there are no golfers out on this cold day - at least when we cross the course. We come to a fence line along the back of the course with large, spacious houses and yards on the other side. This is clearly a well-to-do neighborhood.
After going along the fence line, we finally come to where a small creek crosses underneath the fence. And there is enough room for us to be able to squeeze under without too much trouble. Bill snaps a picture as I awkwardly scramble underneath. I then snap his picture as he ducks under, with his head by the "No Trespassing" sign, directing people to stay off the golf course! We are now clearly in somebody's backyard. We skirt the edge of the property to their driveway, and then run down the driveway to Miller Street. This driveway is longer than some roads. Finally, we get to Miller Street and head downhill towards the stream valley. Bill jokingly quips, as we hustle our way down the street, that we should hurry to get back into the woods before we get arrested for all the trespassing we have just done.
We make our way down the length of Miller Street and at the end is a sign indicating the entrance to the park. We enter through the opening in the guard rail and head down the path into the woods. Very quickly, we come up to where the path turns first right or continues straight and then to the left. This is clearly the Difficult Run stream valley; we are finally into the stream valley that will take us all the way to the Potomac. We choose the right turn option, heading north on the Difficult Run trail.
The trail meanders through the valley, sometimes close to the stream, and sometimes a ways away from it. It is truly beautiful running through this section, though it is also often muddy. The actual stream flood plain looks almost like what I imagine an African grassy savanna to look like, with trees occasionally mixed in. The trail itself is mostly tree covered, though there are not many trees out in the flood plain. We stay on this easy-to-follow single track trail as it leads us through the valley. I remember stopping to get some pictures at a point where the stream and the trail were close together. Shortly after this, the trail bends to the right away from the stream valley, following a small tributary upstream. In a couple of minutes, we pop out onto a small, quiet, residential street.
This is not expected. We believe we will stay in the stream valley until crossing Vale Road. Bill says, "I think I know where we missed the turn off; we need to cross to the other side of the valley." In retrospect, we really were not far off course and I should have been able to figure out what happened and get us back on track - because John's instructions actually mention this street and what to do when we get near it. The problem was, that because we had gotten on the Difficult Run trail from a different location than was specified in John's instructions, I had not yet synched up exactly where we were, with respect to his directions. As it turns out, we did not need to cross the stream and could have stayed on the East bank all the way up to Vale. But we head back to where Bill had indicated a possible turnoff.
I remember looking dubiously at the water covered route that led across the valley floor. This was Bill's perceived path that would lead us to the stream crossing. Well, we had already been lost plenty of times today. What was one more blind stab in the general direction. Rather than step in the water covered route, we just start working our way across the stream valley through the tall grass fields. After about 100 yards, we come up to the actual stream. There is clearly no easy ford anywhere around. We follow it downstream on the grass plain for awhile until we come across a tree that sticks out most of the way across to the other side and decide we'll cross here.
Bill jumps down into the water, holding onto the tree as he works his way across the stream. At one point, he steps down so the water comes up to about his thigh - pretty deep! And Bill is quite a tall guy! Then he gets across to the other side. My turn. I have no intention of attempting a wet crossing. I am hoping I can successfully walk the tree across and then jump the last part. I start tightrope walking out onto the tree. It is not very wide and I know there is a good chance that I am going to fall in. Bill is sitting across the bank, with camera at the ready, and a big grin on his face. I get out to the middle and really start to struggle for my balance. I am waving and wiggling all over the place as I try to regain my focus and concentration. Luckily, I calm back down and am able to continue inching my way over until I finally jump down to the far bank. Made it!
We continue bushwacking to the other side of the valley, where we soon come across a single-track trail that we take up to Vale Road. Upon arriving at Vale, we turn right and cross over Difficult Run on a bridge. Soon the sidewalk ends and we cross over to the other side of Vale. As we cross the tree line by the road, it feels like we are running through people's front yards, but it seems like we are running on a recognizable track through the grass. Soon the grass ends and the track becomes a trail through the trees as we, apparently, go from one landowner's plot to the next. We cross over three driveways before finally popping out onto Leeds Road where we turn left.
I have driven through this section before, specifically scouting out the CCT's location. There are many horse farms all around us and down this street. It is not at all uncommon to see people out riding around out here. But no one is out riding today. We jog down Leeds and just as it starts to turn right at its end, we angle off to a left turn that re-enters the stream valley park, cross a bridge and come up on the trail in a T-intersection; the trail runs off to the north and the south. There is a CCT pole marker here, the first one we have seen in a long time. I wonder if we have missed one somewhere else along our route - perhaps when we took our detour around Oak Marr Park and down Miller Road? We snap a couple of quick photos by the sign and then turn right, heading north up along the trail with the stream just on our right.
It is easy to follow the trail along here. Bill and I are both starting to get a bit excited because we are nearing the section where we are familiar with the trail for the rest of its route. Before long, we come across some blazes made with yellow tape. I have noted these blazes previously in my explorations and they seem to mark the whole route up to Route 7 (Leesburg Pike), by Colvin Run Mill. The trail continues winding through the valley and eventually we come to a stream crossing. There is a series of large rocks, spaced as stepping stones across the creek. We are able to hop these across without getting too wet.
"This is all familiar to me now," I say to Bill. "Beth [my wife] and I came on a hike down to this crossing when I was scouting out the trail," I inform him. We are now paralleling Birdfoot Lane, a couple of hundred yards over from its bottom, just before it turns in to Stuart Mill Road. We start heading on the trail uphill. Bill is familiar with Birdfoot from his biking adventures. He says that a lot of the local Reston bikers like to go up it as a part of their training rides. It seems to me like it would be a pretty tough uphill for a bike.
The trail runs along a dry creek bed and we are leaving Difficult Run stream valley for awhile. We follow this dry creek bed between two different housing developments until we eventually come out on Lawyers Road. Just across the street and to the left is a paved Reston pathway heading down into The Glade area. We follow the yellow-tape blazes and pathway down into The Glade stream valley, turn left at a T-intersection, then pretty quickly turn right and over a small bridge to the other side of the stream valley. All of this is asphalt surface.
The yellow-tape blazes disappear for awhile (do they take another route perhaps?), but I am intimately familiar with this area. This is near my home and I run through this section at least once a week, and often more. "I think there is an active beaver around here again," I mention to Bill. "I'll show you the dam at the end that I think has been fairly recently re-constructed." I have lived near this area since 1987, and back then, there seemed to be a pretty active beaver population. For about the last five to seven years, however, there hadn't seemed to be any active beavers around. Just this past winter though, I have started to note what appears to be a new beaver dam structure being built, just before the stream heads under Twin Branches Road. I have not yet seen nor heard the beaver himself, however, but I suspect he is out there.
Bill and I take a couple of pictures by the beaver dam and then continue up the walkway onto Twin Branches. We take a couple more pictures by the CCT pole marker at the corner of Glade and Twin Branches. Then, rather than crossing the street to continue on, we head one block up to the Lake Audubon parking lot to get some aid I have stashed there for our trip. I am really looking forward to the "Cooler Ranch" Doritos I know are waitng.
As we get to the parking lot, I notice a bunch of crows hanging around near where I have hidden our snacks. "Uh-oh," I say, and sure enough, the birds have managed to slit open the Doritos and have started to snack on them. I toss the Doritos in the dumpster in the parking lot and grab the Gatorade and water jugs. Bill and I sit on the curb and fish some snacks out of our packs. I get out some fig newtons and Bill pulls out some cheese and peanut butter crackers. We sit and munch for about ten minutes and then clean up our mess, close up our packs and get started again.
We are both pretty tired by this point, as the day's long labors are finally starting to catch up to us. But at the same time, we know we are on the home stretch of our journey. We can visualize the distance remaining ahead of us as we have run all the trails on this route to Great Falls before. At least we don't have to follow them back today! If we can just make it these last few miles. According to John's measurements, we have around 12 more miles to go. It is about 2:45 in the afternoon, so we have covered about 28 miles in about 8 and a quarter hours. With the amount of getting lost and wandering about we had spent on the last 10 miles, it had been very slow going since we had left Fairfax City. Now that we are in familiar territory, we anticipate a much quicker time to get to the finish.
We start back the way we came and then cross the street and head up onto the Twin Branches Nature Trail. This is a nice trail, perhaps about a mile long, that my wife and I have hiked through many times when out walking our dog. It descends into the stream valley of Snakeden Branch. We cross over a small foot bridge, over an earthen dam, up on an elevated trail perhaps about 50 feet up, overlooking the valley floor. After a little while, the trail descends and meets back up with the trail on the valley floor. Very shortly, we are headed up a steep incline that brings us out on the Washington and Old Dominion (W&OD) Trail. We turn right, heading towards Vienna, cross Buckthorn Lane and move over onto the W&OD horse trail, a dirt trail which parallels the asphalt biking trail. The horse trail appears to have been recently re-surfaced with a nice, fine-gravel top. After about a half mile we come to Hunter Mill Road, which we cross, and then we soon arrive at the turn off towards Tamarack Park. This is just before the bridge on the W&OD.
This next section is one I had just recently discovered from the references to it on the FTAS web site. I have used the navigation cues on the site to come out and explore this new-to-me section all the way to Leesburg Pike. Here it connects with the Colvin Mill Run Trail, which can be used to make a nice, ten mile circuit run on trails from my home.
We turn left off the horse trail and then make a quick right and cross a grassy field to where the trail enters the woods on the other side. The single track trail twists and turns a bit and finally comes alongside Difficult Run again just after we cross over a rise. We follow along the trail through the stream valley for a long ways. The stream stays to our right and there are always the backyards of houses to our left. We eventually come across a couple walking on the path and stop to ask if they will take our picture. They do and then we continue on our way. Soon we come out on a wider dirt road which we follow to the stream bank and a FWC. We snap photos of each other as we are crossing the stream on the stone pillars.
We continue to follow the trail and it goes by what looks like an assortment of dirt bike ramps and mounds. After crossing through the dirt bike area, we angle right, away from the stream until we hit a trail coming out of a neighborhood, where we turn left and head back towards the stream. About the time the trail and the Difficult Run stream start to converge, the trail starts underneath the Dulles Toll Road. We take a couple of pictures as we pass underneath. After coming out on the other side, we pick our way around a muddy, wet area before getting back on decent trail. We continue on until it brings us to an asphalt path that travels along the back of some houses in a residential neighborhood. We turn left onto this path.
"I think we are going to get our feet wet again," I comment to Bill, "this asphalt trail was covered in standing water when I came through here last time after a lot of rain." Sure enough, we end up splashing through some shallow, but unavoidable, puddles over a couple of 50 yard sections of the trail. Soon we make a left turn and then come out onto Browns Mill Road. We turn left onto Browns Mill and cross the bridge over the stream, and then we clamber over the guard rail to the path on the other side.
This new path runs quite straight for a good ways behind a housing development; it's more like a dirt road actually. It too is covered with water in some sections, but I am able to step around the wet sections through the grass along the side. Bill, he just trudges on through the water like it isn't there. Soon we pass through an opening in a fence and take an immediate left. After hopping over another muddy section on some discarded, old wooden pallets, we follow a muddy single track trail through a long section of evergreens, twisting and curving until we finally arrive at Carpers Farm Way and Leesburg Pike, just across the street from Colvin Run Road.
As we cross Leesburg Pike and start to head onto the dirt trail, we come across another Cross County pole marker; so we take a couple of photos. Then we start down the trail. Neither Bill nor I are very talkative anymore. We speak once in awhile, but there is less of the idle banter we had been exchanging earlier in the day. We are tired now and ready to be finished. We well know the rest of this section and hope that it passes along quickly. Surprisingly, we find that we are able to still keep running most of the runnable sections, even though we are tired. We have been making decent time since we left our last rest stop at Glade and Twin Branches.
Soon we cross Leigh Mill Road, and then, our last FWC over Difficult Run - shooting pictures as we cross. After what seems like a long while, but really isn't, we see the bridge supporting Old Dominion Drive as it crosses over the stream valley. The trail runs underneath the bridge and shortly, it abruptly runs into the creek. The parking lot, where we left my truck in the morning, is on the other side.
At its deepest, the wet fording of the creek comes up to about my knees. Bill and I have always been doing these stream crossings one-at-a-time, so the other one of us is ready to do something to help (exactly what, I have no idea), if needed. I wade across first and Bill follows soon after. Some lady hikers see our crossing and applaud us as we ascend the bank into the parking lot. We laugh and talk with them briefly before continuing on. "You want anything from the car?", Bill asks. "Naw," I reply, "I just want to get this thing finished." But he does take a picture as we pass by the truck.
Now there are many crisscrossing trails intertwining back and forth, all headed in the same direction. Before long, we cross under Georgetown Pike. Then the trail climbs up and soon is quite high above the Difficult Run stream, which is perhaps 50 to 75 feet down below us. The stream valley now looks more like a rocky gorge as it nears the Potomac River. It actually is quite impressive looking, as it runs along on our right. We take a couple of pictures of this scenery just before we turn off onto the Ridge Trail into Great Falls Park.
Once we get to the top of the ridge along the Potomac, we are afforded many spectacular views of the river through the wintering leafless trees. It is a beautiful sight. We take a couple of pictures of this breathtaking scenery as we are scooting along. We know we are very close to the end now. We see a number of other runners out in the park. One lady keeps passing us as we walk the uphills, only to be re-passed when we resume running on the downhills. She seems to be nearby us, though not running with us, for the rest of run to the Visitor Center.
At long, long last, the Visitor's Center in the park finally comes into site. We head towards it and immediately run down to the scenic viewing area overlooking the falls rushing through Mather Gorge. We punch the timers on our watches, give each other a high five, and let out a "Whoop!" of exultation. It is just after 5:00 PM and it has taken us 10 hours and 35 minutes to complete the trek. Some other visitors out on the platform ask us what has just happened and we tell them about our adventure. We get them to take our picture together with the falls and the gorge behind us. It is a happy moment. We had done it! A goal we had both had for quite awhile, finally achieved. Furthermore, we had accomplished it all, essentially, self-supporting.
Our mood soon became more serious as we faced the sobering reality of having to walk back to the car still. Unfortunately, there was just no other way around it. We took what we believed was the shortest route, but it was still a two mile hike. It started to get really cold on the way back, and for the first time all day, we both took jackets out of our packs and wore them on the way back to the truck. I also pulled out a cell phone and we called our wives to let them know we were OK. As we arrive back at the parking lot, it is dusk. We quickly change into some comfortable dry clothes, get out some fluid replenishment and snacks, and head out to pick up Bill's car. All-in-all a somewhat anti-climactic ending, but we are both extremely satisfied with how we have spent our day.