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Prince William Forest Park, Virginia: Roughing It Without a Tent

Prince William Forest Park, Virginia: Roughing It Without a TentPrince William Forest Park, Virginia: Roughing It Without a Tent

Dubbed by the National Park Service (NPS) as "Northern Virginia's best-kept secret," Prince William Forest Park started life as the Chopawamsic Recreation Area in 1936, a creation of the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The park wasn't always the near-pristine tract of wilderness that it is today, but now it spans 19,000 acres and embodies the largest preserved eastern Piedmont forest in the NPS.

Hardly anyone outside of Prince William County has heard of this park, making it one of America's great outdoor secrets. Best of all, the park is a place where not owning a tent is no bar to roughing it and thoroughly enjoying the experience of the park's deep, lush forest environment.

Outdoor Adventure

Prince William Forest Park hosts a 37-mile hiking trail network, the largest of its kind in Northern Virginia, including an 18-mile loop route. The park is so large and the trails so extensive that a hiker could lose herself in the forest for an entire weekend or enjoy a couple hours' walk on a short excursion. Hikers looking for an additional challenge can hone their navigational skills on the park's championship orienteering course. The park also has on- and off-road biking.

Wildlife abounds inside the park. Quiet and careful visitors might spot red tail fox and deer. Black rat snakes are sometimes seen around the creeks, and hawks on the prowl in the skies. Skunks are a fairly common sight, as well, so mind your nose and keep your distance. Anglers will delight in the bass, bluegill, and catfish, and fishing is permitted anywhere on the South Fork and Quantico creeks in accordance with Virginia rules.

In addition to its forests and creeks, Prince William Forest Park has many points of historical interest on its trails. Three towns and two mines existed there before the park's creation in the 1930s, features now reclaimed by nature. One of the towns, Batestown, started as a refuge for freed slaves after the Civil War.

The park also served as the training ground for the Second World War Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the modern Special Forces. As you walk or ride through the forests, it is easy to imagine commandos preparing themselves for the rigors of the field.

Roughing It With or Without a Tent

Another virtue of Prince William Forest Park is that not owning a tent is no prohibition to an overnight stay. The CCC built a series of living cabins for themselves, many of which are on the National Historic Register, and these cabins now provide accommodations within the park. The historic log, stone, and brick structures are rustic, with beds, rough furniture, and electric lighting serving as the only amenities. As at many frontcountry campgrounds, running water and bathroom facilities are at a central facility, and cooking is done in designated fire rings or barbecue grills. The experience is as close to camping as you can get without a tent.

For outdoors enthusiasts with a tent or an RV, the park also has an RV campground and a mixed RVs and tents campground. For a truly rough experience, Prince William Forest Park also has a small backcountry campground located inside its Chopawamsic Backcountry Area. For the lower end of the Northeastern Corridor (Philadelphia; Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; and Richmond), this backcounty camping area is the closest of its kind for the region.

Rich Thomas is a freelance writer and managing editor of The Whiskey Reviewer. A former Washington, D.C., resident and keen hiker, he lived in the area for 13 years and was a frequent visitor to Prince William Forest Park.

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