Yes, the trees may look drab and spindly, and the sky a depressing gray. Snow may be in the forecast and all you want to do is snuggle up next to a warm fire and hibernate. But bundle up with your warmest winter coat and hat, because winter is a wonderful time to hit the trails. You’ll be amazed at everything going on. Seriously.
Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge
In winter, you can easily scan the gangly tops of leaf-free trees for bald eagles. Just 26 miles from the nation’s capital, the 2,276-acre Mason Neck NWR, established in 1969, was the first refuge specifically created to protect America’s national bird. Fifty years ago, just a few eagles could be spotted in the Mason Neck area, their numbers decimated by logging and the pesticide DDT. But now the species as a whole has made a glorious comeback. They’ve even been taken off the endangered species list. You’ll have ample opportunity to spot them here, with dozens calling Mason Neck home.
The Great Marsh Trail cuts through woodlands on an old road along a peninsula. At first glance, it’s just a lot of trees. But if you stop a moment, you might hear some scurryings of forest denizens: squirrels,screech owls, white-tailed deer, foxes.The trail ends with a sweeping panorama of the Great Marsh—the largest freshwater marsh in Northern Virginia. An observation platform overlooks placid waters dotted with snags and an island where tall trees cluster—ideal bald eagle country. There’s a telescope here, but bring binoculars your own or a spotting scope for a better view.
Off I-85 near Lorton, Virginia * 1.5 miles round-trip
Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge
A good reason to visit Eastern Neck NWR in the waterlogged winter months is to see the exquisite tundra swans. Every October or November, they migrate from the Arctic to overwinter on this 2,285-acre island at the mouth of the Chester River. You don’t even have to step foot on a trail to see them; chances are, driving across the low-lying bridge that connects the island to the mainland, you’ll spot a cluster of them bobbing on the choppy gray waters. Snowy white and regal, they seem out of place, surreal, in this wild, lonely setting.
But get out on a trail, for the full experience. Eastern Neck has several interesting, albeit short, trails, two of which are especially worthwhile. Tundra Swan Boardwalk, whose trailhead you’ll see on your right soon after entering the island, provides close-up views of the tundra swans (there are two viewing scopes here as well). You could do this hike—really, more of a stroll—in 10 minutes; but go slowly, read the interpretive plaques, and watch for wildlife. This is a good place to spot resident mute swans, red-breasted mergansers, and buffleheads in addition to the tundras.
Take a short drive farther down the island to pick up the Duck Inn Trail, a short traipse through pines, sweet gums, and dogwoods to a small beach on the Chester River. In all its secluded tranquility, it’s hard to believe that in colonial days this area bustled with the activities of packet ships that made regular stops at nearby Bogles Wharf. Today there’s little sign of modern life.
Off Md. 20 southwest of Chestertown, Maryland * Tubby Cove Trail: 400 yards round-trip * Duck Inn Trail: 1 mile round-trip
Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge
Whole landscapes sleep in wintertime. Animals hibernate, trees and fields are brown and drab. Everywhere, it seems, but Chincoteague NWR, where a veritable winter wildlife festival is in full swing. The refuge’s whole raison d’être is to preserve the habitat of migrating waterfowl, and it seems to be working. The place is alive with Canada geese, tundra swans, and snow geese that have migrated thousands of miles to spend the winter. And that’s just for starters. Pick up a bird list at the visitor center to help identify the hundreds of other birds you might spot here.
The best way to experience Chincoteague’s wild beauty is along the Wildlife Loop, which encircles Snow Goose Pool. A paved road beginning from the parking area at the Chincoteague Refuge Visitor Center, it is closed to cars every day until 3 p.m., leaving it for bikers and hikers in the morning and early afternoon. Along the way, you’ll see plenty of nooks and crannies harboring critters, perhaps even a rare Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel, red fox, or Sika deer. But the pièce de résistance is Snow Goose Pool, a veritable safari park of critters, including the eponymous snow geese. Coming from Canada in October, they spend every winter here. A boardwalk leads out onto the pond, and if you’re here at twilight, you’ll be welcomed by the riotous prattle of hundreds and hundreds of snow geese; Band by band they circle in the sky above, lower and lower, until they splash down in the dark waters, joining their comrades in a plush, white carpet of feathers.
On Assateague Island east of Chincoteague, Virginia * 3.2-mile loop
Hawksbill Summit—the park’s highest peak—floats above a misty landscape of tree-carpeted mountains and farm-framed countryside. Its steep slopes plunge 2,500 feet from where you stand. In winter, glistening hoarfrost covers the summit, creating an enchanting setting as hushed as a cathedral. Alas, there’s only one way to reach this supreme setting—up. This hike from the Upper Hawksbill parking area is the easiest of several summit trails. Beginning from the parking lot, follow the Hawksbill Summit trail near the drinking fountain into the woods. It’s about a mile up, and up, and up. But when you finally reach the top, you will greeted with a nearly 360-degree view of frosty blue ridges undulating ridge after ridge into the distance. The mystical Shenandoah Valley sprawls at your feet. Around you, sprinkled among the red oaks, birches, and other trees, are balsam firs and red spruces. Found in few other spots in the park, these relicts of the last ice age thrive at this high elevation (4,049 feet), where lower temperatures and abundant moisture provide a climate similar to that of more northern climes.
Mile 46.7 on Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia * 2.1 miles round-trip
Dark Hollow Falls
Gracefully spilling over a crumbling greenstone ledge, Dark Hollow Falls is one of the greatest spectacles in Shenandoah National Park. Even Thomas Jefferson, who knew every corner of these mountains like the back of his hand, admired their solitary beauty. And winter’s coldest months, it’s been known to freeze, creating a winter wonderland. Top this off with the fact that, of all the falls the park has to offer, this one is closest to Skyline Drive.
The execution of this hike is simple. From the north end of the Dark Hollow Falls parking area, follow the trail into the woods, cross a stream called Hog Camp Branch, and amble along beside the water for about half a mile. At this point, the stream tumbles 70 feet into a pool below—creating Dark Hollow Falls. You can’t see the falls from atop, but a sign of a stickman tumbling headfirst into the water indicates what may happen if you get too close to the slippery rocks near the edge. As you descend further into the hollow, you’ll delve into a misty, almost junglelike world of moss-covered boulders and waves of ferns. Moisture drips from everywhere. You’ll pass a gigantic rock, its moist face resplendent in winter with stalactites of ice. Finally, the trail reaches the base of the falls. Here you are treated to a full-on view of the cascading water (if it’s not frozen, that is), framed by jungly green foliage—a supreme Appalachian setting, the epitome of Blue Ridge beauty, indeed.
Miles 50.7 on Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia * 1.4 miles round-trip