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Scott's Run Nature Preserve


Scott’s Run:   Remarkable Beauty Preserved


By Marty Smith, Manager, Riverbend Park

Scott’s Run Nature Preserve is one of only a few nature preserves in the Fairfax County Park Authority’s holdings. It is a remarkable place of rare plants and splendid beauty. Yet that beauty is challenged by urban pollution and human destruction. It is a classic clash of land use between suburban sprawl and natural areas.

Visitors have flocked to Scott’s Run for years to witness the spring wildflowers which carpet the forest floor. Trailing arbutus, Virginia bluebells and sessile trillium blooming on the steep hillsides create a small oasis of rare and fragile plants. Remarkable and rare species grow along the precipitous cliffs, in steep valleys and throughout the park’s mature hardwood forest comprised of very large oak and beech trees, ancient hemlock and wild cherry trees that stand as tall as the oaks.

A grove of ancient hemlocks, whose ancestors migrated here during the last ice age, stands in the nature preserve as a reminder that this region once had a subarctic climate. The southern boundary of the park is a major fault zone, a relict geologic feature from a distant past some 520 to 570 million years ago when the rocks were created out of slabs of ocean floor pushed up onto this continent.

Hiking in the Park

There are two entrances into Scott’s Run off of Georgetown Pike with small parking lots and trailheads leading into the stream valley park. One entrance sits alongside the stream, and the other has trails leading to the bluffs above the Potomac River. Some of the park’s trails are gentle and wind quietly through forest. Other trails require hiking up and down precipitously steep hills and cliffs. Hiking the trails of Scott’s Run can be challenging, requiring a hardier constitution than possibly any other park in Fairfax County.

In many places the trails descend sheer bluffs, and visitors must carefully pick their way down rocky cliffs. The rugged terrain is part of the charm of Scott’s Run.  Austere, rocky crags and bluffs are covered by delicate wildflowers and sit beside soft gurgling streams.  It is a dichotomy that entices hikers to explore the hollows and ridgelines in order to experience firsthand one of Fairfax County’s most diverse natural landscapes.

Perhaps the greatest dichotomy of all is the main creek that runs through the site and gives the park its appellation, Scott’s Run.  The shimmering creek bouncing through the tranquil hollows actually begins directly below the parking lots of Tyson’s Shopping Center, which is one of the highest spots in Fairfax County.  Flowing east through business parks, condominium complexes and degraded stream valleys along the Beltway, the stream enters the deep forests of Scott’s Run and winds to its journey’s end where it spills over a small yet magnificent waterfall before entering the Potomac River.

CONTACT INFORMATION

Scott’s Run Nature Preserve is located at 7400 Georgetown Pike in McLean, Va.  It sits along the Potomac River, just upstream from the American Legion Memorial Bridge.  There is no Park Authority staff based at Scott’s Run.  The preserve is overseen by the staff at nearby Riverbend Park.  For information about Scott’s Run, call Riverbend Park at 703-759-9018.

HOURS

The park is open from one-half hour before sunrise until one-half hour after sunset.

DIRECTIONS

PROGRAMS

The Park Authority occasionally holds instructional nature programs at Scott’s Run. Those events have included:

  • Spring wildflower walks
  • Warbler walks and other bird watching programs
  • A Geology of Scott’s Run program
  • A Meaningful Watershed Education Experience program for several hundred schoolchildren
  • Watershed programs for homeschooled children
  • “Rain on my Watershed” school programs for approximately 300 students
  • A Wetlanders week-long summer camp
  • Programs for McLean High School’s AP biology class

Information about public programs scheduled for Scott’s Run is available online or by calling Riverbend Park at 703-759-9018. 

FACILITIES

There are informational signs at the park’s entrance and some directional signs at select locations along the trails, but there are no other facilities of any other kind in the park. The Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail goes through Scott’s Run Nature Preserve and is blazed so hikers can follow it.  

VOLUNTEERING

The Potomac Appalachian Trails Club actively maintains some of the trails at the park, in particular the section that corresponds with the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail.  The Nature Conservancy has conducted volunteer group activities to combat invasive plants.  A dedicated group of Weed Warriors for many years has consistently fought the park’s invasive plants, and Boy Scouts have conducted Eagle Scout projects at the park.

The Park Authority occasionally holds volunteer events at Scott’s Run. Those events have included:

  • Watershed cleanups attended by more than 100 people
  • Riverbank planting projects

Information about volunteer programs at Scott’s Run is available through the Park Authority’s volunteer page  or by calling Riverbend Park at 703-759-9018. 

Scott's Run

PARK HISTORY

Scott’s Run Nature Preserve grew out of a citizen uprising of sorts. The establishment of the park has been portrayed in hindsight as a battleground during the formative years of the nation’s significant growth in environmental awareness. Details of the debates over the land’s future have been documented in Elizabeth Miles Cooke’s The History of Old Georgetown Pike, Alan Fisher’s Country Walks Near Washington and in The Washington Post.

In the 1960s, there were 336 wooded acres along the Georgetown Pike known as the Burling Tract. The land had belonged to an attorney named Edward Burling, Sr., who had a secluded cabin at the site. A developer bought the land after Burling’s death in 1966 and proposed 309 cluster homes for the area that would have left about half of the site as preserved, open land.

Neighbors saw small rezoning signs in the woods, and the clash of philosophies was under way. A citizen movement to stop the development arose, and the conflict of ideas that followed over the next year eventually enveloped county residents, the governor of Virginia and local elected officials, four U. S. senators, conservation and park agencies, the federal government, the New York Times, a national conservation organization, developers, protesting high school students and door-to-door petitioners.

Eventually a local public referenda passed as voters decided to tax themselves one and a-half million dollars to purchase the land, although negotiations over the price continued. Eventually the U.S. Department of the Interior provided $3.6 million dollars for purchase of the land, which today belongs to the Fairfax County Park Authority.

Troubled Waters

The beauty of Scott’s Run also brings the park its problems. People flock to the waterfall during hot weather to swim and bathe; however swimming is against the law at Scott’s Run.  Swimming in the creek is a health hazard because many sources of pollution make the waters potentially hazardous to human health. Storm runoff in the Tyson’s area washes human and animal waste into the creek. Mountain bikers and horseback riders have illegally added to the wastes. Park and animal control staff work together to try to enforce the countywide leash law for dogs in order to protect wildlife, park patrons, water quality and the dogs.

Wildflower poachers dig up the fragile flowers blooming within the park. Poachers dug up the only stand of yellow lady-slipper orchids from Scott’s Run, removing one of the rarest and most beautiful plants found in Fairfax County. Despite these conflicts the park remains one of the county’s best destinations to view wildflowers and to experience nature in its most majestic state. 

Threats to Scott’s Run Nature Preserve are vexing to Park Authority staff and to county residents, who keep a careful watch on the site. The park is unique in the region and a special spot for many regular visitors. The stewardship question echoes the challenge its name implies: can we indeed "preserve" it?

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