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
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.
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
The park is open from one-half hour before sunrise until one-half hour
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
Watershed programs for homeschooled children
“Rain on my Watershed” school programs for approximately 300
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
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.
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 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.
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
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?