The park grounds, including Nature Playce and the trails, are open dawn to dusk. The exception is for specially scheduled programs at Hidden Oaks and the Packard Center. See the Nature Center hours for visitor center details. The tennis courts are open seasonally until 10 p.m.
Hidden Oaks is a destination location for the preschool and elementary school set. There are natural and cultural history programs for children as young as age 2. From the popular Little Acorns preschool programs on most Monday mornings, to summer day camps, tea parties, science series classes and evening campfires, naturalists combine education with entertainment.
Nature Playce is open dawn to dusk daily for unstructured outdoor play in a woodland setting. This is a perfect place to make mud pies, watch clouds go by or challenge your balance by walking over logs or boulders. In season, a waterscape adds the fun of splashing in shallow pools.
The Old Oak Trail and the stream trail as easily managed by youngsters. Take-along activities are available for free at the front desk.
The visitor center houses a kid-friendly exhibit, Urban Woodlands: Habitats and Havens. The youngest visitors will enjoy the Acorner area, filled with discovery boxes, tea sets, costumes and a big tree to cuddle up inside to read a nature story.
Older children will want to explore the four levels of the forest, see live and preserved animal displays, and explore the mysteries behind doors and drawers in the visitor center. The Wentzscope, courtesy of Bailey’s Rotary Club, gives young scientists an up-close view of nature. Children handle unusual objects on the touch table, and temporary exhibits highlight anything from the metamorphosis of butterflies to what hatches from eggs. Older kids enjoy challenging themselves to build a fort or creating physical challenges in Nature Playce. A walk to the stream or along other trails with a magnifying lens or net loaned from the front desk stimulates curiosity. Look for animal relationships and defense strategies. Hidden Oaks hosts popular family events, such as October’s Fear-less Fest, the Pirate Treasure Hunt, spring Dino Egg Hunts, children’s literature-themed tea parties, snake and turtle feedings, flying squirrel viewing, and monarch tagging. Scout programs are available. More than 20 topics are available for school field trips.
A new addition at Hidden Oaks is the option to rent one of five nature or American Indian-themed backpacks for $10/week. The bags contain puppets, DVDs, specimens, books and other materials to enjoy at home or in class. The Adventure Backpacks for $20/week also include a Junior Naturalist Workbook to keep, plus tools to explore a specific environment. All backpack rentals require a refundable security deposit. Rentals are arranged at the nature center.
Hidden Oaks opened in 1969 as Fairfax County’s first nature center. The nature center originally was just the exhibit half of our current center. Annandale was considered a great location because it was just down a path from Park Authority headquarters, then housed at the Packard Center. In 1981, classroom and office space was added, and programming expanded. The nature center has displayed a live opossum, great horned owl and skunk. County regulations now limit our display of mammals and birds of prey.
The Urban Wildlife: Habitats and Havens exhibit was built in 2003. This interactive exhibit invites 2-to-9 year-olds and their families to explore the abundance of life at every level of the park’s oak-hickory forest. The area teems with wildlife, both flora and fauna.
The Packard Center is named after Fred Packard (1913-1981). He was Fairfax County’s first director of parks and the executive secretary of the Northern Virginia Parks Authority. He had served with the National Park Service and was noted for his work with the NPS International Affairs Office. His wife, conservationist Jean Packard (1923-2014), was the first woman in Virginia to serve as a Director and Chair of a Soil and Water Conservation District. She also served as the Chair of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.
The Packard Center houses the Artisans Gallery, a handicrafts gift shop supported by local artisans, plus environmental and community group offices. It originally was the home of a man named Malcolm Morrow, and the county acquired it and the surrounding 39 acres in the late 1950s. It served from then until the mid-1980s as the headquarters of Fairfax County Park Authority.
Walking feet and inside voices. Please keep shoes on for safety. Please do not tap on the animal enclosures. The vibrations annoy and scare them and can make them sick. Please do not let children throw anything into the animal enclosures. The animal could mistakenly eat or otherwise be injured by a foreign object. Please pick up any toys or books you played with and return them to the correct bin or place. Please, no eating or drinking other than water inside. Picnic tables outside are available. Please be gentle with toys and touch-table items. The inside area is for exploring and learning. For play, outside is the best side.
Many exhibit animals were provided by a wildlife rehabilitator who, because of injury or the length of time kept, could not release the animal back into the wild. Some were born in captivity. We rarely add to our collection, and can never accept a non-native animal such as a red-eared slider or iguana. Although the exhibit animals do have names for convenience, we consider them educational exhibits and not pets. Reptiles make poor pets. They do not respond positively to human contact or want attention. Reptiles can transmit salmonella through their excrement. Some, such as eastern box turtles, can live more than 100 years. Should you want to know about a specific animal, please ask at the front desk.
Visitors are welcome to financially support the upkeep of the exhibit animals, but the animals stay at Hidden Oaks. By adopting an animal through our Animal Sponsorship Program, families receive a thank you letter from the selected animal, a photograph, and an adoption card. Sponsors are invited to attend a snake and turtle feeding program as our guest. For a snake adoption, the benefactor also receives a portion of their creature's shed snakeskin. The adopter’s name is posted for a contracted period by the animal with our gratitude. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Most of the preserved animal specimens are donated from estates or other nature centers. Often people move elsewhere and don’t want to see a wonderful learning tool go to waste. The juvenile bald eagle has been on loan from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service since the early 1970s. Hidden Oaks maintains a federal permit for its display for educational purposes. The juvenile flying squirrel, which was found dead in the park, was preserved by a local taxidermist. The chipmunk and grey squirrel were purchased.
In Annandale Community Park, the public or naturalists have seen eastern rat snakes, garter snakes, earth snakes, worm snakes, king snakes, ring-necked snakes and northern brown snakes.
Typically, this question is about snakes, but some students have asked about tigers, bears and non-native snakes such as pythons and king cobras. The only native venomous snake in Fairfax County is the northern copperhead. Staff who have been at the park for 25 years have never seen one in the park. Hidden Oaks maintains a live copperhead on display in the visitor center to help families recognize its distinguishable pattern and color. The young are just as toxic as the adults, but the venom takes several hours to take effect. No human in Virginia has ever died from a copperhead bite. If a bite were to occur, call 911 and get to a hospital for observation and possible treatment.
During summer months, yellow jackets and ground nesting bees are active. Avoid them. If you see wasp or bee activity around a log in the park, please report the location to the nature center manager.
Other potentially dangerous animals in the park could include black widow spiders (under logs), ticks, and mosquitoes. Always check yourself and family members for ticks after any outdoor activity. Hidden Oaks has a display comparison of a deer tick and a dog tick. More information
Hidden Oaks’ trails are part of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries birding and wildlife trail system. The logo of VDGIF includes the graphic of the bear. Fairfax County is not home to bears, although a few sightings of black bears as close to Annandale as Vienna have made news in past springs.
Unless the turtle is in danger, such as being attacked by a dog or in the middle of the road, please leave it alone. If it is in the middle of a road, and only if it is safe for you to do so, pick it up and move it across the road in the direction it was headed. Ideally, place it 10 feet or more beyond the road. Moving a turtle to a new location may inadvertently harm the turtle population by introducing bacteria, and you are removing the animal from its home. It is illegal to release animals on parkland. Should the turtle be injured or cannot be returned, contact the Wildlife Rescue League. It is staffed by volunteers at 703-880-0400. Eastern box turtles are native to Fairfax County as are many other reptiles.
If you find an Eastern box turtle in your yard, you have the opportunity for a wonderful learning experience. Please do not put it in a box or try to keep it as a pet. It may outlive you. You could treat it to a healthy snack. A hard-boiled egg crumbled with the shell still on will help support the turtle with protein and calcium. Dark, leafy, green and orange vegetables, such as chopped kale, spinach or carrots, provide a boost as would chopped strawberries or blueberries. You could also toss a slug or earthworm your visitor's way.
To see if you are being visited by a boy or a girl turtle, have an adult gently lift the turtle with two hands, as if the turtle was a sandwich. If the underside shell, the plastron, is curved in, you have a male. If it is flat, your guest is a female. Place it back where you found it, and let it go its way.
Fairfax County Park Authority facilities, including Hidden Oaks, are not allowed to take in and care for wildlife. Before you put a bird in a shoebox, find out if you are helping or bird-napping. Call the Wildlife Rescue League at 703-440-0800 or go online to http://www.wildliferescueleague.org/
We also have to turn away donations of used bird nests. These may harbor dermestid beetle larvae, fleas and other creatures that could damage our exhibit specimens.
The Old Oak Trail, a wood-chipped loop with a gentle incline, is just shy of one-half mile. This trail is great for families. At each of ten posts, visitors are challenged to identify an animal track. Families with young children may borrow from the nature center a seasonally appropriate Discovery Bag with trail activities or a pictorial scavenger hunt. There are seasonal trail guides by the front door. Follow the orange blazes for the Old Oak Trail. Follow the blue blazes for a longer and steeper walk that loops over the creek. This path is about one mile long. In total, the connected paths are just over two miles in length.
Annandale Community Park is 52 acres with 33 acres under canopy. In the park are the Packard Center, a Park Authority maintenance facility, softball fields, a picnic shelter, tennis and basketball courts, three parking areas, a traditional playground, Nature Playce and Hidden Oaks Nature Center.
In the early 1850s, a railroad was planned through this area. It would have connected Alexandria to Manassas and to lines further west. Although berms and some bridge abutments were built, no track was ever laid. The entire concern went bankrupt before the Civil War, and the war ended any further speculation or plans for completing the line.
Hidden Oaks and the land around it are part of the Accotink Stream Valley watershed. Two creeks converge by the water easement in the southwest portion of the park. The blue-blazed trail crosses an unnamed tributary referred to at Hidden Oaks as Bugg Creek. It’s named in honor of a former trail volunteer. The creek is officially unnamed because it generally does not flow year-round, tending to dry up in August. The creek that flows parallel to the ballfields is Coon Branch. After the streams merge, Coon Branch flows southwest under Rt. 495 (the Beltway) and feeds Accotink Creek. That creek flows south, through Lake Accotink, and into the Accotink Bay. Together with Pohick Bay they form Gunston Cove, which feeds the Potomac River.
The most problematic, non-native plants that we are trying to remove from the park grounds include Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna), Multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora), Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum), and English ivy (Hedera helix). The only way Lesser Celandine can be controlled is through an herbicide applied by Park Authority certified sprayers. The other invasive plants are controlled by hand pulling and disposal. We depend on volunteers for labor. Teams from the Youth Conservation Corps removed Multiflora rose a few years back. Fairfax Master Naturalists have had work days at the park. Japanese stiltgrass and English ivy have been pulled by seventh grade students as part of their Meaningful Watershed Educational Experience. Students from Poe, Luther Jackson and Longwood Middle Schools have removed hundreds of bags of non-native plants and planted native plants, including goldenrods, wood asters, ferns, milkweeds, phlox, and foamflower.
Other than not putting anything in your mouth, there aren’t any! Staff requests that sand be kept in the sand areas and not spread across the ground. Our motto is, “Enter with a sense of wonder and a spirit of adventure!”
Other than service animals, dogs, cats and other furry and feathered friends (even scaly) need to stay outside the nature center. Outside animals greatly disturb the inside animals, which can smell and sense them. Everyone has to share the trails, too, so dogs must be on leashes and under owners’ control. That is the law in Fairfax County. Please pick up feces and dispose of them.