The Washington & Old Dominion Trail (W&OD) is one of suburban Washington, D.C.'s most popular rail-trails. The heavily used trail is frequented by commuters and recreationists alike, and is a fantastic link between Virginia's rural and historical past and the nation's capital.
The W&OD Railroad was built on the eve of the Civil War in 1858. At times both a passenger line and a freight line, the railroad eventually lost out to more efficient modes of transportation and went into disuse in 1968. In 1982 the Northern Virginia Parks Association bought the right-of-way and maintains the trail today with the help of volunteers of the Friends of the W&OD.
The trail is exceptionally well marked, with posts indicating every 0.5 mile. The trail begins in the Shirlington section of Arlington, Virginia, at a nicely conceived information area that features a drinking fountain (summers only) and interpretive signs. In fact, you'll find interpretive signs scattered all along the route, each telling the story of the people and places along the rail line. This part of Shirlington itself is a nice starting or ending point—just a few blocks away is a nicely revitalized shopping and dining district, which includes a movie theater and Signature Theater for the live variety. In addition, if you want to head into D.C. from here, just cross Shirlington Road and pick up the Four Mile Run Trail.
On the W&OD Trail from Shirlington, the trail is quite urban for a few miles, but you soon leave trappings of the city behind to enter more leafy suburbs. From east to west, the trail does gain elevation albeit gradually. However, if you start in Purcellville and head to Shirlington, you won't have to peddle so hard. Bluemont Park (at 3.5 miles) is one of many picnic areas and parks within the trail's first 10 miles; it's a great rest stop and has both water and restrooms. You'll also find an old caboose here, one of many along the way, as well as a link to the Bluemont Junction Trail, constructed on a former spur line of the W&OD Railroad.
At 5.5 miles, the trail provides access to Washington's Metrorail system on the Orange and Silver Lines via the East Falls Church Station. As you continue to make your way beyond the Interstate 495 Beltway, use caution at all road crossings, especially during rush hour.
In Fairfax County, the trail continues through the communities of Vienna (mile 12 and with an old caboose and train depot) and Reston (mile 18). Both towns offer plenty of off-trail shops and restaurants for a nice break or diversion. The suburban neighborhoods surrounding the trail become more wooded, too. Halfway between Vienna and Reston, a worthwhile side trip is the beautiful Meadowlark Botanical Gardens. The mile-long Meadowlark Connector Trail, which directly connects with the W&OD Trail, will take you there.
The town of Herndon (at mile 20.5) has a trailside train depot used as a visitor center and also another caboose. As the trail continues, it passes through Sterling (mile 23) and Ashburn (mile 27.5), where enterprising folks are known to set up trailside BBQ stands between spring and autumn. The historical town of Leesburg (mile 34) has a Colonial feel and is a popular spot for lunch and antiquing. The trail also passes through a nice park, and from here west begins to take on a more rural tone.
The final 10 miles from Leesburg to Purcellville travel through rolling hills of Virginia piedmont farmland. Horses graze, corn fields flourish and trail crowds thin out somewhat. The trail ends at the Purcellville Train Depot (mile 44.8), which features restaurants and a bike shop for your trail-riding needs.
To begin at the southern end of the W&OD Trail, take Interstate 395 to the Shirlington Exit; bear right to head north and drive to the second stoplight. Turn left here on South Four Mile Run Drive. The W&OD Trail will be on the right, paralleling the road. You can park along the side of the road, but it is not advisable to leave your car overnight here. In fact, you're better off parking in one of the parking garages just across the road in downtown Shirlington.
To begin at the northern end in Purcellville, take State Route 7 west. Exit at SR 287 and turn left. Follow SR 287 until SR 7 Business and take a right. Turn right again on 21st Street. The Purcellville Train Depot is 0.25 mile away on the right. Parking is across the street but there are time limits during certain days of the week. Unlimited parking time is permitted at a small lot 1 block east along the trail off Hatcher Avenue.
Parking and trail access are available in dozens of places along the route. For more information, visit Friends of the W&OD.