Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) takes seriously the two missions that make up its name. Recreation takes the lead in our state parks system, with camping and cabins, picnic shelters, bike trails, motorboat launches, and even concerts and festivals happening around our 36 state parks. We have a separate system of lands, the Natural Area Preserves, where nature – conserving the rarest and best habitats – comes first, and recreation is permitted only where compatible with the protection of the delicate resources within. But with one of the state’s largest and most beautiful preserves practically right in our backyard, many people are wondering what opportunities are, and will be, available there. I chatted with Crow’s Nest Natural Area Preserve Manager Mike Lott to find out.

Crow’s Nest is a 4,000-acre peninsula located along the Potomac River in Stafford County, bounded by Accokeek Creek to the north and Potomac Creek on the south side. The 160-foot high ridge drops steeply into ravines that are both a window into geologic time and an ecological gem: these lowland areas dip into an exposed bed of calcareous soils formed by the deposited remains of ancient marine creatures. The alkaline soils of these “shell-marl” coves support rare plant communities, including the globally-rare coastal plain dry calcareous forest. The upland ridges themselves contain some of the best remaining mature hardwood forest habitat in the Atlantic coastal plain, with oak and beech trees measuring three feet in diameter a not uncommon sight. The peninsula is surrounded by 750 acres of tidal and non-tidal wetlands, some of the best quality wetland habitat remaining in the Potomac watershed. The area provides habitat for bald eagles, rare plants, twenty-five species of waterfowl, and dozens of species of neo-tropical migratory birds. The area also has a rich Native American, colonial, and Civil War history.

Decades of efforts to protect Crow’s Nest from a seemingly endless parade of development schemes (including a proposal for a convention center), were finally realized when the state purchased 1,770 acres in April 2008 and a further 1,102 acres in July 2009, creating the Crow’s Nest Natural Area Preserve. That funding allocation did not include any money for upgrades to the single-lane dirt road, or for bathrooms or other facilities, meaning that for now, the main part of the preserve cannot be safely opened to the public. But that does not mean the site is completely off-limits. According to Mike Lott, the public can already get a taste of Crow’s Nest, and more opportunities are on the horizon.

“We built a parking lot off of Brooke Road in 2012, with capacity for 20 cars, using a porous paver design for stormwater management,” said Lott. “We have constructed a half-mile trail running east from the parking lot with benches at two vantage points over Accokeek Creek, where people can see mallards, black ducks, geese, tundra swans and other waterfowl. We had help with the benches and sections of boardwalk as part of an Eagle Scout project.”

The hiking trail represents the first phase of developments. “We are currently in the design and engineering phase to build a canoe launch near the parking lot. The pier will extend 330 feet out across the marsh, giving canoes and kayaks a way to access the creek,” says Lott. “Our goal is to have it completed by late fall.” Constructed with funding from the National Park Service and the state’s Recreational Trails Program, the launch will allow people to canoe all the way to Boykin’s Island on the Potomac Creek side of Peninsula. The four-mile route will be designated as part of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, the nation’s first National Water Trail. No fishing will be allowed on the pier itself, but fishermen will be able to use it for access to the public waters.

Limited waterfowl hunting is also available. Crow’s Nest offers a lottery system allowing up to eight hunters access to three blind locations on Fridays through the various autumn and winter waterfowl seasons. Interested hunters can apply between July and mid-August.

And while the main part of the preserve won’t be open to the public until the access road can be widened and improved – late 2015 at the earliest – Lott does regularly offer guided opportunities on a sign-up basis. “We have an “open house” on a weekend day each spring and fall, where up to 80 people can sign up for morning walks,” says Lott. “We also do occasional bird walks, wildflower walks, and big tree walks, and we hope to have a local historian start to lead colonial history walks.” Look for announcements on the Virginia Natural Heritage Program’s Facebook page, the Stafford County tourism page, and the Fredericksburg Birding Club, or e-mail to get on the distribution list. There are also volunteer opportunities available, such as helping to remove invasive weeds, pick up trash and trail maintenance.

As the weather improves, make your plans to get out and enjoy this special place!

Resources: Official Website.

By Aimee Delach, FOR Volunteer

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