Exploring the W&OD Rail Trail

The Washington & Old Dominion (W&OD) Railroad Regional Park stretches almost 45 miles between the Potomac River in Alexandria and Purcellville. The park is approximately 100 feet wide, and of course, its primary feature is the rail trail, a paved path about 10 feet wide, that closely follows the original rail bed of, and derives its name from, the now defunct W&OD Railway/Railroad.

We noticed a crushed bluestone trail that mostly paralleled the paved trail — this is a bridle
path that travels near the paved trail in the park’s most westerly 32 miles. 

The W&OD was an intrastate short-line railroad located in Northern Virginia. Its oldest line extended from Alexandria on the Potomac River northwest to Bluemont at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains near Snickers Gap, not far from the boundary line between Virginia and West Virginia. The railroad’s route largely paralleled the routes of the Potomac River and the present Virginia State Route 7.

Trains, under the names of several different rail lines over the years, traveled the route from 1859 to 1968. Its record of varied owners testify to the fact that the rail line was never particularly successful. Ultimately, the railroad’s demise can be laid at the feet of an improved road and highway system, and the increased number of motor vehicles which decreased the demand on the W&OD for passenger or freight service.

Often the trail passes through portions with step slopes; with the mature trees reaching together overtop,
it feels like you’re biking through a leafy cathedral.

I was more interested in exploring the westernmost segment of this rail trail than the part that travels through more heavily populated areas in eastern Northern Virginia. But even at its furthest points west, there were still a lot of folks out enjoying the trail, even on a morning that threatened heavy rains (we completely lucked out — the rain waited until we reached our car). 
Hamilton Station

Our plan for our introduction to the W&OD was to start on the W&OD’s west end at Purcellville’s old train depot. We ended up parking at the Loudoun Valley High School, about a mile before the end at the old train depot. With time constraints, we wanted to limit our ride to a scant 2 hours, so our goal was Clarks Gap, just over 5 miles away from the high school, and an approximate 11 mile round-trip.

From the parking lot of the high school, we headed east through the small town, mostly under shady trees. Occasionally the heavy shade would open into fields and sparse woods. There was a mix of farms (horse and dairy, from the looks of it) and newer neighborhoods. There were some interesting homes along the way. Unfortunately, my camera gave out after we crossed Route 7 along Route 9 — just shy of Clarks Gap, so you will have to ride the trail to see those houses and the lovely old stone-arch bridge, which used to carry old Route 7 over the railroad, and now carries Dry Mill road over the railtrail.

A relocated passenger shelter (formerly at Clarks Gap; now at Paeonian Springs.

Getting there: Access to the trail can be had at any of the road crossings, as well as at the Purcellville’s old train depot, now restored and serving as the Loudoun County Visitor’s Center and at the Loundoun Valley High School (only on weekends).

The W&OD’s highest elevation (610 feet) is at the bridge carrying VA Route 9 (Charles Town Pike) over
VA Route 7 near the saddle point of Clarks Gap in Catoctin Mountain.

Websites: http://purcellvilleva.com/194/WOD-Trail and https://www.novaparks.com/parks/washington-and-old-dominion-railroad-regional-park

W&OD elevation map based on information at http://www.wodfriends.org/elvations.html;
by –Reflex Reaction (talk)• – I created this image entirely by myself., CC BY-SA 3.0,


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