There’s something about discovering tucked away expanses of nature in this bustling metropolitan area that is particularly gratifying. I’m not talking about the big, obvious places like Rock Creek Park, Great Falls, or the National Arboretum (all among my favorite locales, just not exactly tucked away). I mean the spots nestled in unexpected places, that you find out about through word of mouth or, perhaps, a great local blog.
That’s how we learned about Winkler Botanical Preserve, anyway. When DCPS was off from school earlier this week (students had two days off, in case you’re wondering how we fit in both this and the “Real Pirates” exhibit), Owen and I planned to go hiking with friends to get outdoors and enjoy the nice day. We wanted to try something new, so I checked out one of my favorite blogs, Not-So-SAHM, and read the raves for Winkler.
As I looked at it on a map, I tried to figure out exactly where it was located. It’s not far from my kids’ pediatrician in Alexandria or Baily’s Crossroads, and I just couldn’t picture a botanical preserve anywhere in that area of office complexes, strip malls, and apartment buildings. But we followed the directions there, and sure enough, hidden amid a couple of apartment complexes, Seminary Road, and 395 is a 44-acre stretch of natural loveliness. Well, actually, it’s not all natural… in the middle of the lofty trees and meandering trails is a large pond and waterfall that are obviously man made. But it’s all pretty terrific, especially because it feels like a hidden oasis smack in the middle of suburbia.
Not too far past the entrance is a wooden building called Catherine’s Lodge, which I remembered reading about on Not-So SAHM. It was not open for them, nor was it for us, and we weren’t sure of its purpose. I’ve since looked it up, and it seems that it’s an education center, as the Preserve has a partnership with the Alexandria City Public Schools, providing elementary and middle school students with a year-long series of hands-on and curriculum-based programs. That explains why school groups were the only other people we saw during our visit there.
After peering into the windows of the lodge, we wandered along the trails, the kids chased a couple of geese, and we all got a closer look at the waterfall, though there’s a sign warning visitors not to climb on it. There are a few streams to cross, and the kids took some time to gather pebbles from them. In one area there are two climbing towers that I assume are only used for the school groups — both had “no climbing” signs on them.
We spent about an hour and half hiking around — by that point, we’d covered just about all of it. (Plus, we were hungry and decided to grab lunch.) It was a pleasant, easy outing and nice to discover a slice of nature in a surprising place. And while I’m not sure I’d make a plan just to go there, I’ll definitely keep it in mind for the next time we’re in the area for the kids’ pediatrician appointments or a trip to REI.
Winkler Botanical Preserve is located at 5400 Roanoke Ave in Alexandria. Hours are 8:30am – 4pm, and admission is free. When you go, be sure to drive through the small apartment complex parking lot through the open gate to the Preserve. There are a few parking spots just beyond.