Top-secret antenna arrays tracked Sputnik. A family of beavers built a dam that created a wetlands area attracting rare birds. And Elizabeth Jennings committed a gruesome murder, even for her.
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Well, okay, the murder happened on the fabulous but fictitious spy series The Americans. But it was set at Huntley Meadows Park.
Huntley’s fascinating history goes back much further.
In 1757, Founding Father George Mason bought the Hybla Valley land and used it for dairy farming. In 1825, his grandson built a hilltop villa now known as Historic Huntley.
In the 1920s, entrepreneur Henry Woodhouse bought up 1500 acres. He intended to build a large airport with runways able to accommodate dirigibles like Zeppelins, which he believed to be the future of aircraft. This unlikely plan never came to fruition, and Woodhouse eventually lost the property during the Great Depression.
The federal government acquired the land in 1941 and used it for various purposes over the next 30 years. One of these was the Naval Research Laboratory’s Hybla Valley Research Station, which gathered intelligence by tracking foreign signals via top-secret antenna arrays.
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to orbit the earth. Within five hours, NRL was tracking it from Hybla Valley.
Sputnik was a huge wake-up call to America. It prompted worries that the future of scientific advancement lay with communism rather than with freedom. Many believe that Sputnik led to the acceleration of the U.S. space program.
America won the space race on July 20, 1969, when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the moon. But by then, America was becoming more preoccupied with fighting communism on earth than in space, as former President Lyndon Johnson had escalated our involvement in Vietnam.
In 1971, President Richard Nixon initiated the Legacy of Parks Program to transfer federal lands to state and local governments for use as parks. Four years later, the federal government sold the Huntley Meadows land to Fairfax County for $1.
In 1978, beavers built dams in the park and created a unique wetland. Today it hosts animals including frogs, snakes, ducks, turtles, and more than 200 species of birds, some of them quite rare. I’ve seen a flock of roseate spoonbills, an ibis relative native to South America, the Caribbean, the Gulf Coast, and southern Florida.
There are three hiking trails: Cedar, Deer, and Heron. Cobbling them together creates an easy 1.8-mile loop hike.
But the highlight of the Park is the expansive boardwalk that stretches over the wetlands for clear views of the water and the range of creatures that it hosts.
And you might even spot one of NRL’s antenna arrays.
What to Know before You Go to
Huntley Meadows Park
Huntley Meadows Park offers a number of public programs, like its Secrets, Spies, Sputnik, and Huntley walking tour. Historic Huntley is open for tours on Saturdays during spring to fall. The house is located at 6918 Harrison Lane; there is a small parking lot.
Wear loose layers and comfortable shoes. Allow one to three hours.
Resources to help plan your trip to Alexandria
Find flights. The most convenient airport to Alexandria is Reagan National, just in the next town of Arlington; its code is DCA. If you are coming from overseas, you will most likely fly into Dulles International, further out in Virginia; its code is IAD.
Secure ground transportation. DiscoverCars is a good site for comparing rental options.
Join Priority Pass. The program offers members access to lounges and discounts on restaurants at airports. At Dulles, you have access as follows:
- Concourse A: Air France | KLM Lounge and Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse
- Concourse B: Turkish Airlines Lounge and Lufthansa Business Lounge
Join Rakuten. The program pays you cash-back for booking through its portal. As of this writing, Rakuten is offering up to 6 percent cash back at Booking and TripAdvisor.
Use the right rewards credit cards. Some good options that pay you cash-back or travel points:
- Bilt pays 3 points/dollar on dining and 2 points/dollar on travel.
- Capital One Quicksilver pays 1.5 percent cash-back on all spending.
- Capital One Savor pays 4 percent cash-back on dining and entertainment.
- Capital One Venture X pays 2 miles/dollar on purchases.
- Discover pays 5 percent cash-back on categories that rotate quarterly and 1 percent cash-back on other spending.
Protect your peace of mind with:
Read reviews. Not sure about something? Tripadvisor has lots of real-people reviews for things to do in Washington.
I fell in love with travel on a trip to Mexico when I was nine years old. Since then, I’ve travelled the globe from Israel to El Salvador. I’ve skied the Swiss Alps and hiked national parks like Acadia, Zion, Shenandoah, and Virgin Islands. I’ve marvelled at masterpieces in the Prado, the Uffizi, the Huntington, and the National Gallery of Art. I’ve stayed in a cabin on a mountaintop in Norway and on a kibbutz along the Sea of Galilee, and been kicked out of the Ritz at the Place Vendôme. I’ve taken cooking classes from New England to the Caribbean, and watched a chef prepare traditional shakshuka in the kitchen of his restaurant in Tel Aviv. I weave historical research and my personal experiences together in writing this blog. I hope you find it helpful. Read more …