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.
All these things happened in what is today Huntley Meadows Park in Alexandria, Virginia.
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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 concerns 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 Viet Nam.
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 is located at 3701 Lockheed Boulevard in Alexandria, Virginia. There is a small parking lot at this main entrance. There is an additional parking lot near a secondary entrance at 6901 South Kings Highway. Huntley Meadows Park is open daily from dawn to dusk. Admission is free of charge. There is a Visitor Center and gift shop with a seasonal schedule.
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.
Select-service hotels within short driving distance include: