Parks in and around Old Town, Aelxandria
Alexandria has a distributed park system with approximately 950 acres spread across 70 major parks and 30 recreation centers. Most of my favorite parks are in Old Town, but there are a few spread around the rest of the town that I occasionally visit. My favorite parks are the disconnected pockets of parkland along the river that are separated by warehouses and parking lots. From the north these parks are Tide Lock Park, Rivergate City Park, Oronoco Park, Founders Park, Torpedo Plaza and Marina Park, Waterfront Park, Point Lumley, Roberdeau Park, Shipyard Park, Pomander Park, Ford's Landing, and Jones Point Park. As old warehouses come down and new development goes in, waterfront access is improved and the parks are interconnected along the water, but it is a slow process!
Tide Lock Park is located at the site of the old seven mile canal that connected Alexandria to the much more famous and successful C&O Canal in Georgetown. This canal was built in 1843 and remained in operation until 1886. Just to the north is a privately owned, but publicly accessible area called Promenade Classique with unusual art such as an obelisk and fake ruins.
Rivergate City Park is located at the dead end of Madison Street north of Oronoco Park.
Oronoco Bay Park is just north of Founders Park, both separated by an old warehouse. The park occupies 4.5 acres of what used to be the Standard Oil Company grounds. The area was purchased by the city in the 1980s and converted to waterfront parkland. Oronoco Bay Park is the home of the annual Alexandria Waterfront Festival, the largest American Red Cross fund raising event in the country!
Founders Park was originally a shipping port called West Point, and it actually predates the establishment of the city of Alexandria. The warehouse that was constructed here in 1732 was the first permanent building on the Alexandria waterfront. Through the years this area was often used as a key slavery and tobacco port, as well as an important military shipping area during the Civil War. In the 1970s the industry left, but soon plans for huge 18-story apartment buildings sprung up; luckily these were rejected in favor of the park you see today. Founders Park is on Union Street between Oronoco and Queen Streets.
Torpedo Plaza and Marina Park is behind the Torpedo Factory Art Center. This is one of the city's most visited parks, as it has restaurants, a marina, benches, and trails connecting to the neighboring parks.
Waterfront Park is a small 1.5 acre square located at the base of Prince Street. This park has an open grassy lawn, a statue of a ship builder, old anchors, and a monument to fallen policemen.
Point Lumley is another of the string of disconnected riverfront parks in Old Town. This park lies at the base of Duke Street, and has just .2 acres of land with some flowering vegetation, a few benches, and a tiny river overlook. On either side of this park are warehouses and parking lots... too bad the city can't buy up the rest of the riverfront lots and
expand these parks!
Roberdeau Park is a tiny park at the end of Wolfe Street on the Potomac.
Shipyard Park is on Wilkes Street next to Pomander Park on the river.
Pomander Park and Windmill Hill Park are separated by Union Street. Together these parks are comprised of about five acres and they have basketball courts, playgrounds, a few trails, dog areas, and great views of the Potomac.
Ford's Landing is the site of the old Ford Motors plant on the waterfront.
Jones Point Park is one of my favorite parks, as it has a variety of historic elements such as the Jones Point Light House, the first Washington DC boundary stone, the foundations of old ship building factories, and even Native American sites.
These are some of my favorite parks that are not along the river:
Simpson Park is in the Del Rey Neighborhood, just a mile or less from Old Town. This park is bordered by our local YMCA, and it has baseball fields, a fitness path, and more.
King Street Gardens Park is located near King Street Metro Station at the big intersection of King Street, Diagonal Road, and Daingerfield Street. This park was dedicated in 1997 and features a small wetlands, a large vine-covered trellis, summertime concerts, and a farmers market.
Fort Ward Park is a huge park that was created to preserve Civil War-era Fort Ward. Though this fort was never involved in a battle, this is the best preserved of the ring of forts surrounding the nation's capitol.
African American Heritage Memorial Park is located just west of Alexandria National Cemetery next to the Carlyle neighborhood.
Fort Belvoir was established in 1917 during World War I. It sits adjacent to the Potomac River, easily accessible from US Route 1 or I-95.
The fort is named after Lord Fairfax's 2,200 acre Belvoir Manor plantation, with a mansion that was completed in 1741 on parts of this land. Thomas Sixth Lord Fairfax is known as the only member of British nobility ever to live in the original American colonies, and he was a close acquaintance of George Washington who lived on the neighboring Mount Vernon estate. In 1773 Lord Fairfax returned to England and in the War of 1812 the remains of the estate were destroyed by British canon fire when the Americans established a fort on the site.
Today Fort Belvoir remains an important and growing installation in the Washington DC area. They have a great Officers Club overlooking the Potomac River.
Hot Air Balloon and Wine Festival at Long Branch
Long Branch is an early 19th century antebellum mansion, built for Robert Carter Burwell. After remaining in the family for over a century, it was purchased by Harry Z. Isaacs in 1986. It's now open to the public.
Many seasonal events occur here. I attended the annual Hot Air Balloon and Wine Festival. Of course, Virginia wines are featured, with free samples for those who buy a wine glass (for a modest $5.00). Be sure to have your ID ready. Each sample is only a swallow, so it takes about a dozen to equal a glass. If you're driving, then limit yourself to that, have something to eat, and lay off for a couple hours.
There's plenty of food and non-alcoholic drink. Also on display are antique cars, arts, crafts, a number of bands, and tours of the mansion. Be patient while awaiting the balloon launch; when I was there, it began about 4:00 pm (just as I was going to leave). It was worth waiting for. You can see the entire procedure up close, as long as you stay out of the way. You can even ride on a balloon, for $175. That's too much for me, but if you're game for it, then please call or go to the website and reserve your seat well in advance.
From Alexandria, follow I-66 west to Highway 50, then bear right (northwest) to 17. Turn left on Red Gate Road. If you reach Route 340, near Boyce, then turn back around.
The torpedo factory produced munitions (10,000 MK-14 torpedoes) starting in the 1920s. Later, dinosaur bones for the Smithsonian were stored here, as well as congressional archives of the Nuremberg Trials.
In 1973 the City of Alexandria approved a proposal to convert the building into artists' studios and workshops. Artists moved in the following year.
Currently the 72,000-square-foot building houses:
- the Art Center's 84 studios and 160 artists;
- the 40-year-old Art League, Inc., a nonprofit membership cooperative;
- the Art League School with 2,500 students each semester;
- national and international workshops;
- and the Alexandria Archeological Lab.
Fort Hunt Park, near Mount Vernon
Fort Hunt was once a part of George Washington's River Farm, one of the five farms he owned and part of the Mount Vernon estate. The land was acquired by the army in 1892, and construction of the fort began in 1897. The fort was manned during the Spanish-American War, then completed in 1904. It had four primary batteries called the Mount Vernon Battery, Battery Sater, Battery Porter and Battery Robinson. In 1930 Congress approved plans for the Mount Vernon Parkway to run through the now abandoned fort. From 1933 to 1942 the Fort Hunt grounds were used by the Civilian Conservation Corps camp that was building the Mount Vernon Parkway, and the King and Queen of Great Britain actually visited the site in 1939. During World War II, the fort was used as a highly classified interrogation camp for German prisoners of war.
Some 3,400 German prisoners passed through Fort Hunt. It is said that most of the prisoners here were submarine crews, and they were actually held here just long enough to extract vital war-time information. Most prisoners stayed here about three months, then they were transferred to regular POW camps and the International Red Cross was notified of their capture. It is said that Lieutenant Commander Werner Henke, the highest-ranking German officer to be shot while in American captivity during World War II, was killed while attempting an escape from Fort Hunt in 1944.
Today the fort has picnic areas, playgrounds, and other recreational opportunities. The concrete batteries and numerous buildings are also preserved as National Historic Landmarks.
Fort Hunt Park is located approximately 6 miles south of Old Town Alexandria in Virginia along the George Washington Memorial Parkway.