Wild Ideas: Discovering a treasure in plain sight

By Pam Owen
A large tree, resembling a crablike monster, lays across Catlett’s Branch, in a forested valley of the preserve. By Pam Owen

As I’m constantly reminded every time I drive down Interstate 66 and see the startling white cliffs at the top of the Bull Run Mountains, I’ve been wanting to explore these mountains for decades.

This mountain range, which lies between The Plains and Haymarket along 66, is a spur of the Appalachians. Despite its being the easternmost range in Virginia, it shares much of the ecology of the other Appalachian ranges to the west, including some species that are not normally found that far east in the Piedmont.

Its rare ecological features are what led the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) to designate 2,500 acres of the range as Bull Run Mountains Natural Area Preserve in 2002. Ninety percent of the preserve is owned by the Virginia Outdoors foundation. VOF also manages the entire preserve, including the cliffs, which top privately owned High Point Mountain.

To find out more about the preserve’s ecology, I contacted Gary Fleming, a plant ecologist in DCR’s Natural Heritage Program. Fleming, who has done extensive studies on the plant communities there, described the forest there as “impressively mature, forming oak, oak-hickory, and mixed hardwood communities that are 100 years old or more.”

Other notable natural features, he said, are a rare old-age table-mountain pine woodland growing on the High Point cliffs, which are made of white quartzite, and “seepage swamps covered by sphagnum mosses and skunk cabbage along the interior valley streams.” Rare plants documented there, he said, include Epling’s hedge nettle, nodding trillium, and the blunt-lobed grape fern. The common raven, eastern timber rattlesnake and several insects — barrens tiger beetle, mottled duskywing butterfly and lilypad clubtail (a dragonfly) — are among those inhabiting the preserve that are rare that far east.

High Point, a destination so popular with hikers that the high traffic has stressed the natural community there, has been closed to the public for an “indefinite period” to help it recover. But the 800 acres at the south end of the preserve is still open to the public and includes six miles of looping, intersecting trails, offering lots of options for easy to moderate hikes.

Last Friday (Feb. 20) I headed for the preserve to hike, starting with the easy, one-mile “Yellow Loop” trail, which circles the top of Chestnut Ridge, named for its chestnut oak. The day was gray, with a bit of sunlight struggling through the thin clouds, and a fairly brisk, chilly wind coming up from the south.

On the way to the trailhead, I ran into VOF’s manager of the preserve, Robert Stuart. A young, amiable guy, he’d assumed the job last April. When I asked him how he liked the preserve so far, he responded “a lot . . . it’s a beautiful piece of land.”

I headed on to the trailheads, which were beyond a gate and across a track of the Norfolk Southern Railroad. The track is still in use, as I discovered when I had to wait for a train to go through on my return.

As I arrived at the trailhead, a pileated woodpecker flew over, announcing its presence with its goony cry. The forest was pretty bare of snow as well as leaves, offering a fairly clear view of Catlett’s Branch, in the valley below. I welcomed the green relief moss and a patch mountain laurel along the trail brought.

By Pam Owen
The remains of historic Beverley Mill (left), just outside the preserve, can be seen from the Green Loop trail, with I-66 in the background. By Pam Owen

After the Yellow Loop, I sampled some trails on the west side of the preserve, starting with the Green Loop. Passing some remains of a stone house and historic Beverley Mill (just outside the preserve), and lovely Broad Run to the south, between the railroad tracks and I-66, the trail soon turned north, away from the highway and entered Fern Hollow. Interpretive signs there noted the location of several species of fern, but this time of year only the cold-hearty, evergreen Christmas fern was visible, lying prostrate against the ground after the recent snow and cold weather.

The sound of I-66 started to recede a bit as the trail wound around past the closed-off trails to High Point. Going down a sheltered, still-snowy hill, the trail bent east along a small stream that ran through a narrow ravine. The banks were lush with mountain laurel, ferns and moss — undoubtedly a great spot on a hot summer day. Coming out of the ravine, the stream joined Catlett’s Branch, and nearby was a wonderful field of large, lichen-covered boulders, apparently spawned from a low rock outcrop.

Following Catlett’s Branch, I headed south on the trail, coming to what looked like a huge, crab-like monster emerging from the stream. In reality, it was an old tree that had fallen across the stream. On one side its huge, gnarled roots bent over to look like a bunch of tangled legs. On the other side, its branches reached out from the end of the large, heavily graffitied trunk. In between, the stream flowed over the narrower “body” of the tree.

I veered away from the stream, taking what seemed like the most direct trail back, and found the one bit of trash I’d seen all day — an empty plastic water bottle, which I carried back with me. I also heard, for the first time since I started hiking, the sound of people, laughing along the stream.

After I got home, I wondered what the preserve would look like in spring, so I emailed Michael Kieffer, the executive director of the Bull Run Mountains Conservancy. The conservancy, which is headquartered at the south end of the preserve, supports research on the site, and offers outreach programs there and nearby.

Kieffer said skunk cabbage had already begun to emerge, and spring ephemerals, such as spring beauty, rue anemone, toothworts and hepatica should be flowering by early spring. Then come the ferns, he said, particularly in fern hollow. Among the 15 species of fern found on the site thus far (according to the Conservancy’s winter newsletter), three species dominate, he added: cinnamon fern, royal fern and interrupted fern.

Stuart, whom I also emailed, said he personally finds “some of the most beautiful blooms” in the spring to be redbud, flowering dogwood, and wild hydrangea and azalea.

For more about the preserve, visit the websites of the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (virginiaoutdoorsfoundation.org) and the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation  (dcr.virginia.gov). Visit the Conservancy’s website (brmconservancy.org), call 703-253-2631 or email info@brmconservancy.org for more on hiking and nature programs there.

© 2016 Pam Owen

Threats from encroaching development

What I found most striking about the preserve were its beauty, diversity and well-maintained trails — and the loud, omnipresent noise from traffic on I-66. While at Bull Run Mountain Natural Area Preserve, I talked with Michael Kiefer about my impressions of the site and asked about the problems of having such a pristine natural area so close to a high-traffic highway and encroaching development.

Asking first about the health of the streams, Kieffer described them as “pristine.” But he expressed concern that they could run dry from groundwater being pumped out through the increasing number of wells as development grows around the preserve. The streams in it are mainly fed by groundwater pushing up in the form of springs and seepages, he said.

Kieffer is also concerned about the noise from I-66, along with air and light pollution from the road and rapidly growing Haymarket, less than three miles east. Noise can be disruptive to wildlife, especially when they’re trying to communicate. Most notable this time of year, he Kieffer said, is somewhat ameliorated once the forest leafs out.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 340 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”


  1. What a great article! I’ve been wanted to visit these cliffs for some time too, I think I’ll have to strap up the toddler and head down there this weekend :)

    • Remember that the cliff area is closed for an indefinite period, so you’ll likely only get a look at the cliffs from outside the preserve. Spring should be popping up there in the lower elevations, though, so should be a nice hike on any of the trails that are open. Have fun!

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