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Hiking the Northern Neck

Stratford Hall and Bush Mill Stream offer a study in the Northern Neck's diverse natural environment.


The Northern Neck isn't really known for its hiking trails, and that's a shame, because it has some gems. We're going to highlight two that provide visitors a rewarding experience, and both provide a glimpse of the Northern Neck's natural beauty.

Trails At Stratford Hall Plantation

Most of the Northern Neck is flat. Stratford Hall, on the cliffs of the Potomac River in Westmoreland County, is not. While it's not exactly Old Rag Mountain, it provides a moderately strenuous workout as some of the trails wind their way through surprisingly hilly terrain. At least one of the trails provides breath taking views of the Potomac, and the Maryland shore, as it parallels the cliffs.

Stratford Hall's nature trails are as varied as they are scenic, providing leisurely strolls for the amateur hiker and challenging treks for veterans. Most trails are navigable by most intermediate hikers. Trail maps are available upon request in the Visitor Center. Trails are newly marked, thanks to students from Forest Bluff Montessori School in Illinois who traveled all the way to Virginia to participate in this service project.

Hikers have five trails from which to choose:
*Vault Trail - Easy walk with gentle hills and little underbrush - approximately four tenths of a mile - begins near Burial Vault at the end of the East Garden and divides mid-way into two directions: the south fork ending at the main plantation road just beyond the Directors' Cabins by the gate to the mill road, and the north fork ending at the main plantation road at the upper end of the open field past the mill road gate.

* Spring House Trail - Short, easy hike with gradual slopes having slightly more underbrush than Vault Trail - approximately a quarter-mile loop - passes by a natural spring flowing past two reconstructed brick springhouses

* Little Meadow Trail - More difficult, with nearly a mile of trail with steeper grades and greater frequency of hills and valleys - young trees and ferns predominate on valley floors, with a mixed pine stand in the higher elevation about two-thirds of the way towards the Potomac
River - hikers can retrace their steps back to the historic area or continue to the Overlook via the Silver Beech Trail.

* Silver Beech Trail - More difficult half-mile trek, with lots of hills, steep grades and thick underbrush - steps and handrails are present to aid hikers - worth the effort to see breathtaking views of the river from the top of the cliffs - hikers should use caution where trail approaches the edge of the cliffs - trail ends at the Overlook where picnic tables afford a place to rest and enjoy a picnic lunch.

* Mill Overlook Trail - Short, two-tenths of a mile hike of moderate difficulty - fewer hills, but narrow pathways with thinner underbrush of young trees - plenty of steps leading down to the beach area.

* Mill Pond Trail - Over a half-mile of trail that skirts along the edge of the Mill Pond and ends at the main plantation road close to the Vault Trail - not difficult to navigate - possible sightings of waterfowl and turtles sunning on half-submerged logs.

Sturdy bridges and handrails are in place to assist hikers on a few tricky slopes. Whitetail deer, squirrels and other wildlife--in particular, the American Bald Eagle--can be spotted regularly. In rare instances, hikers might see a pileated woodpecker - impressive for its large size. Measuring 15 to 19 inches in length, the pileated woodpecker is a powerful bird and the only woodpecker that can carve out a nest cavity in a living tree, although it usually chooses a partially decayed tree for its home.

Bush Mill Stream Wildlife Refuge

The Bush Mill Stream Wildlife Refuge is on the head waters of the Great Wicomico River in Northumberland County, accessible from State Route 642. Unlike Stratford, the terrain is flat and the trails are well marked.

This preserve is one of the Northern Neck's many hidden gems. From the parking area, a well-marked trail descends from dry ridge forests to an observation deck overlooking Bush Mill Stream. The platform offers viewing opportunities of the rich, freshwater tidal marsh below. The marsh is alive year-round with great blue herons, other wading birds, bald eagles, osprey, and waterfowl such as wood ducks. Careful observation may reveal a river otter. The preserve is rarely crowded, creating an ideal wildlife-watching experience. A diversity of dragonflies, spring and fall migrant songbirds, wild turkey, and white-tailed deer can all be enjoyed here.

Please remember that Bush Mill Stream is a Natural Area Preserve and as such, contains sensitive natural communities. Respect this area by staying on designated paths, leaving pets in the car or at home, and not removing anything from the area.

The refuge is also acccessible by canoe or kayak. Anything larger might face challenges getting up river, as the water gets very shallow in spots. Ironically, the name of this stretch of water is Deep Landing. It earned that name in Colonial times, when large seagoing vessels would come all the way up the river to pick up and unload cargo.