Story and photos by Delia Engstrom
In the midst of a highly-developed area on the western end of Prince William County lies more than 400 acres of wilderness known as Conway Robinson State Forest. Although located near the busy corridor of Interstate 66 and Route 29, this little slice of Gainesville is the area’s best-kept secret for outdoor enthusiasts.
The space was formally designated a Virginia State Forest in 1934 through efforts of the Conway Robinson Park Memorial Association. Robinson was a noted lawyer, historian and author, who served his home state in various capacities until his death in 1884. At one time, he was the director of the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad, a member of the House of Delegates and a founding member of the Virginia Historical Society.
Five Miles of Outdoor Activities
Today, visitors to Conway Robinson State Forest can enjoy outdoor activities as varied as the career of its namesake. Five miles of scenic trails offer opportunities for birding, horseback riding, photography, picnics and nature walks. It’s easy to imagine the space as it was long ago thanks in part to the original deed of the land. It declared “the land as is now woodland shall be preserved so far as possible in its natural state and that no trees or timber shall be cut there except such as it may be desirable to cut for the purposes of eliminating fire hazards, improving the growth and development of other nearby trees or vegetation, or elimination of dead, decayed or unsightly growth,” which has left the forest in many ways untouched by the passing of time.
However, signs of the 21st century are apparent at Conway Robinson State Forest thanks to the addition of a new QR trail. It’s a widely held belief that to get in touch with nature, one needs to disconnect. Yet, in this digital age it’s increasingly common to see outdoor enthusiasts with their trusty cell phones by their sides. QR trails are a cost-effective way to engage with the public and reach more visitors than traditional means. Partaking in a QR trail requires simply downloading a QR (quick response) app for your mobile phone, opening the app and scanning the available information barcodes found throughout the park.
Using a two-dimensional QR code to enjoy the three-dimensional world at Conway Robinson is the result of the Virginia LEAF (Link to Education About Forests) partnership program. LEAF involves the Virginia Department of Forestry and the Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Northern District Natural Resources Program joining with the Manassas National Battlefield Park to present outdoor, educational programs for Virginians. Cell phone-savvy visitors to Conway Robinson State Forest discover timber stand improvement techniques, deer population studies and additional information about the distinguished Virginian for whom the forest is named. LEAF often employs an intern, who studies and shares the group’s findings. “This summer we anticipate having another intern,” said Adam Downing of the Virginia Cooperative Extension. “One of his or her projects will be to update and generally improve the QR trail.”
Conway Robinson trails are also popular with mountain biking enthusiasts. Traversing the woody acreage, the multi-use trails offer some challenges, like rock gardens and log jumps, but mostly smiles for two-wheeled visitors. Keith Dorset of Manassas started mountain biking four years ago and thinks Conway Robinson is great for beginners: “I love how close this is to home for me. There are other good trails in the county, but this is a nice, comfortable place that’s not too technical. I have even brought friends of mine who are new to mountain biking.”
Affordable Outdoor Adventures
With all of the opportunities for outdoor adventure Conway Robinson offers in one of the busiest areas of Northern Virginia, it never feels crowded. A small parking area keeps visitors to Conway Robinson State Forest to a minimum. Admission is free, but an affordable $16 yearly permit is required for those hoping to mountain bike, horseback ride or hunt on state forest land. Fees directly benefit visitors, as Joe Rosetti, the senior area forester with the Virginia Department of Forestry noted: “The State Forest system is self-funding; it receives no money from the state general fund. The personnel time and expenses for state forests are paid for mostly through timber sales on state forests, but also from the purchase of state forest use permits.”
Turn over a new LEAF and discover Conway Robinson State Forest where locals go to enjoy the sounds of nature (and the occasional smart phone).
Conway Robinson State Forest is located on Highway 29 in Gainesville, opposite University Blvd. Hours are 7:00 a. m.–7:00 p. m. State Forest permits are available through dof.virginia.gov. To learn more about the Manassas LEAF project and the QR trail, please visit manaleaf.weebly.com.
Delia Engstrom ([email protected]) is a writer and photographer from Montclair. Her family enjoys hiking and mountain biking and were thrilled to discover Conway Robinson State Forest.