A Wheelchair User’s Guide to Exploring Accessible Northern Virginia

At the tail end of my 8-year US Air Force career, I spent two years living in Northern Virginia. It’s one of my favorite places in the United States, so you can imagine my excitement when I was invited by the Virginia tourism board to explore and write about the wheelchair accessibility of the region! Even better, I got to visit places that I wanted to go while I lived there but never had the opportunity. Here are some of the beautiful wheelchair accessible places in Northern Virginia that you should visit, too.

Neabsco Boardwalk

The Neabsco Creek Boardwalk is a three-quarter mile wooden walkway that traverses Neabsco Creek, which provides a rich habitat for great blue herons, wood ducks, mallards, sparrow, and red-winged blackbirds, just to name a few of the winged wildlife species known to populate the area. The walkway is part of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail, which was established by Congress in 1983. The boardwalk showcases Woodbridge, Virginia’s most valuable natural asset — the Potomac waterfront — while linking historic landmarks such as Rippon Lodge and Leesylvania Park. The boardwalk is ADA compliant and encompasses educational sites that highlight information on native wildlife and plants.

The boardwalk is just south of Woodbridge and very close to both I-95 and US-1. There is a parking lot just north of Rippon Landing Park with accessible van spaces. From there, it’s a short five-minute roll down a smooth paved path to the boardwalk entrance. The boardwalk itself is made of wooden planks, so it’s only a tiny bit bumpy. I would recommend bringing some binoculars if you are at all interested in birdwatching. There will also be some beautiful flowers in bloom depending on the time of year that you visit.

Leesylvania State Park

This beautiful state park is also located in Woodbridge, and is a very short drive from the boardwalk. Leesylvania is nestled along the tidal shores of the historic Potomac River, where Native Americans lived for thousands of years. Capt. John Smith actually visited the area in 1608, and it’s the ancestral home of Virginia’s legendary Lee and Fairfax families. The park offers many activities for families, including water sports, hiking, picnicking, fishing, and boating.

There are two different areas where wheelchair users can comfortably explore. I would recommend parking in the main lot at the visitor’s center. From there you can roll through the parking lot to the northeast and join a second to section of the Potomac Trail to the fishing pier on the Potomac River. The ground is hard packed gravel, and while there are some bumps and small rocks along the way, you should be able to navigate around them.

On the other side of the visitor center is the Bushey Point Trail, which can be reached by rolling past the boat launch ramp and parking lot. The trail is designated as wheelchair accessible, and while it isn’t paved, the ground is hard-packed. There are some really great views of the Potomac River from the trail; just keep an eye out for any small twigs or rocks that you may have to go around.

National Museum of the Marine Corps

I served in the Air Force for just over eight years, and while there will always be a rivalry of sorts between the armed services, pretty much everyone in the military agrees that the Marines have earned the highest levels of respect. I have several friends who served in the Marine Corps, but I’ll admit that I wasn’t super knowledgeable about the service’s history outside of the major battles. This is why it was so interesting and exciting to visit a museum dedicated entirely to the Marine Corps.

Located right next to Marine Corps Base Quantico, the museum is a lasting tribute to US Marines — past, present, and future. Its incredible architectural design evokes the image of the flag raisers of Iwo Jima. World-class interactive exhibits using the most innovative technology surround visitors with irreplaceable artifacts and immerse them in the sights and sounds of Marines in action.

The first thing I did when I arrived was to watch the 38-minute movie “We, The Marines” in the Medal of Honor Theater. I learned later that it took five years to make this film (narrated by Gene Hackman), and it shows you everything about what it means to become a Marine, from training and camaraderie to deployments and combat. It was intense, incredibly informative, and so well done that it gave me chills.

After the film, I visited the numerous exhibits around the museum, which highlighted the activities of the Marine Corps during conflicts like both world wars, the Korean War, and Vietnam. There is also a smaller exhibit on what the Marine Corps looks like in the present day, in an age of global terrorism and cyber warfare.

Manassas National Battlefield Park

Despite having lived in Northern Virginia for two years, I never made it out to this beautiful national park. So much history happened here, including the sites of the first and second Battles of Bull Run, which pretty much kicked off the US Civil War. General Thomas J. Jackson also acquired the nickname “Stonewall” here. There aren’t too many structures left, so the main draw is the beautiful rolling hills and the Civil War history that happened at various spots within the park.

Manassas Park is absolutely huge, and traffic along the two major roads that bisect the park can add some time to your visit. I would highly recommend going to the Henry Hill Visitor Center on Sudley Road by the South entrance to the park first, picking up a map, and developing a strategy for visiting the park. That is actually a great area to roll around in the grass and see the beautiful expanse of the park. Just make sure it hasn’t been raining so that you don’t get stuck in any mud in the fields.

Many people choose to download audio or written guides for each of the main sites in the park. There are actually only a few stops that are fully wheelchair accessible. First is Brawner’s Farm, where the opening phase of the second battle took place. There is a parking lot with accessible parking spaces, and it’s a short roll down a paved path to the farmhouse that is now a museum dedicated to that battle.

The second accessible spot is Chinn Ridge, across from Hazel Plain. Gen. James Longstreet’s massive counterattack during the second battle took place here. There is a very long paved trail along this route, which is fully accessible. I didn’t take it all the way to the end due to time constraints, but it is very scenic. The third technically accessible stop is Stone Bridge, and while you can get out and cross the packed-gravel bridge, there’s no way to actually see it without climbing down several steps. It’s not the original bridge anyway, so I actually wouldn’t waste time stopping here.

Shenandoah National Park

Stretching more than a hundred miles along the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Virginia, Shenandoah National Park offers a patchwork quilt of wilderness and pastoral landscapes underpinned by stories from more than 300 years of history. Located between the Shenandoah Valley in the west and the Piedmont region in the east, the park is an expanse of wooden hollows and breezy summits, waterfalls and mountain streams, more than 500 miles of hiking trails, and nearly 80,000 acres of designated wilderness—all just 75 miles from Washington, DC.

From Manassas, it’s about an hour drive to the park’s northern entrance in Front Royal. From there, you start the very scenic and winding route along Skyline Drive. My goal for that day was to explore the park’s lone wheelchair accessible path, the Limberlost Trail. The trail (at mile 43) is a fully accessible circuit hike of 1.3 miles. The trail passes through forest and a stand of mountain laurel, stunningly beautiful during its June bloom. You will travel across a boardwalk and a bridge. Since 1996, several organizations have donated labor, equipment, supplies, and funding to help Shenandoah staff make the trail accessible. Recently, Park staff and volunteers adjusted the grade and added benches and over 20 resting areas.

That night I actually stayed inside the park at the beautiful Skyland Resort. Skyland was established in 1888 as the perfect spot for a vacation retreat. At 3,680 feet, Skyland provides breathtaking views of the picturesque Shenandoah Valley, as well as many hiking trails, and various other guest activities like horseback riding, and rock climbing. The resort is fully assessable, as was my ADA lodge room with a balcony, roll-in shower, and air-conditioning. It really reminded me of movies of the family resorts in the 1950s, like Dirty Dancing, with all of the activities. The food in the restaurant was incredible, and I even got to see a live performance from a local group of cloggers.

NOTE: The Virginia Travel Guide for Persons with Disabilities describes the accessibility features of travel attractions, accommodations, activities and dining establishments statewide. The guide is designed to meet the needs of mobility-impaired as well as visually and hearing-impaired travelers. Facility descriptions range from specific measurements of door widths to availability of Braille menus and signing interpreters.

I visited Northern Virginia in mid-October 2019 at the invitation of the Virginia Tourism Corporation. They compensated me for my time and work with three complimentary nights in hotels and meals. Descriptions and opinions are my own and accurately reflect the wheelchair accessibility of each location.

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