mini-trip report: Dulles airport and Great Falls Maryland, September 2016

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Sometimes trips doesn’t have to be very far. It could just a nice weekend. The area around Dulles airport (IAD), Reston, probably isn’t your first thought of a weekend get away. But, it might surprise you what the area has to offer. So next time you have a stopover at IAD, maybe you can skip the monuments and the traffic downtown. I definitely didn’t have an expectation of this area, but a mattress run gave us the reason to explore.

the decision and planning

The entire reason why we did the drive up I-81 was for a mattress run, where your stay at a hotel would get your more points than the amount you paid for. Hotel chains will publish special deals and promotions. IHG in this case brought back the Accelerate promotion program. It is different each year and is different for different people. It was the same promotion last year that got us 2 free nights, which we used at the Intercontinental Hong Kong earlier. Meg’s promotion this time wasn’t worth it, but mine was of some interest.

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For me, I can satisfy all but one of the promotions with 2 stays. One is a “big city” stay in September and another with a cash and point stay. The whole thing would net me at least 38k points. Since we didn’t have any travel plans in the fall, it meant we’d have to look at D.C. for a night stay to satisfy the first stay. The price was the only determining factor for our one night stay and to my surprise, the Crowne Plaza at Dulles had the lowest price, even over the Holiday Inns and Candlewoods. Booking non-refundable wasn’t really a problem since we just had to drive up that weekend. No complaints from me.

That’s pretty much all the planning I did. As for activates, I remembered seeing that there were some hikes along the Potomac River north of IAD. So I planned on a hike on one of the days and maybe head downtown for the other. We definitely will grab some good food. Meg also liked the idea that we can visit the newly opened grocery store nearby, Wegman’s, which is “the best” and she misses very much from Buffalo.

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trip report

the mattress run: Crowne Plaza Dulles Airport and surrounding area

We arrived early Saturday afternoon and checked into our hotel. With my Platinum Elite status from the Chase IHG Rewards Club Select Card, we were received an upgrade to our room, free breakfast, access to the lounge, and the choice of 500 extra points or free drinks. The room itself was large and a good hotel room. The lounge has free snacks and pop, which was held us over to dinner.

After checking in, we had a few options of what to do. The area itself definitely requires a car as the D.C. public transportation might not be the most efficient close to IAD. There seems to be new subway lines extension being laid toward IAD with possible bus routes in the area. We also had the option of driving to a subway station and taking it downtown, but the hassle of parking and additional transport just didn’t seem to be worth it. However with a car, there are several things we can drive to, including the Air and Space museum we saw a sign for on our drive to our hotel.

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National Air and Space Museum: Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center

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On a previous roadtrips in my youth, we visited many of the museums located in the Mall. The Air and Space Museum was indeed a favorite of ours based on our interest in history and science. While at the Museum downtown, we had seen that there was a hanger somewhere with more cool planes and things that didn’t fit downtown, like a space shuttle (the Enterprise at the time, which never went to space). Frank and I thought it would have been a better idea to find that hanger, but instead we stayed with our plans and and drove 3 hours out of D.C. to the dinosaur park. Thanks Mike and Stephen for pushing that, so worth it. Coincidentally, the Natural Bridge area is close to where I live now and the park has reopened, though my recommendation are the hikes and rivers around and not the park.

Anyways, when we saw the sign for the Air and Space Museum: Steve F. Udvar-Hazy Center and it sounded like a great way to spend our afternoon. The only cost was a steep $15 parking charge with all Smithsonian museums being free. The D.C. bus system does stop here. If you had few hours laying over in at IAD, it might not be a bad idea to take the short bus ride over (Fairfax Connector Bus No. 983, 1 stop).

As you enter the Hanger, you are greeted by a couple WW2 planes.

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The hanger itself is filled from planes from all eras from early aviation

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to fighters

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to the Concorde

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to the SR-71 Blackbird.

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Further back in the museum is the James S. McDonnell Space Hanger

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with the Discovery Shuttle.

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We were able to join the space exploration tour, which I’d recommend, to learn the actual history associated with some of the artifacts. There are several different free walking tours throughout the day you can join from the information desk right by the Blackbird.

We were at the hanger for around 3 hours until it closed and did not cover all that it had to offer. It was ok though since we were getting hungry.

For dinner, we found an awesome Sichuan Restaurant, 88 China, nearby. Our favorite was the sizzling cumin lamb dish (not sure what the Chinese name was), but they did make a good spicy beef cold dish (Fuji Fai Pian) and water boiled fish (Shuai Zhu Yu).

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To attest to the authenticity of the place, a tour bus of Chinese tourists came in while we were eating.

Having stuffed ourselves silly, Meg wanted to walk around the mall to look for some fall clothing at stores we didn’t have access to back home. Plenty of stores in this area. When we returned to the hotel, we had our free drinks with a desert before turning in for the night.

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Maryland Great Falls: Billy Goat Trail Loop

After a warm breakfast at the Crowne Plaza, we looked for a hike. Just north of the airport, the Potomac River flows toward the Atlantic. Along both side of the river, there are several trails and a few parks. On the Virginia side, there is the Great Falls Park, Virginia. There are several trails here with a nice 5 mile loop option of Difficult Run. Further up river, there is also the Riverbend Park with a short loop.

On the other side of the river in Maryland stretches the 184.5 miles of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National History Park that runs from D.C. to West Virginia. The section in the area of interest was the Great Falls Maryland section. There are indeed many different variation of routes here and you can even make a trek out of it. We were mainly interested in looking for a hike that had some distance and provided the best views of the Potomac, the Billy Goat Trail trails is what we settled on.

trail information

  • name: Billy Goat Trail Loop
  • type: loop
  • distance: 8.6 mi
  • elevation change: 724 ft ascend and descend
  • time: 4 hours and 30 minutes
  • location: Great Falls Maryland, Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National History Park
  • The specific trail we took was actually a combination of several trails and can be shortened or increased easily. The busiest portion was the Billy Goat A section, specifically for its views and for the interesting bolder scrambling areas. On a weekend, there are a ton of people. Most people walk the hike counterclockwise, so it may be more difficult going the opposite way as you’ll have to deal with moving around people more on the main scramble. There is a fee if you park at the Great Fall Tavern Visitor Center, we took the opportunity to renew our annual National Park Pass. However, the parking at Anglers seem to be free and you can still start the loop from there.

From the trail-head, we first cross a canal lock number 20 and continue along the bike path.

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Right after first lock, we saw a old boat, or replica of one, that use to roam the canals.

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Between lock 18 and 17, there is a short spur trail to the Great Falls.

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After retracing our steps, we continue on the bike path until a turn off right before the Stop Gate

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onto Billy Goat Trail A.

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This section is was more interesting with a little scrambling and jumping across rock protrusions

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all the while along the cliffs that set the boarders to the Potomac.

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After a while, you’ll come across a “traverse” area,

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where you have to scramble up the side of a rock.Shortly after, you reach Purplehorse Beach.

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After a few more view points along the Potomac,

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the Billy Goat Trail A turns back toward the bike pass near the Anglers Parking lot.

After refilling our water bottles and using the bathroom, we continued along the bike pass until the Billy Goat Trail B turn off. This section was much more peaceful as there was less hikers by several magnitudes.

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The sun coming out provides some nice lazy looks along the river

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and several stone formations.

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At the midway point there is a good stretch of beach followed

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by more cool rock formations.

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After rejoining the bike path, we headed back. There is a Billy Goat Trail C that can be added to the loop should you want a longer hike.

Once we reached Anglers parking lot, we took the higher Berma Road Trail. Taking the spur of the Overlook Spur Trail, we were hoping to see a vista view. However, the top of the trail was closed during our visit. From there, we returned to the spur split and headed down toward the car.

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ratings (1-5)

  • view: 3. There were plenty of cool views of the Potomac, different formations of the rocks around the Potomac, and the canal. I personally like the rivers.
  • difficulty: 1.5. There is a bit of light scrambling on rocks and can be worse when wet. Someone brought their lavador dog on the Billy Goat A section and it was struggling mightly.
  • technical: 1. Many markings and people and rangers to ask.

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After the trip, we headed for Wegman’s for their ginormous subs and a little bit of nostalgic grocery shopping for Meg before our drive home.

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final impressions

The affluent area around Dulles Airport surprised me in the balance of nature, culture, and big city amenities that was available. I can see the appeal of living this suburbia. Next time you are in D.C. or have a stop over at Dulles, consider some of the attractions here.

budget

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If you’ve enjoyed this trip report and found it helpful, we would always welcome any support. Thanks!

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