Start the New Year with a First Day Hike at Virginia’s State Parks

If you’re like lots of people, you start each year invigorated and committed to getting fit. It’s a fresh start! You are motivated! And then you discover an overcrowded gym packed with all the other resolution-makers, and the thrill is gone.

Or maybe you spend the first day of January in your traditional spot on the sofa, recovering from the previous evening’s excesses. This is a perfectly valid, but painful way to start a year.

If you’re looking for a more fun way to get 2015 off to a healthy start, consider a First Day Hike. The First Day Hike program is a nationwide initiative sponsored by America’s State Parks to encourage people to enjoy the outdoors and celebrate the New Year by getting out for a walk. This program is offered by state parks throughout the country, including all 36 state parks in Virginia. Each state park is hosting a series of events to help visitors welcome the new year, including guided hikes, photo contests, and team challenges. Lots of prizes are available.

Mason Neck State Park in Lorton, Virginia

Mason Neck State Park in Lorton, Virginia

One of the closest state parks to Reston is Mason Neck State Park in Lorton. It sits at the bay where the Occoquan River connects with the Potomac River, about 33 miles south of Reston. It has hiking trails, a large picnic area, a playground, a visitor center, and lots of water views. Canoe, kayak, and bicycle rentals are available when weather permits. The park is known for its bird watching opportunities, especially for the American bald eagles that nest near its waters.

I headed with my family to Mason Neck State Park to explore its trails and learn more about its New Years Day events. We took the mile-long Bayview trail and thoroughly enjoyed it. The trail offered great views of the river, and crossed over ponds and marshlands. This series of bridges, boardwalks, stairways, and paths were sturdily constructed and in great condition. The walk was mostly flat and easy enough for our two very young children to handle. Our dog loved sniffing the river’s shoreline, and our kids loved climbing the stairs and crossing the bridges. The trail ended with a playground that was obviously a hit with our kids, too. Our overall impression of the park was that it is excellently maintained, with a very friendly and helpful staff.

There are many other trails in the park, most of which are more difficult than the short one my family explored. I’ll definitely return to try the other trails.


Mason Neck State Park First Day Hike Schedule:

Mason Neck State Park will host three guided hikes on January 1, 2015. The hikes will be led by a park ranger, who will take visitors to the most iconic views at the park, and help with bird-watching along the way.

  • 10:00am: The first guided hike will begin at the Visitor Center, and will be a long hike to the Eagle Spur Trail Blind to search for waterfowl. It will be a medium-paced exercise hike on a moderately difficult trail.
  • 1:00pm: The second hike will begin at the Bay View trail head, and will be a slow-paced fun walk along their most popular trail. The hike is easy, but there will be some stairs along the trail.
  • 3:00pm: The final hike will begin at the Wilson Spring parking lot, and will be a brisk hike to the Meadowview Trail Blind. It will be the most difficult hike of the day.

Team Challenge:

If you plan to participate in a First Day Hike, you have the option to join a Team Challenge. Any group of two or more people can sign up as a team. Teams can be friends, family, civic groups, or church groups. Register online, and then after your team completes a guided or self-guided hike on January 1st, you will be entered into a drawing for prizes. All you have to do is take a hike at a state park, and you can win. Prizes include:

  • $500 gift certificate
  • Virginia State Park annual pass
  • First Day Hike ball cap

Photo Contest:

If you take photos along your First Day Hike, you can submit them to the Virginia State Park photo contest by social media, using the hashtag #vastateparks. This year, the winners of the photo contest will be selected based on the best portrayal of a First Day Hike. They are looking for hiking action photos, or posed photos of hikers at iconic views of the park. For more information on how to enter, consult this page. Prizes include:

  • Weeklong cabin stay
  • Two-night cabin stay
  • Three-night cabin stay
  • Annual parking pass
  • First Day Hike ball cap

I had a great experience at Mason Neck State Park, and even had a chance to see wildlife on a sunny winter’s day. I think this bird is a juvenile bald eagle — do any of you know for sure?

Mason Neck State Park is located at High Point Road, Lorton, VA 22079. Admission and First Day Hikes are free, but parking is $5 ($4 on non-holiday weekdays). If you’d rather explore one of the other state parks in the area, here are a few to choose from:

Sky Meadows State Park, Delaplane, VA

Leesylvania State Park, Woodbridge, VA

Shenandoah River State Park, Bentonville, VA

Seneca Creek State Park, Gaithersburg, MD

All four of those parks are within convenient driving distance of Reston, and all of them are offering the First Day Hike program on January 1, 2015. For a list of all the First Day Hike events taking place in the area, consult these pages:

Virginia First Day Hikes 

Maryland First Day Hikes

Take your family out for a healthy start to the new year, and maybe even create a new annual tradition. At the very least, take some Advil and try to get off the sofa for a little while.

Related stories:

Trail Tour: The Splendor of Lake Newport in the Fall

Trail Tour: Lake Audubon’s Breathtaking Fall Scenery

Trail Tour: An Ideal Mile Loop in South Reston