Seventy-fire years after it was created as a woodsy retreat for youth from Washington, D.C., Prince William Forest Park in Virginia remains a hidden gem for urbanites seeking a respite from the crowds and concrete.
Never heard of Prince William Forest? That wouldn't be too surprising, if for no other reason than it lacks the "National Park" surname. But if you look you'll find this 19,376-acre leafy park near Triangle, Virginia, just 35 miles from Washington (though, with today's traffic load on I-95, it could take considerably longer than 30 minutes to make the drive).
The park initially was known as Chopawamsic Recreation Demonstration Area. It was viewed, in the 1930s when it was built, as a "model recreation area" within easy reach of Washington and was intended to give underprivileged youth a recreational experience. In 1937, the RDA was the backdrop for "the nation's finest camp for Negro youth," according to the park's newspaper.
The opportunity to take part in a "character building camp experience' was made possible from the generous support of Abe Lichtman, a Jewish man and major theater magnate in Washington, D.C. His generosity made standardized camping for African-American boys a reality.
Since 1948 the RDA has been known by its present name. Within the park you'll find hiking trails and five camps that were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps for group and family camping. In fact, Prince William Forest Park "preserves the largest inventory of Civilian Conservation Corps structures (153) in the National Park System. Four of the five cabin camps are listed on the National Register of Historic Places as historic districts."
But there's much more to this park than hiking and camping. It has a rich history. Spend some time in the park and you can learn about the small communities that once existed within the park's borders, Revolutionary War history, the Algonquian tribes that once lived in the area, and, more recently, the World War II spies who trained here.
On November 12 the park will celebrate its 75th birthday. Visit Prince William Forest on that day and you'll be able to listen to the sounds of big bands that once played in the historic Office of Strategic Services theater, view some historic photos, hear a presentation about the park's history and, of course, enjoy some birthday cake.