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In the suburbs surrounding Washington, the National Park Service has preserved large tracts of land, great swaths of wilderness that protect the Potomac River watershed, historic battlefields, and shadowy woods. Farther afield, the suburbs give way to a genteel land where horse farms and vineyards fill gaps between small towns, where great plantations rise above winding creeks and small rivers, where foothills give way to the ancient Blue Ridge Mountains.
The history of the present-day United States starts in 1607 when 100 men and boys landed at Jamestown, Virginia, in search of riches in the New World. Spanish explorers had found great wealth in South America and had already established a settlement in St. Augustine, Florida; English settlers had attempted to colonize North Carolina in the late 1500s but had failed, with two separate parties disappearing.
In 1607, however, Capt. John Smith arrived and navigated the hostile environment, establishing a foothold for England to colonize the Mid-Atlantic. Smith traveled the Chesapeake Bay and up the Potomac River, eventually exploring much of the Atlantic coastline.
Farther north and 13 years later, the Mayflower arrived with its group of Puritans seeking a place to openly practice their religion; the rest is history. Smith’s settlement eventually grew beyond Jamestown to Williamsburg and much of southeastern Virginia.
The crown distributed numerous land grants to its subjects, and through this method of land distribution, most of what is now the Virginia countryside outside Washington became great farms, fields, and plantations, with rich earth to grow tobacco and raise horses, named for their proprietors: Lord Thomas Fairfax; John Campbell, Fourth Earl of Loudon; and governor of the Virginia Colony, Lord Francis Fauquier, who allegedly won the land that makes up the present day Fauquier County in a poker game. But even before the British divvied up the land, Virginia was home to great Indian nations—Monocan, Powhatan, Chickahominy, and Dogue.
During the Revolutionary War, the colony was the site of several battles, including the one that ended the war, at Yorktown, a three-hour drive from DC. Northern Virginia became disputed territory during the Civil War; present-day Arlington and Alexandria were occupied by Union soldiers within weeks of the declaration of hostilities and remained so for the remainder of the war, while the outlying areas became passageways for Southern and Northern troops as they crossed disputed territory into the realm of the opposing forces.
Today, the war-torn towns of Leesburg, Warrenton, and Fredericksburg are small cities, DC exurbs with histories unique and separate from Washington, with Southern charm, abundant antiques stores, boutiques, restaurants, small-town culture, and close proximity to famous battle sights such as the Battle of Manassas (Bull Run), Chancellorsville, Balls Bluff, the Wilderness, and Brandy Station.
Tiny Middleburg, Virginia, in Loudoun County south of Leesburg, has become the center of Virginia hunt country, so named since the colonial era when lords on horseback chased foxes with great packs of hounds. Today, it remains home to the wealthy, with great horse centers and farms.
The area is so rich in history that the National Trust for Historic Preservation has named a trip through it “A Journey through Hallowed Ground,” a nearly 180-mile route that runs from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (90 minutes from DC by car), to Charlottesville, Virginia (2.5 hours away).
A trip to any of the small towns or sights mentioned here requires a car. Pick your interest—following in the footsteps of Founding Fathers or Civil War troops, antiques shopping in charming towns like Leesburg or Middleburg, or visiting wineries—and plot your route. But as close as 30 minutes away, in Great Falls, Virginia, you can discover a region far removed from the busy type A personality of Washington DC, a place to sample the Virginia countryside while barely off the Beltway.
Loudoun County operates a visitors center (112-G South St., Leesburg, Va., 800/752-6118, ext. 11, www.visitloudoun.org, daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day) in Leesburg’s Market Station complex that contains a small exhibit about the county as well as maps and information about hotels, restaurants, tours, festivals, and wineries in Loudoun’s myriad small towns and hunt country villages.
Getting to Virginia’s Countryside
Leesburg is 40 miles northwest of Washington DC, and Middleburg is 40 miles due west of the capital. The best way to travel to either area is by car; take I-66 to the Dulles Toll Road (Virginia Rte. 267) and continue on the Dulles Greenway to reach Leesburg. To get to Middleburg, take I-66 to U.S. 50 north, which runs straight through the center of the village.
If you are exploring the area, a number of scenic byways connect Leesburg and Middleburg, the largest being U.S. 15. For a day trip to Leesburg on weekdays only, visitors can catch a “reverse commute” shuttle (703/777-0100, website, $2.50 cash one-way) from the West Falls Church Metro Station, on the Orange Line, in the morning and a bus home in the afternoon. Manassas National Battlefield is 30 miles from Washington DC, and is reached by taking I-66 to Exit 52, and then U.S. 29 south.
If you want to take a trip outside DC, consider planning to leave after 9 a.m., once traffic has cleared, or before 2:30 p.m., to avoid the evening rush hour. You can also leave after 6:30 p.m., catching the tail-end of traffic and avoiding restricted carpool-lane closures.
© Patricia Nevins Kime from Moon Washington DC, 1st Edition