Anyone who knows my family knows that fall is our favorite time of year. Whether it be picking pumpkins, sipping cider or hearing the crunch of leaves, we also love to be outside in the cooler weather. Several years ago, a friend told me about a well-kept secret to check out called the Winkler Botanical Preserve.
Being a native Alexandrian, I was floored that I had never heard about it – hence the secret.
Perhaps the reason it’s not well known is because the location itself is quite hidden. There are no signs directing you to the privately owned Preserve, which is in close proximity to the BRAC building inside the I-395 beltway. Established in 1981, Winkler Botanical Preserve was the site of a former pig farm.
Drive through an apartment complex and through the iron gates to enter the Preserve. Only a handful of spaces are available, but being it’s not well known, you will have no trouble finding a spot. Don’t go searching for a website because there isn’t one.
Winkler is a small, but hilly, well-maintained park. It’s the kind of place worth investigating due to its simplicity within an urban sprawl. On a day when schools were out, we ran into two employees watering the grounds and one other family. We pretty much had this bounty of nature all to ourselves.
Catherine Lodge serves as an educational building for Alexandria City Public Schools, but is closed to the public. You can peer inside the windows, ring a bell and sit and admire the amazing view of a man-made waterfall across the lake.
It takes an hour to hike the entire 1.4 mile loop trail. There are no maps and the trails are not marked. This means you may get a bit lost, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I highly recommend sturdy shoes as some terrain is uneven, especially if you want to see the hobbit house and peek inside the window of an underground room. You may be lucky and spot a family of deer, black squirrel, ducks, geese and Blue Jays.
In the spring, there are several types of flower, plants and lily pads on the lake. We specifically came for fall foliage and the preserve did not disappoint us. Tall, majestic trees and woodlands led us on a journey through hues of yellow and orange, red and golden brown.
Several types of ferns can be found here along with remnants of Magnolia Bog and Oak-Heath Forest. Step over stones and streams, walk across ornate wooden bridges, discover where a random wooden door leads to and stop at a bench to reflect on the sanctuary’s surroundings. The trailhead lies at the edge of a meadow, surrounded by woods and a ropes course used by area schools.
Good to Know:
- No pets are allowed. I wish I had known this as my husband and I had to take turns watching our pooches while inspecting the terrain.
- No bicycles allowed. I believe this is due to the terrain, which varies from gravel to stones and off trails.
- There are no bathrooms on site.
- Leave nature untouched. This means no taking of plants and no leaving trash of any kind, especially since there is nowhere to picnic.
Winkler Botanical Preserve is free to enter. It is open daily 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and closed on major holidays.
Photos by Karl Gercens