Palatable Picnics in the Park

Palatable Picnics in the Park

Your table is ready. And, there’s no need to tip the maitre d'.

That table is under a lush canopy of green, within a covered pavilion, along the Potomac or a quiet stream. Any solitary setting where sustenance for the soul can be enjoyed along with that for the body will do.

With the first full week of summer comes the possibility of doing lunch or dinner or even breakfast at your favorite picnic table. There are virtually hundreds throughout the Alexandria/Mount Vernon area.

The City of Alexandria, Fairfax County, and the U.S. Park Service all offer a variety of locations to enjoy a meal in the great outdoors. Some are within controlled park sites such as Pohick Regional Park, just off Gunston Road; Fort Hunt Park, five miles south of Alexandria on the George Washington Memorial Parkway; or Fort Ward Park at 4301 W. Braddock Road. Others are scattered as clusters or singular tables.

Within Alexandria there are 28 sites which provide picnic tables. Some are in covered pavilions. Most are in the open. They are dispersed throughout the city's three planning districts.

A complete list, with an accompanying map, is available through the Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities located in the Nannie J. Lee Center, 1108 Jefferson St. Entitled Recreational facilities and Trail Map, it designates all services at each site.

The department also issues a publication titled "In Your Neighborhood." It not only includes all the possible picnic locations but also spells out what recreational activities are available with locations, times, costs, and contact numbers.

ONE OF THE MOST elongated potential picnic venues is the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Stretching from its juncture with the Beltway at the American Legion Bridge to the Mount Vernon Estate, it offers both group and solitary sites. The only exception is when it passes through Alexandria.

Designated picnic areas are Turkey Run Park, Claude Moore Farm, LBJ Memorial Grove, Columbia Island Marina, Daingerfield Island, Jones Point Lighthouse, Belle Haven Park, Collingwood Picnic Area, Fort Hunt Park, and Riverside Park. There are also spots with one, two or three tables scattered along the 25-mile route. Most offer excellent and peaceful views of the river.

One of the most popular and comprehensive locations is Fort Hunt Park. It offers various picnic areas, both sheltered and open, three ball fields, a playground, several rest room facilities, and field areas for general recreation. One picnic site is even designated specifically for hikers and bikers.

Open year round, Fort Hunt Park has seven large picnic areas. The E section is operated on a first come-first served basis year round; all the others are operated on a reservation basis from April through October.

EACH RESERVATION differs as to what amenities are and are not available. Grills are not provided in any section — guests must supply their own. For information on Fort Hunt reservations and activities call 1-800-365-2267. There is also a brochure with a map showing all the location along the Parkway available at Parkway Headquarters located within Turkey Run Park. For information call 703-289-2500.

All designated picnic sites along the scenic drive, other than randomly scattered tables, are open from 7 a.m. to sunset year-round. Just beyond the Parkway, at the northern end, off Georgetown Pike, are Great Falls Park and Riverbend Regional Park.

One of the most popular spots is just south of Alexandria at Belle Haven Park. It is a favorite of hikers, bikers, and drive-in picnickers. Occupying the site of an early 18th century tobacco warehouse, it has trails and a marina in addition to its dispersed picnic tables.

As an added attraction to bird watchers, it is immediately adjacent to the Dyke Marsh swamp forest and cattail marsh, nesting and feeding area to more than 250 species of birds. Many come to Belle Haven Park to enjoy reservation-free group and family gatherings.

Last week, one such group, the Pentagon Federal Credit Union, had a feast spread over two tables for their annual departmental picnic. "We usually hold a picnic here every year for our department. And we like this particular spot," Dorothy Emig, Vice President of Employee Service, explained that the group enjoyed a wide variety of picnic favorites.

ONE OF THE BEST kept secrets for great picnics in the Mount Vernon area of Fairfax County is Pohick Regional Park just off Gunston Road. Located just northwest of Gunston Hall Plantation and northeast Mason Neck State Park and National Wildlife Refuge, it offers excellent picnic facilities as well as a variety of other activities and camp sites.

"We really fill up on summer weekends," said Emily Waugh, park attendant. "There are picnic tables spread throughout, but we also have four picnic shelters. A lot of people just enjoy sitting on a blanket on the ground."

It is also a great location for launching boats into Pohick Bay. There is a large parking lot for boat hauling vehicles right at the launch area. Facilities are available for boat storage within the park confines. "We can get a couple of hundred people launching boats on summer weekends," said Waugh.

Most of the picnic sites here are under a canopy of trees and have excellent views of Pohick Bay which leads to Gunston Cove and out into the Potomac River. There are additional picnic facilities nearby in Mason Neck State Park, located adjacent to the Visitors Center, on the edge of Belmont Bay at the mouth of the Occoquan River.

A COMPLETE LIST of picnic and recreational locations throughout Fairfax County is available through the County Park Authority and the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. Their phone numbers are 703-324-8700 and 703-352-5900, respectively.

Even with Washington's infamous heat and humidity a picnic can be just what the doctor ordered for rest and relaxation. What's for dinner? There are no limits for a picnic menu, a cherished tradition to celebrate the nation's birthday this coming Fourth of July.