Sometimes the Small Things Tell the Real Story: Windy Run Park

Text and photos by Glenn Tobin

I was Zoom talking with a small group of ARMN Park Stewards the other day about what inspires us as we help restore ecosystems in our parks. (ARMN Park Stewards are volunteer leaders who work with local park management and staff to help preserve, enhance, restore, and potentially expand the parks’ natural areas, habitats, and ecosystems.)There were many inspirations, but everyone had one in common—seeing how nature begins to heal itself when troublesome invasive plants are removed. It does not happen immediately, but if one observes, the rewards are great. 

Several weeks ago, I was walking along a path I frequent in Windy Run Park in North Arlington. Those who have been there know that the park connects to the George Washington Memorial Parkway and from there to the Potomac River via a steep set of stairs along a beautiful waterfall. 

Photo of a waterfall

As you descend, you might use your right hand to steady yourself along a vertical rock face that extends up from the stairs to far above your head. 

In 2016, that cliff face was covered with English ivy. After getting the o.k. from the National Park Service, I began clearing invasives along the river. The problems were huge in comparison to that small spot. However, I decided to clear it to improve the overall look of the area as I would walk up the stairs. 

As I walked down the stairs several weeks ago, I looked at the cliff face more closely and noticed that a new set of beautiful plants had colonized cracks in the wall from which the ivy had been pulled earlier. Here’s a wide view: 

Photo of plants colonizing a cliff face

Then I started to look more closely. As I saw more and more detail, I also saw more and more beauty—and a great variety of living organisms. Here are two pictures: 

Photo of plants on a rock face
Several types of mosses, likely including spikemoss (Pogonatum sp.) and ferns including a Spleenwort (Asplenium sp.), Mackay’s bladder fern (Cystopteris tenuis) or Blunt woodsia (Woodsia obtusa).
Young versions of the species noted above.

Sometimes I tell people that the process of ecological restoration is like an addictive drug. You rip some ivy off a small rock wall in 30 minutes and then a few years later something like this emerges. It is magical. I dream of a day where we have restored our forests, and the true beauty of biodiverse natural systems becomes obvious to all. 

And there are more improvements to the park than just invasive plant removal. If you know the Windy Run area, you are aware that more than a decade ago, a rockslide destroyed the lower part of the stairs and getting across the boulder field was a bit tricky. Last fall, the stairs and handrail were repaired to address the safety concerns. A unique collaboration across ARMN, the National Park Service, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, and a few regular trail users funded stone masons and iron workers to make the necessary repairs. 

The photos below show the before/after stair repairs. The small blue circles provide common reference points across the two pictures. 

Before and after photo of a stair repair project in Windy Run Park.

The new stairs are much more accessible to a wider range of hikers now. Below is some detail of the improved surfaces. 

Windy Run Stair- details of surface through former boulders and uo staircase. Three photos show details of stairs repair.

And finally, this photo shows the new handrail along with the new stairs. 

(The “Warning” sign has since been removed.)

Photo of new railing along Windy Run stairs

Access to Windy Run Park is from the cul de sac at the end of North Kenmore Street, off of Lorcom Lane. The waterfall and stairs are about a half mile away, following the stream. There are four unimproved stream crossings before reaching the top of the stairs (and the stairs themselves are very steep), so the park is not for everyone. You should feel comfortable on rough terrain and crossing potentially wet rocks to make the trip. But if you can manage it, Windy Run Park and the Potomac riverfront along the Potomac Heritage Trail are among the most beautiful spots in the region. 

3 thoughts on “Sometimes the Small Things Tell the Real Story: Windy Run Park

  1. Congratulations! Patience and perseverance turns into beauty and love! Thanks for your hard work and beautiful article!

  2. Magical photos of the plants on the rocks. Great news for the restoration. Thank you for this beautiful story.

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