Whitney State Forest is a great place for a short hike/walk or to prepare for more strenuous hikes in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Conveniently located 2 miles outside of Warrenton, it is home to many deer and the occasional fox--seen once in a blue moon--but they are there. Users may even catch a glimpse of the scarlet coats and milling hounds of fox hunters on the neighboring North Wales estate during the season. Though close to Warrenton, trail users will see plenty of nature. This 148 Acre State Forest contains a variety of native trees, including tulip poplars, oaks, hickories, maples and Virginia pines. Many sub-canopy trees bring bright color to the woods when they bloom in the early spring. The Virginia Department of Forestry also manages pine plantations within the forest, demonstrating various stages forest management. The woods are especially beautiful in the early spring and fall months. In addition to walkers, the trails are also popular with horse riders, dog walkers and trail bikers.
Over 7 miles of trail are located within the forest include a forest service "road" that is partially paved in gravel, and multiple unimproved dirt trails that loop throughout the forest. There are several small stream crossings on the unimproved trails, but no bridges. One can walk at least 4-5 miles by circling around the various trails. Most trails are about 2 miles long which make this State Forest convenient for a quick get-away to nature.
The hike we will feature proceeds down the main gravel road, along a clear cut meadow where a new forest is taking shape, up to visit the ruins of the interesting Ashton mansion, then along the border of the majestic North Wales estate with a decent view of the impressive Colonial era main house. Don’t be surprised to see horses sauntering along with humans clinging to their backs and mountain bikers popping wheelies. You may run into some mud and some of the lesser used sections of trail can get overgrown at times of the year requiring body armor to defend from thorny raspberry bushes and bracken but there are many cross trails.
The drive south along Lees Ridge Road is scenic and you feel out in the county only minutes after crossing over Shirley Avenue onto Springs Road. About a mile out Lees Ridge you head up a hill and a gorgeous prospect of rolling pastures, farms and hills backed by the Blue Ridge Mountains appears on your right. Wouldn’t it be great to have a trail there? For the moment you can glance but look out for walkers on the road. Further on you can spy some lovely houses near where 744 bears to the left. Take the right towards Whitney State Forest and admire the converted stable house through the gate and, a little further, the cool ivy clad English manor.
The parking lot to Whitney is on the right. A sign and kiosk orient you. To the right of the kiosk is a gate between two orange pylons at the head of the gravel road. Start down the road which begins to veer to the right. You’ll see some informational signs and a smaller trail forking off to the right. Keep to the main trail and follow the white blazes about 1/3 mile where you come upon a large meadow to the left. As the sign explains, this was recently a stand of white pine in decline and was clear cut by the forestry service to regenerate the area. Continue on the wider path as it curves around the meadow. In summer the fields are thick with flowers and butterflies. Eventually the main trail re-enters the woods near an old green painted three door stable. From there you can see the interesting ruins of Ashton House through the trees to the left.
Take a deep breath. Do you smell the haggis in the air? Hopefully not, but there is a Scottish flavor in the area of Whitney. Before the Revolution, the colonies of America were a place of possible escape from the static class system of England and Scotland. Ambitious young entrepreneurs sought business positions that would take them to America so they might form their own connections and eventually return to pursue mercantile interests and land. So came William Allison to the Virginia region as an agent of Baird and Walker of Glasgow. When he returned to build his own mansion on the 2900 acre inheritance of his wife, Ann Hooe around 1776, the country was undergoing a change of management. Allison was the sort of man who was nothing if not adaptable, and his impressive stone mansion of North Wales remains as a jewel of a Colonial architecture just to the north.
Down the path to your left squats a tumbling stone two story ruin-in-the-making on its hill in the middle of the forest. Ashton house is a forgotten appendage of the noble North Wales mansion you will see later on the walk. It likely was built at the same time as the bigger house around 1776 and may even be where William lived with his wife Ann while construction progressed. It is not known. What is known is that his great granddaughter Ellen inherited it along with 148 acres as the plantation of “Ashley” in 1865 from her parents Ann and Henry Ashton on the heels of another national war and the dwelling before you was known as Ashton House. The small 3 bay stable building to your right was built around 1870. Head down the trail towards Ashton. Imagine how it must have been long ago when lived in with the smell of smoke from the chimneys, the sounds of horses snorting, and the sight of surrounding fields in agricultural production. Today it is a ruin with the floor falling in, the sun shining through the roof into the parlor, and the stairs floating on nothing but interesting graffiti. The surrounding yard holds ruins of side buildings returning to the earth.
Now return down the side path to the main trail and turn left. Ignore the small trail to the right and continue past the clearing, heading downhill and to the left. About 100 yards on you ford a creek. Just after this the main trail heads left and uphill but instead make the hard right to follow near the bank of the creek until the path turns to cross back across the water in a muddy ford. Bear to the left and continue along the trail that goes gently uphill with the fence and fields of North Wales on your left.
A little ways up the path (at about 1.3 miles) you come to a gap in the hedges on the left and spy a large white stone handy for standing on. From here it is a straight view down a side alley to the impressive 18 bay, two and a half story main house of North Wales courtesy of our Scottish friend Mr. Allison. It was built around the time of Ashton House and was obviously meant to be the main domicile. Now it is a stately manor with patrician roots stretching to distant times similar to many estates in the old countryside of Scotland. Whitney State Park was once part of the North Wales plantation until it was carved out with Ashton House in 1865.
Continue down the trail in the direction you were proceeding. Shortly you will break out into a partially cleared field which can get overgrown at times. here are many small paths that wind through the field. Try to keep to the one that goes straight and bears to the left. Soon you will come to the trees again to rejoin the North Wales fence line and continue along the wooded trail with the fields to your left. The path continues up and down fairly easy grades until it intersects another trail. Take the left and ford the small creek. Follow the blue blazes. The trail drifts to the right away from the fence and starts uphill. It then meets the fire road and the parking lot should be visible to the left.