Commentary, Local Commentary

Penny for Your Thoughts

The long-awaited re-opening of the Hidden Oaks Nature Center was celebrated last Saturday with speeches, a ribbon-cutting, bubbles big enough to envelop a small child, crows, critters and even a barbershop quartet!

It was a beautiful morning to be in the woods and children especially enjoyed the activities at Nature Playce, a special area where kids can play in the water, dig in the dirt and examine the occasional bug, beetle or spider in the wild. A new feature of Nature Playce is the shiny chrome water pump, positioned above a small flagstone “pond,” just deep enough for children to wade and stomp and splash in.
The pump is designed with no pinch points so little fingers are safe. Water in the “pond” seeps out every night, alleviating any concerns about mosquitos.

A new cedar “worm fence” defines the Nature Playce area. Worm fences also are known as Virginia rail fences and consist of split rails interlaced without supporting posts. Easy to construct and maintain, the Nature Playce worm fence was an Eagle Scout project by Pranav Kuruba.

Another Eagle project, by Erik Eidsmoe, highlights animal tracks along the Old Oak Trail. Of special interest were the many critter tracks etched into the new concrete sidewalk around the expanded center.
Combined with the existing “bird wall” on the north side of the building, the critter tracks make for an interesting scavenger hunt for kids of all ages.

A larger pond between the original building and Nature Playce was renovated and revegetated with rushes and pond plants for frogs and other water critters, but you can’t play in that pond. A large picture window in the original building overlooks the pond so you can enjoy the view even in inclement (for humans, maybe not for the frogs!) weather.

Removal of some invasives and newly refurbished trails and plantings also were projects by Eagle Scouts.
Hidden Oaks Nature Center opened in 1969. Just minutes from the Beltway, it was popular from its inception and the latest addition of another classroom/meeting space, a kitchen area, interpretive space and ADA accessible restrooms, will allow staff to present more programming to more audiences.

Things that didn’t change are the original building area with its popular story time tree and snake and lizard habitats and the real tree on the west side of the building that was carved by a local chainsaw artist, Andrew Mallon, into lots of full-size wildlife — a raccoon, an owl, a bunny or two, foxes, squirrels and a bear cub.

The parking lot also didn’t change. A limited number of spaces are available in the circular drive, but visitors on Saturday parked at the adjacent Annandale Community Park and took the trails for a short stroll to the center.

The Friends of Hidden Oaks Nature Center (FOHONC) provides additional support for the Nature Center — when a veteran tulip poplar was struck by lightning several years ago, they were instrumental in saving the dead trunk for the carved critter art mentioned above. However, FOHONC is responsible for saving more than that tree; they essentially saved Hidden Oaks when it was threatened with closure via budget cuts in the early 2000s.

Marshaling neighbors and community members who valued this little urban gem, FOHONC forcefully, and successfully, lobbied both the Board of Supervisors and the Park Authority to remove Hidden Oaks from the closure list. Twenty years later, FOHONC’s advocacy was well placed.

Hidden Oaks is bigger and better than ever. It serves an incredibly diverse population that is more than twice the size it was in 1969, but the basic elements are the same — respect and appreciation for the natural world and our role in it.

The tree canopy has aged and regenerated, still minutes from the Beltway, serving new generations of children and their families, just as it did more than 50 years ago. Hidden Oaks Nature Center is located at 7701 Royce Street in Annandale, near Hummer Road.

Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at


  • Penny Gross

    Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be e-mailed at