It’s been called the “wild, wooded heart of Washington, DC,” and in its 125th year, Rock Creek Park is as beloved by Washingtonians as it has ever been.
Its green mass of nearly 3,000 acres in the center of an otherwise concrete sea provides plenty of natural escapes to offset the frenetic pace of the capital. It is the backyard playground for thousands of residents and a treasure often undiscovered by visitors sticking to the National Mall.
“Presidents and residents, we like to say, have always enjoyed the park,” said Nate Adams, a spokesman for the National Park Service who specializes in Rock Creek Park.
Perhaps what appeals to locals and visitors most about Rock Creek is the way its utter accessibility — like the Smithsonian museums, it’s free — beckons them to get outside year-round. In the thick of winter, the park’s trails are navigable, if a bit muddy, and still bustling with hikers, bikers, walkers and commuters.
Rock Creek Park is 26 years older than the National Park Service, which celebrates its centennial in 2016.
The need for such an urban park first arose in the late 1860s when the city was rapidly rebuilding and expanding after the Civil War. The land surrounding Rock Creek was undeveloped but owned by several landowners, Adams said, when the U.S. Army scouted it as a potential location for the new White House.
But, as the population grew in density — and disease and sickness came with it — the city realized the need for a natural escape nearby. It wasn’t until 1890 that President Benjamin Harrison finished the park process that began more than 20 years before by signing legislation to create the federal park.
Though the city has since welcomed a lot of development, residents “can still find the peace and solitude of nature without going too far outside the city,” Adams said.
The park is home to seven major stream valleys, providing habitat for more than 180 species of birds, 40 species of fish and six species of bats. The park technically borders 30 different countries — the embassies and consulates owned by foreign countries in the district.
Many might not even know they’re enjoying Rock Creek Park when they’re on trails that follow the creek and snake as far south as the Thompson Boat Center and Georgetown waterfront, where the creek meets the Potomac River. The bulk of the park’s acreage is located just north of the Smithsonian National Zoo, but its boundaries also follow the creek to the city’s northern boundary with Maryland.
Drivers who’ve only witnessed others enjoying the park’s popular paved trails alongside Rock Creek Parkway don’t realize how much more can be seen with a little hike.
Park Ranger Tony Linforth said a great place to start hiking the park is from its Nature Center and Planetarium, which serves as a visitors’ center as well and offers plenty of parking.
The center features displays of some of the animals and plants that are common in the park, such as bald eagles — the bird on display is quite popular with children — or native persimmon trees. Here, visitors can also find brochures highlighting half– or full-day hiking loops. Most hikers prefer loops to traversing the same stretch of trail twice, Linforth said — although choosing the wrong loop can result in getting lost.
At Linforth’s advice, we started out from the nature center to hike a loop near the middle of the park. I had a 6-month-old baby strapped to my body, so an “easy” 3 miles sounded about right.
The paper map he gave us seemed explicit enough, but we still managed to get lost, veering a good half-mile south of the loop we’d originally planned to take. The good news? Most of the hikers on a sunny Saturday in the park are regulars and can point you in the right direction. (There are also apps, like Map My Hike, that can direct you along the trails where cell service is available.)
Linforth suggested that one should think of the trail system at Rock Creek as a ladder. The Western Ridge Trail and Valley Trail run north and south through the park, and dozens of shorter trails run east and west, connecting them like the rungs of a ladder. These side-to-side trails dip into the stream valley and back up, providing a bit of elevation change and views of the lively creek.
“When people come to Rock Creek Park, one of the things they should do is get to Rock Creek,” Linforth said. “That’s the iconic section of the park.”
We set out on the Rapids Bridge loop, knowing that if we wanted more hiking, we could continue past the creek and onto the Boulder Bridge loop (if we’d have taken the correct turn).
We started with a stop by the park’s Horse Center, which offers one-hour horseback riding sessions along the trails for $40 a person on weekends beginning in March. (Weeknight rides are offered in the summer.) This means hikers share the trail with hooves and should watch where they step.
In the winter, the trails feel even more remote, if a little soggy after heavy rain or snow, and you should check the weather before you go because parts of the park are subject to flash flooding.
At times, the only reminder that we were in the middle of a city was the dress of other walkers. Some looked as though they were taking a shortcut to happy hour at a nearby restaurant while others looked like they’d just stepped off their front porch for a jog.
The park is punctuated with picnicking areas, some of which can be reserved for private parties — complete with parking. It does not offer boating access to the water, but long stretches of the trails run alongside the creek.
The water moves quickly near the aptly named Rapids Bridge, which, when the trees are leafless in winter, offers views of all the ways people can use Rock Creek Park.
During our Saturday hike, the long Valley Trail on the park’s eastern border was brimming with bikers clad for competition as well as families pushing strollers. A young family had stopped for a snack near the trail, sitting on one of the signature boulders that line the creek. And there were the lucky dogs, all on leashes, which presumably live nearby and know this park as part of their daily walk.
Here, with bike wheels whirring on one side of the creek, and hiking boots necessary to traverse the other, the city is easy to forget.
For information about visiting Rock Creek Park, including directions and maps, visit nps.gov/rocr or rockcreekhorsecenter.com.