Rock Creek Park

Washington, DC
Picture of Rock Creek Park, Washington DC  (Nathan Borchelt)

Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek Park is the prototype of an urban oasis, covering 1,754 acres—more than twice the size of Central Park—in the city’s northwestern quadrant, stretching from the base of the Lincoln Memorial at the foot of the National Mall to the D.C.–Maryland border. This patchwork of hiking and horseback-riding trails, paved cycling routes, tennis courts, Civil War–era historical sites, creeks, and old-growth forests was the first urban natural area set aside by Congress as “a pleasuring place for the enjoyment of the people of the United States” back in 1890. Today, it has become the city dwellers’ communal backyard, with easy access from Georgetown, Dupont Circle, Adams Morgan, and other Northwest neighborhoods, as well as car-accessible public-use picnic spots like Piney Branch or Peirce Mill, a gristmill dating back to the 1820s. A 1.5-mile exercise course, with signs illustrating various workouts, starts at the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and Calvert Street, near the Woodley Park metro stop. Head south from there and you pass by Civil War–era graveyards and the Georgetown Waterfront before reaching the volleyball courts, monuments, and memorials of the National Mall. Head north on the blacktop path and you pass the National Zoo and wind through several lush picnic areas before reaching a maze of paths (both paved and unpaved) that carves through a natural world well beyond the gridlock of the city’s traffic-choked streets.

The park is open during daylight hours, though some attractions like the public-use tennis courts, Peirce Mill, the Planetarium, and the historic Old Stone House have variable operating hours. The Carter Barron Amphitheater, in the northern section of the park, hosts a rotating collection of events, including the free Shakespeare event each spring.

Walking, Hiking, and Horseback Riding
Rock Creek boasts loads of multi-use trails open to hikers, runners, and horses. Check with Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, a volunteer organization that maintains the trails, for specific hikes. Rangers at park headquarters near the intersection of Beach Drive and Joyce Road might be able to point you in the right direction, and the Rock Creek Park website has some additional PDF guides. But given the park’s narrow width, it’s difficult to get too lost. Paved trails can be reached by walking into Rock Creek just south of the Woodley Park metro, or via the National Zoo, while the larger network of dirt trails branches off either side of Beach Drive farther north, where Beach meets Broad Branch Road. During the weekends and holidays, large sections of Beach Drive—the central road through the park—close to vehicle traffic, which makes Beach ideal for walking, running, Rollerblading, and cycling. Guided horseback tours operate out of the Rock Creek Park Horse Center.

Paved bike paths and roads stretch the distance of Rock Creek, all the way from the Mall to Maryland, where trails extend farther into the northern suburbs. During the weekend, loads of road cyclists take to the closed sections of Beach Drive, which affords two lanes of pedaling interrupted only by walkers, joggers, and Rollerbladers. Mountain bikers, however, should avoid the temptation of the hiking trails; bikes aren’t allowed, and the park rangers are known to confiscate bikes. If you’re itching for some singletrack, head farther north past the park toward the Capital Crescent Trail. This route links back up to D.C. via the C&O Canal and the Georgetown Waterfront, with passable stretches of multi-use singletrack in Maryland (marked by purple trail markers).

The entire park is very family-friendly, with lots of open spaces and established picnic areas with grills. The park also passes the National Zoo, with paved trails leading down to the Mall to the south or farther north into the more densely treed sections. More established attractions include the Rock Creek Park Nature Center and Planetarium (5200 Glover Park Road, NW; open 9–5, Wed–Sun) and ranger-led historical or nature programs that typically include light hiking or biking, organized most days of the month. Rock Creek also hosts free two-day Junior Ranger Camps each summer, with enrollment beginning in May.

Published: 13 Apr 2009 | Last Updated: 21 Jun 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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