Your guide to exploring D.C.’s Rock Creek Park and the gems that surround it.
When I lived in Washington D.C., my apartment backed up to Rock Creek Park. There was a national park marker steps away from where I used to step out for air behind the building and would often hear foxes screaming into the night. Having an incredible stretch of trails located in my backyard was absolutely a highlight of living in DC. Now that I’ve relocated to the Northern Virginia suburbs where I have to drive to every park and every trail, I long for the days when I could just walk along Rock Creek Park and pop out in Mt. Pleasant, at the National Zoo, Adams Morgan, Khalil Gibran Memorial, Oak Hill Cemetery, Georgetown, Dupont, or somewhere in Maryland.
A fun fact for any New York City transplants: Rock Creek Park is over twice as large as Central Park. Rock Creek National Park has over 32 miles of hiking trails that run from Maryland to Georgetown. The two major trails are the Western Ridge Trail and the Valley Trail. I encourage you to explore both trails in both directions and discover your favorite path.
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How Long and How Difficult?
The 32 miles of trail range from flat to hilly and from easy to medium difficulty. The length of time it will take you to complete a stretch of trail entirely depends on where you start and where you plan to end. For this article I’ll describe a portion of the trail that starts where Blagden Avenue intersects Beach Drive and moves south toward the P street exit near Dupont. This stretch of trail is very easy going and almost entirely flat. It took approximately an hour and a half to complete.
Rock Creek Park is on Piscataway and Nacotchtank (Anacostan) land. The boundaries of Rock Creek National Park are entirely within Washington D.C. and stretch from the border with Montgomery County, MD down to Georgetown in Northwest DC. However, if you hike the trail north toward Maryland, just note that the trail keeps going and doesn’t end at the DC border. If you aimlessly wander the trails for hours, you may end up finding yourself lost in Maryland.
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Who Should I Bring?
Everyone! Visitors. Friends. Dates. Go solo. If you’re bringing kids with you, I recommend starting at the Rock Creek Park Nature Center and Planetarium. If you’re bringing a big group, I suggest booking a picnic area at Pierce Mill. If you’re on a date, I suggest heading toward the National Zoo which you can no longer access directly off the trail, but you can walk up to Harvard Street to enter (make sure you book a free time-entry ticket). In fact, the first date I went on with my now wife was from my apartment up near Blagden Avenue down to the Oak Hill Cemetery where we wandered around and wrote poetry.
Endless entrance and exit points. Choose your own adventure trails. A nature center. A planetarium. Picnic areas. Historic buildings like a grist mill. Beautiful bridges. Rock Creek. Nearby museums. The National Zoo. Oak Hill Cemetery. Exercise Stations. Plenty of food options within walking distance of the trail. An urban escape. Screaming foxes. Geese. Ducks. Deer.
Portions of this trail are paved and accessible, however, the majority of the trails in Rock Creek Park are inaccessible. Also, be aware that the paved portions are shared-use meaning that bicycles, joggers, and walkers all share the same trail. At times the trail can be quite crowded and bicycles whir by a little too close for comfort.
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What’s the Best Path to Take?
My apartment complex was in the Crestwood neighborhood just north of Columbia Heights in DC. There are couple trails that are more secreted away within that neighborhood that lead to the larger series of Rock Creek Park trails. I won’t go into detail of how those trails work but if you’re curious one of the entrances is at a dead end on Upshur St. just past Argyle Terrace St. NW. If you’d rather enter from a more direct route and you’re entering from the Petworth/Crestwood neighborhoods, I recommend either taking the Piney Branch Parkway walking paths down to Rock Creek Park or head down Blagden Avenue until you reach Beach Drive. Either way, once you get to Beach Drive you’ll have to choose to either turn right and go north toward Maryland or turn left and go south toward Georgetown. All of the paths are equally rewarding but I’ll be telling you the path that I take (south) because it is the one I use most frequently.
If you enter from Blagden Avenue and turn left to walk south along Beach Drive, your next big intersection will be the old grist mill at Pierce Mill. This is a great location to lay out a blanket, relax, and take in some local history. There are also bathrooms at this location which you won’t find again unless you exit the park. Keep walking south and you’ll see the Jean Jules Jusserand Memorial on the opposite side of the road; you won’t be able to safely reach it, but you can see an elaborate bench which is a memorial to a French ambassador who was friends with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. You’ll eventually come upon a bridge, known as Bluff Bridge, where you can cross Rock Creek and trek on that side south in order to avoid being terribly close to the traffic of Rock Creek Drive. You’ll cross underneath Porter Street along this path and cross a bridge at which point you’ll be walking right beside the National Zoo. If it is a quiet day, you may even be able to hear some of the animals in the distance.
If you decide to stop and visit the Zoo, you’ll cross at the designated crosswalk and head up toward the Harvard Street pedestrian entrance. If you just want to keep trekking, at the southern end of the zoo you’ll take a sharp turn to the right just before a tunnel. Yes, you can walk through the tunnel, but I don’t recommend it. Take the Rock Creek Trail until you reach Calvert Street. If you’re hungry, head up Calvert Street and get some grub at one of the tasty restaurants nearby like Open City or cross the Duke Ellington Bridge and hit up one of my favorite Middle Eastern restaurants in DC, Mama Ayesha’s (though they don’t open until 5pm). If you are up for an even further detour, walk past Mama Ayesha’s and keep going until you find yourself in Adams Morgan. Head to The Green Zone for drinks or Keren for some tasty Eritrean ful with eggs.
Once you’re done eating, head back down to the Rock Creek Trail where you’ll come across a series of exercise stations and frequently find dedicated outdoor body builders doing their thing. Keep heading south and you’ll eventually notice gravestones and a mausoleum across the creek atop a hill. That is the Oak Hill Cemetery. If you’re a weirdo like me and enjoy exploring cemeteries, you can make your way to this beautiful 19th-century historic place by exiting the Rock Creek Trail at the intersection with P Street. Take P Street to the left toward 30th Street and turn right, walk until you get to R Street and you’re there. If you’re in the mood for a less morbid end to your Rock Creek Park visit, then take P Street toward the right and head into the heart of Dupont Circle. My favorite thing about this park is the way in which it perfectly blends into the urban landscape and acts as not only a means of transport between neighborhoods but also a means of transport between mindsets – from busy cityscape to a meditative bubbling river winding through forest.
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