This form of free self-care is only a short drive or Metro ride away from the cacophony of honking cars and clouding of exhaust smoke that become even more intolerable in the waning days of summer.
Rock Creek Park is one of the oldest National Parks in the country , established before even Yosemite or the Grand Canyon. Its primary section, along the Rock Creek Valley, covers 1,754 acres, or just over 4 percent of D.C.’s total territory. And yet the park remains a mystery to many D.C. residents and visitors: how to use it, where to picnic, what to do among the trails, green spaces and monuments that dot the park.
Sure, running or cycling on a carless Beach Drive is a wonderful way to spend a Saturday, but that’s barely the beginning of what Rock Creek Park offers. Here’s is a guide to three of our favorite, easily accessible pieces of the park. Each area is a perfect place to begin exploring.
Nature Center and Milkhouse Ford
With historical sites, steep hiking trails, shady paths alongside Rock Creek and places to entertain both children and adults, the area between the Rock Creek Park Nature Center — the park’s main visitor center — and Milkhouse Ford has much to enjoy. To be alone among the overgrown traces of Fort DeRussy, or on the creek-side trail, where the rushing of water is the loudest, is a tranquil and calming experience. With children checking out the animals in the nature center, going on a pony ride or picnicking and playing in a large field, it’s a loud and joyous one.
Activity: This section of the park is a favorite of hikers: There are several trails that begin and end at the Visitors Center ranging in length from 1¾ miles to 3½ miles and varying in difficulty. It’s an easy starting point for seeing the Boulder Bridge or the Rapids Bridge, but to get a sense of what makes this area different, try the Milkhouse Ford Hike, an occasionally steep trail that passes an old Civil War fort, runs along a quiet stretch of Rock Creek and pauses at the Milkhouse Ford creek crossing before returning to the Nature Center. It’s like a trip through the park in miniature. Too much of a commitment? There are two short nature trails around the visitors center, one of which is designed for the visually impaired.
What to do with kids: The Nature Center is a popular destination. It’s home to creatures both living (turtles, fish) and stuffed (raccoons, a majestic bald eagle), with pelts and bones to touch, and an activity room with books and coloring materials. A short walk away is the Rock Creek Horse Center, which offers pony rides and trail rides , as well as a therapeutic riding program. Slots fill up quickly. At this point, September is mostly full. So make reservations, at rockcreekhorsecenter.com , far in advance.
Point of interest: Fort DeRussy was one of the 68 forts and batteries surrounding Washington during the Civil War, and its large guns played an important role in shelling the rebel forces during the 1864 Battle of Fort Stevens. (Fifty-six acres of trees and farmland were cleared for the construction of the fort.) After the war, nature began to reclaim the land, and the massive, dramatic earthworks are now covered with vines and trees. Look carefully, and it’s still possible to see the dirt mounds where the rifle pits, parapets and cannon placements were situated.
Hidden gem: Until the middle of the 20th century, driving through several inches of water at the Milkhouse Ford was one of the only ways to cross Rock Creek. Although cars can no longer traverse the ford, it’s still a picturesque spot to sit and read or think while listening to the burbling creek, thanks to a large, sofa-shaped stone bench that sits next to the old roadway. As you walk along Rock Creek, keep your eyes on the other bank: Just before you reach the ford, you’ll pass the rustic Joaquin Miller Cabin, which “the Poet of the Sierras” built in 1883 near Meridian Hill Park. Unfortunately, the cabin will be inaccessible until fall, because of the Beach Drive resurfacing, so you’ll have to enjoy this quirky landmark from a distance.
Best picnic spot: The popular, reservable picnic pavilions north of Military Road are closed because of resurfacing work on Beach Drive. Groups can reserve the large Picnic Area 13, but don’t worry if it’s taken: The even larger Picnic Area 14, just across the road, is first-come, first-served. There are also picnic tables right outside the Nature Center.
Where to get lunch: Little Red Fox on Connecticut Avenue NW is the go-to spot, a market that sells delicious BLTs, grilled cheese and vegan sandwiches, as well as ready-made picnic provisions. (On weekends, breakfast sandwiches are available until 4 p.m., if you’d rather have a picnic brunch.)
Getting there and where to go: Large parking lots are available at the Nature Center. The E4 bus, which connects to the subway at the Fort Totten and Friendship Heights Metro stations, stops right outside the park. The M4, which leaves from Tenleytown-AU, stops a few blocks away. Bathrooms and water bottle filling stations are located inside the Nature Center.
Tennis Center and Carter Barron
There’s a little something for everyone in the area around 16th and Kennedy streets, near the park’s Rock Creek Park Tennis Center (home of the Citi Open) and Carter Barron Amphitheatre (opened in 1950 but closed for repairs since 2017). Families frequently grill at the large pavilion and picnic area, while the multipurpose fields host organized groups or games of pickup soccer. Head into the woods to access several trails and wind your way down to Rock Creek. If nature sounds aren’t enough, download the Carter Barron Summer playlist on Spotify, curated by the Rock Creek Conservancy, to hear acts who’ve performed at the amphitheater over the years.
Activity: If you’re particularly sporty, then this is the place for you. Reserve one of the Tennis Center’s 30 courts to play with a friend, or sign up for a workshop or series of classes on rockcreektennis.com . There’s also ample field space near the tennis courts, perfect for a game of catch or to practice your soccer dribbling or Frisbee flicks. A jogging track has several strength-training stops, too.
Those who are more civic-minded can volunteer to help clean up areas of Rock Creek Park, including Carter Barron, through the Rock Creek Conservancy. The final cleanups of the year are scheduled for Aug. 17 and Oct. 6 , and while they’re free to attend, advance registration is required. (Check out “Upcoming Events” under the “What We Do” tab of rockcreekconservancy.org for more details.)
What to do with kids: From 7 a.m. Saturdays to 7 p.m. Sundays (and on holidays), Beach Drive is closed to cars between Broad Branch and Military roads, making it ideal for biking, roller blading, skateboarding, running or walking with the whole family.
Point of interest: Rapids Bridge offers a lovely spot to take in the rushing water views, plus snap a few photos. As you make your way along Beach Drive to Picnic Area 4, you’ll notice the waters slow considerably, with rocks and boulders in a seemingly natural arrangement. This is part of the Herring Highway — those rocks were precisely positioned to raise water levels and make it possible for fish to swim upstream, over an active sewer line, to spawn. (In other words, don’t be tempted to pick up stones for skipping or collecting.)
Hidden gem: Granite, marble, and sandstone blocks, formerly part of the east facade of the U.S. Capitol — dumped unceremoniously in the park in 1958 — are piled along an unmarked trail between the Rock Creek Park Horse Center and Ross Drive. It’s easiest to plug this into your phone’s GPS, or, depending on the day, follow the sound of children climbing and jumping off the mossy ruins.
Best picnic spot: Picnic Area 24 (reservations required from May to October) is right by the Tennis Center, with several tables, a covered pavilion, a small playground, restrooms and two stone chimneys for charcoal disposal. Or head to no-reservations-required Picnic Area 4, with two tables right along the creek in a flat, grassy area. It’s a 20-minute walk from Picnic Area 24, via trails through the woods and along Rock Creek.
Where to get lunch: On Saturdays between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., stop by the 14th and Kennedy Street farmers market for a few ready-made options or picnic provisions. You can also try Gold Coast Cafe, right by the market, for sandwiches, cake by the slice, soft drinks and snacks. If you’re coming from the east, Sunrise Caribbean (at Georgia Avenue and Jefferson Street) sells Trini roti and housemade soft drinks, and Tropimart, a small but jam-packed grocery store on Kennedy between Fifth and Seventh streets, is the spot for chicken, bean and/or sweet corn tamales and shaved ice.
Getting there and where to go: This area is easy to get to, as it’s served by two of the city’s busiest bus lines: the S-series, which run along 16th Street, or the 50-series, which run along 14th (get off at Colorado Avenue either way). There is plenty of parking in the Tennis Center and Carter Barron parking lots, as well as on nearby side streets. The bathrooms are by Picnic Area 24; bring hand sanitizer.
Peirce Mill and Barn
Built in 1820 (or possibly 1829 ) by millwright Isaac Peirce, this was once one of many mills along Rock Creek, and the twice-monthly tours and corn-grinding demonstrations offer a chance to see what life was like in the young city of Washington. But there’s more than living history here: The wide, grassy areas nearby are popular for picnicking, outdoor yoga or a game of soccer, and the mill building itself is used for a variety of activities.
Activity: Peirce Mill is a popular meeting point for running groups, with trails along the water and plenty of shaded areas to stretch it out afterward. Groups of 25 people or fewer do not need to reserve use of the outdoor space, so you can bring your own yoga mat and strike a few poses outside. (The large grassy area near the picnic site is ideal, especially in the morning.) Once a year, free square dancing — put on by the DC Square Dance Collective — takes place on the lawn next to the mill. The next one is tentatively scheduled for a Saturday in October, after intense heat postponed a July dance. Visit friendsofpeircemill.org for updates and event listings.
What to do with kids: The Friends of Peirce Mill offer family activities during Saturday open hours, as well as special treats that could include a herring-inspired obstacle course or a demonstration of ice cream making, followed by a tasting. Upcoming highlights include Children’s Day (Sept. 14), when visitors can play games and make cornhusk dolls and other traditional toys, and Heritage Day (Oct. 12), when blacksmiths, carpenters and cider makers will demonstrate life at the Mill in the 19th century, while a bluegrass band plays and kids participate in arts-and-craft activities.
Point of interest: On the second and fourth Saturday of every month, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., April through October , stop by Peirce Mill to see a corn-milling demonstration, in all its loud, dusty, 2,400-pound millstones glory. Enthusiastic volunteers and staff are on hand to describe in detail how grain and corn traveled through a system of elevators, cleaning screens, and chutes on their way to and from milling.
Hidden gem: The demonstration orchard near the Peirce Barn features a lesson in plant diversity. Depending on the time of year, you may see buckwheat, Indian mustard, hairy vetch or daikon radishes (among many other plant varieties) growing, each working to improve soil quality. Enter the fenced-in orchard through a gate facing Tilden Street — close it behind you to keep out deer — to get up close to see how many plants you can identify (and maybe snap a few photos).
If sweeping views are more appealing, cross the bridge on Tilden Street (heading east toward Beach Drive), turn left to follow the sidewalk on Beach, and meet up with the Theodore Roosevelt Side Trail or Valley Trail, heading toward Pulpit Rock. This is a moderate hike and will involve rock scrambles. Plan accordingly.
Best picnic spot: Picnic Area 1, in the grassy area just south of Peirce Mill, is one of the most popular picnic groves in the entire park, thanks to pavilions, bathrooms and tables spread around wide open fields. It’s regularly booked in advance. If so, just head north toward Picnic Area 2 near Broad Branch Road, where there are more picnic tables with views of the creek.
Where to get lunch: There are multiple options, depending on how you plan to get to the Mill. In Van Ness, Bread Furst bakery offers a rotating menu of sandwiches — think slow-braised pulled pork or classic French jambon beurre — and salads. The Calvert Woodley liquor store is the destination for higher-end cheeses, pickles and crackers. (Remember, it’s illegal to drink alcohol in the park.) From Cleveland Park, it’s easy to stop at Vace for pizza by the slice and classic Italian subs, or Firehook Bakery for sandwiches on fresh bread.