Update: In March 2014, the National Park Service made changes to the Rock Creek picnic grove reservation system and increased the rental fees. This story has been updated to reflect those changes.
Countless commuters swing through Rock Creek Park daily, paying attention only to the dashboard clock and the cars in front of them. But the park beckons. Swing off Military Road onto Glover Road NW and into the Nature Center’s parking lot, and you’ll be greeted by a canopy of lush trees and the smells of spring. Drops from the previous night’s storm still cover the ground, and the chatter of birds fills the air. A man walks by with binoculars around his neck. Another is beginning a hike, pants tucked into his socks, sleeves to his wrists, sure to suffer no bug bites on this quiet morning. A smiling couple meanders along the path, hand in hand.
The city, and the office, seem far away.
Washington’s Rock Creek Park covers more than 2,000 acres, encompassing the Georgetown Waterfront, Thompson Boat House and Meridian Hill Park. It has 32 miles of paved and unpaved trails, and some of its main thoroughfares are closed on weekends so visitors can bike, run and wander undisturbed by cars.
Rock Creek Park, founded in 1890 as one of the first federal parks, is where we, as common folk, can summer. The park can be our escape inside the city, our oasis. Here, kids skip rocks, teens hold hands as they walk the trails, retirees keep in shape and families picnic on the grass. Tennis, golf and horseback riding are cheap and easy to try.
But it can be a challenge to figure out how, exactly, to get the most out of Rock Creek Park beyond the commuting path to our offices downtown. Here, we hope to remedy that.
WHERE TO START
Scott Einberger is a park ranger and volunteer coordinator for Rock Creek Park — and a self-described “national park dork.”
When you don’t know what to do in this huge mass of land, trails and activities, Einberger says to start at the Nature Center, off Glover Road on the northern end of the park. Here you’ll find trail maps and exhibits about the park’s plants and animals, and a ranger at the front desk can help guide you in the right direction. Pass the front section and enter the park’s little museum: taxidermied animals and a few live ones. The box turtle, snakes and fish that come from the park have names (guess which one is Pokey?) and descriptions to teach visitors about these residents of Rock Creek Park.
In the next room is another park perk: The planetarium . Visitors can learn about Washington’s night sky and figure out how to see constellations from their home or learn more about outer space. It’s open on weekends, with shows at 1 and 4 p.m.
The other must-see is Peirce Mill , an 1820s water-powered gristmill south of the center. Mill demonstrations run the second and fourth Saturday of the month and include children’s games and tours. Maps and park information also can be found here. The mill began working again in 2011 after closing in the 1990s when the water wheel broke. Bring a picnic and lay a blanket on the grass surrounding the mill after the tour.
Hiking is one of the most popular activities in the park, but with 32 miles of trails, it can be hard to decide which path to take. Park ranger Tony Linforth explains that the trails are laid out like a ladder. The Western Ridge and the Valley Trail are the two primary paths that run north and south. Numerous “rungs” run east and west. “People can make some fantastic loops” using the ladder analogy as a guide, Linforth says.
Behind the Nature Center is Einberger’s favorite trail, the Rapids Bridge Loop, a two-mile trail that passes the park’s scenic whitewater section. Pick up the trail behind the corral at the Horse Center. After a half-mile, hikers hit the creek. Three-quarters of a mile in is the Rapids Bridge, which is a great place to stop and check out the view. Pass the bridge and turn right up the hill to return to the Horse Center.
Beth Mullin, executive director of the Rock Creek Conservancy, a nonprofit group that works to protect the park, says she spends a lot of time on the “extraordinarily beautiful” Boundary Bridge trail at the northern end of the park, near the D.C.-Maryland border. She makes a loop from Boundary Bridge, hikes down the west side of the creek, crosses the water at Riley Spring Bridge and loops back up on the Western Ridge Trail to where she began. “It’s really remote and just lovely,” she says.
If you’re feeling ambitious, you can bike from the Lincoln Memorial through Rock Creek Park and into Maryland. Portions of Beach Drive are closed to vehicles on weekends and holidays, making it easier to bike, jog or just wander through the main thoroughfare.
At the right time during the week, bikers seeking solitude can avoid cycling traffic, too. “On weekdays from 11 to 2:30 in the afternoon, Rock Creek Park feels like you’re in [Canyonlands in Utah] or Lassen Volcanic National Park [in California],” Einberger says. “It’s quiet roads, and you can get back to nature because people are working.”
Mullin bikes south from her home in upper Northwest toward Georgetown, and then hops on Metro at Foggy Bottom and heads back. The ride south is mostly downhill.
As soon as the weather warms, everyone has the brilliant idea of having a cookout in Rock Creek Park. It’s only when they try to reserve a space that they find the prime pavilions were reserved months ago. “You need to make reservations as early as possible, at the beginning of the calendar year,” says ranger Deanna Ochs, who works in Rock Creek’s permits office. “So if you want to have a birthday party in August 2014, you should call in January 2014.”
There are 30 picnic areas in the park, and only eight require reservations. But there are reasons those spots are always in demand. “Generally, a lot of people want shelter,” Ochs says. “The only ones with shelter are ones that take reservations. Not all of [the picnic sites] are close to restrooms. The ones that take reservations are.”
The most popular of the reserved areas is No. 24, near the Carter Barron Amphitheater. Adjacent to acres of ballfields and the tennis courts, as well as wooded picnic spots, “that whole area gets a lot of use,” Ochs says. The next most popular is picnic area No. 1, which lies in the grassy area next to Peirce Mill, followed by “either number six [near Miller Cabin and the golf course] or 13 [near the Horse Center],” she says.
But Ochs prefers to head farther up Beach Drive to picnic groves 8, 9 and 10, which are north of the golf course and often open for reservations. “They’re big, they’re right on the creek and they’re at the quiet end of the park,” she says. “They don’t have shelter, that’s the only drawback.”
If you can’t get a reservation, head out early to one of the unreserved areas and stake out your spot. The most essential thing? “I always tell people to bring their own grills,” Ochs says. “Some picnic groves have them; some don’t.”
2014 update: To reserve a picnic area, go to www.recreation.gov. Full and half day rentals are available. A half day rental (9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. or 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.) costs $25. Picnic grove reservations are no longer accepted by the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation.
No-Fuss Picnic Spots
If you want to grill at your gathering, you must be within a designated and numbered picnic area, whether it requires reservations or not. But if you don’t want to grill and want to picnic without making a reservation, try one of these scenic areas.
Milkhouse Ford: Located just north of the Miller Cabin, the area around Milkhouse Ford has a few picnic tables and a rather romantic, high-backed round bench — almost more of a booth, really — for cuddling up on the edge of Rock Creek.
The riverbank around Rapids Bridge: As you move downstream, the banks are covered with a jumble of large, smooth boulders, where you can easily stretch out on a summer day and listen to the water rush past. There’s a cool, secluded slab of rock that hangs over the creek on the east side.
Boulder Bridge: You wouldn’t want to sit in the shadow of the historic Boulder Bridge during the week, when traffic steadily rumbles over it. But on weekends, when Beach Drive is closed, there’s a wide, grassy area on the creek bank where you can spread out a blanket with the scenic stone bridge as a backdrop.
One of the many earthen forts that protected Washington during the Civil War, Fort DeRussy was an 86-acre complex back when this area was mostly farmland. The site is now overgrown by forest, but you can still walk the parapets and make out where the magazines, rifle pits and cannon placements were.
Poet Joaquin Miller built this rustic split-log cabin at 16th and Belmont streets NW in the 1880s. It was moved to this location in 1912 to be used as a shelter.
Jules Jusserand Memorial
This bench, with its views of the creek and passing cars, honors French Ambassador Jules Jusserand, who frequently explored the park on long rambles with President Theodore Roosevelt.