An Insider’s Guide to Rock Creek Park: The Largest and Oldest Urban Park in America

Boulder Bridge during autumn. Stop by the Nature Center and pick up a map before heading out on a hike through the Valley Trail.
Boulder Bridge during autumn. Stop by the Nature Center and pick up a map before heading out on a hike through the Valley Trail. Rock Creek Park
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You don’t need to venture far from DC proper to escape the urban environs and instantly become absorbed with nature. If you want to stay within the city limits, you can hit up Rock Creek Park, a 32-mile trail system weaving its way through the woods of Washington and on to Montgomery County, MD. The oldest and largest urban park in the U.S., Rock Creek Park is currently celebrating its quasquicentennial (that’s 125 years).

With the anniversary, District of Columbia Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes introduced a bill to bring the park to National Park status by suggesting a name change to Rock Creek    Park. And why not? After all, Rock Creek, all 1,754 acres of it, serves up the riches that our national park’s system prides itself on—significant systems of trails, waterways, forts, rock scrambles, historic landmarks, wild nature, and solitude. And in the heart of the U.S. capital city, it doesn't get more 'National' than that.

One of the unique attributes offered by Rock Creek is that its central city location brings a large number of points of interest throughout. How you get to and fro’—hike, run, walk, or cycle—is up to you. Check out the suggestions below to learn routes within the park that locals love.

The  Western Ridge Trail  starts just north of the National Zoo and winds north to the Maryland border, passing by the Horse Center where you can saddle up for a ride, and the park's Nature Center and Planetarium museum where you can learn about the diversity of nature in the park. The dirt path offers 5 miles of backcountry trail running where in-the-know runners head to shake off the work week and take in our city's natural surroundings.

Boulder Bridge in autumn. Stop by the Nature Center and pick up a map before heading out on a hike through the Valley Trail.
Boulder Bridge in autumn. Stop by the Nature Center and pick up a map before heading out on a hike through the Valley Trail. Rock Creek Park

The  Valley Trail,  on the eastern side of the park, also starts just north of the National Zoo and winds along the creek that is the park's namesake. There are long and short versions of hikes in this section, each passing historic spots such as the Joaquin Miller log cabin and a beloved stop for photographers—the rock-covered Boulder Bridge.

Beach Drive,  beginning in   North Kensington, MD, follows Rock Creek for more than 13.5 miles. With its winding, tree-lined path that is closed to cars on weekends, it is an area favorite for cycling. Along Beach Drive are various intersections allowing detours to different areas, including Ridge Road and Oregon Avenue.

Horses on their morning walk in preparation for a day of riding near the Horse Center area in Rock Creek.
Horses on their morning walk in preparation for a day of riding near the Horse Center area in Rock Creek. Rock Creek Park

The area between Valley Trail (west) and Beach Drive (east) is a network of smooth-footed riding trails that are ideal for experiencing the wooded area the way our ancestors did—on horseback. Thunder-hoofer’s take note: Horse trails in Rock Creek are walking only.

Aerial view of Rock Creek Park Trail -- the vein of passage between northern DC and the downtown monuments and landmarks.
Aerial view of Rock Creek Park Trail -- the vein of passage between northern DC and the downtown monuments and landmarks. Wikimedia Commons

The paved  Rock Creek Park Trail  hooks up at Beach Drive and meanders 6.5 miles southward to the Tidal Basin and the Jefferson Memorial passing the Kennedy Center and the backside of the Lincoln Memorial on down to Hains Point where locals gather to hit a bucket of balls at the Hains Point Golf Course and driving range, and nosh on classic DC half-smokes at the clubhouse. Looking to  extend your ride ? Head west toward Georgetown then northeast up the C&O Canal to Great Falls, or venture southward to George Washington’s Estate at Mount Vernon.

Glover-Archbold Park urban forest and running trail.
Glover-Archbold Park urban forest and running trail. National Park Service

The footpath from  Georgetown to Glover-Archbold Park  is another popular spot for local runners—and DC has a lot of local runners! The dirt trail starts on Canal Road in Georgetown and has a number of cross-paths throughout the park as it crawls to the north. Continue along the main trail through the woods, then east across a few sidewalks and Connecticut Avenue, before heading back into the woods along the  Melvin Hazen Trail , and   ending at   Peirce Mill.

Outdoor blues concert at Rock Creek's famed amphitheater.
Outdoor blues concert at Rock Creek's famed amphitheater. Rock Creek Park

Now that we’ve covered some of the trail network and amazing self-guided outdoor adventures, make a game plan of how you can explore a little deeper. Self-propelled watercraft rentals are available at Thompson Boat Center, there are tennis courts at Montrose Park, the National Zoo is free and open year-round, the outdoor Amphitheater tees up live shows, and bird-watching and leaf-peeping opportunities set your sights on the surroundings. And of course, don’t forget your camera–Rock Creek shows beautifully on Instagram .

Ready to head out? Download a high-res trail map of DC's most beloved park. General admission is free and the park is open during daylight hours.

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