Rock Creek Park in the heart of Washington, D.C. is a magical place. In what other major city is there a 2,000-acre slice of natural, largely untouched land with more than 32 miles of trail? To put things into perspective, New York City's Central Park is about 850 acres, less than half the size of Rock Creek Park. When you are hiking here, it is easy to leave the bustling metropolis that surrounds you behind, and believe that you are somewhere hundreds of miles away in the wilderness.
It's not just the size of Rock Creek Park that is impressive, but rather the variety of terrain available for hiking. While there are some trails great for families and anyone looking to get out for a relaxing stroll, some of the trails here are steep, technical, and twisting. Having hiking options like this easily-accessible and right in the city makes Rock Park one of the most unique spots in an urban area to find technical hiking. Here’s what you need to know before heading out.
Like any hike, no one should go to Rock Creek Park without some basic supplies like food and water. Make sure you have a solid pair of hiking shoes or boots with a grippy sole and good support—because of the trails’ steepness it can be easy to slip and fall. Try the La Sportiva Synthesis Mid GTX shoes, available at REI. They're light, durable, and grippy.
There are two main trails running the length of the northern section of the park from the Maryland border to just above the National Zoological Park: The 4.6-mile Western Ridge Trail on the western side of Rock Creek, and the 5.6-mile Valley Trail on the eastern side. The two trails can be done individually, and together make a great 10 plus-mile hike or trail run. In between are countless other trails that either loop around or serve as connectors, and they give you a lot options to change up your loop.
Both trails have different personalities, and, when joined together, give you a route that is diverse and fun. If you start from the south side of the Western Ridge Trail, you’ll have a good climb—250 feet within .75 miles. After this, you’ll hit a few smaller inclines, but nothing as intense. The trail widens out from singletrack to a horse paths after a bit and stays relatively smooth.
About halfway along the trail, you’ll pass the Nature Center and Planetarium, that has nice exhibits that feature artifacts and educate about what's in the park. You can also pick up a trail map here. One point to note, there's a hands-free water bottle fill-up station in the center, which is open 9-5 Wednesday-Sunday and is staffed by helpful National Park Service rangers.
Once you hit the Maryland border, you cross over Boundary Bridge to Valley View and head back down to the parking area via the other side of the river. This trail is more rugged than its counterpart on the other side of the river, and will have you skirting more rocks and roots, and doing hill work in short bursts throughout.
On your way down Valley View, be sure to stop at Boulder Bridge, which was built in 1902 and is made entirely out of stone. This is one of the most popular spots for grabbing a great picture in the park. So make sure to keep your camera handy.
After your stop at Boulder Bridge, head back down to where you started and congratulate yourself on a job well-done.
If you are in the city, and a long hike like the loop above isn’t for you, you can still enjoy a technical hike within Rock Creek Park: The Boulder Bridge Hike (pink blazes). This is a 3.5-mile loop that starts at the Nature Center. The scenic—and, at times, a bit challenging—hike goes past the Horse Center shortly after it begins. Parts of this loop are also open to horses, which means watch your step!
The trail itself quietly meanders through forest, down and around sharp corners, along a few tree-lined roads, and over historic bridges. And after the trail turns south following its eastward start, you'll shadow peaceful Rock Creek until you reach the trail's southern point at Boulder Bridge. Along the way, the loop crosses over Beach Drive after Rapids Bridge and then climbs a steep hill lined with roots that resemble natural stairs. The footing is loose and tricky, so stay sharp here. At Boulder bridge, the trails turns southwest and then angles northwest and, finally, north as it heads back to the Nature Center.
Regardless of which trail you choose to hike, it’s nice to know you can find challenging, easily-accessible trails right in the heart of the city.