In Washington, D.C., there exists a slice of land running down the heart of the city. Wider at the top, this chunk of emerald-colored earth in a city partially made of granite stands out like a giant radar blip on a map. Rock Creek Park offers everything from a golf course and a world-class tennis center to the National Zoo, car-free roads, and more than 32 miles of trails.
What Makes It Great
There are two main off-road trails for runners to use: the Western Ridge Trail, measuring 5 miles, and the Valley Trail, which goes about 5.6 miles. They each have their own personality.
The Western Ridge Trail starts just above the National Zoo at its southern end and snakes north to the Maryland border, hooking up with Rock Creek. From the south, the trail climbs about 250 feet over three-quarters of a mile starting just before mile 1 (although there's a plateau and a brief downhill on the way up). From there, however, the route features small bumps the rest of the way. The route is even easier from the north.
The first mile or so of the Western Ridge Trail shadows Rock Creek. After that, the trail surface gets a bit wider as you make your way north.
The Valley Trail, on the other hand, doesn't contain any major climbs but sports a more jagged profile. Runners tackling this trail need to come ready to do some hill work in short bursts.
From the south, the trail begins right near the Western Ridge Trail, except that it's on the eastern side of Rock Creek. The Valley Trail stays with the creek for most of the way up to its northern end, where it stops next to the Western Ridge Trail.
Keep in mind the Valley Trail also has several sharp turns and loose footing in many spots. We'd recommend wearing a pair of trail shoes — road shoes, which are OK on some trails, wouldn't work well on this one.
Both trails can get busy with hikers and other runners, particularly during the summer months.
Who is Going to Love It
Serious trail runners will love both trails, as they each present different challenges: the Western Ridge Trail has a climb at the start (from the south), while the Valley Trail is more rugged and has a bumpier profile (from both ends).
Novice trail runners will like the Western Trail for its gentler profile and shorter distance.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
There are several roads in and out of D.C., so consult with a map or your GPS for driving directions to any of the several parking lots located within Rock Creek Park. There are bus and Metro stops in the area that can get you there as well. Visit nps.gov/rocr for more information.