Rock Creek Park: The Complete Guide

Rock Creek Foliage
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Rock Creek Park

Address
5200 Glover Rd NW, Washington, DC 20008, USA
Phone +1 202-895-6000

Located in the Northwest quadrant of Washington, D.C., Rock Creek Park is the country's third-largest national park. The 1,754-acres hugging the lush Rock Creek Valley are an oasis for city dwellers, who flock to its 32 miles of trails that run from the Maryland border at Beach Drive to south of the Roosevelt Bridge (I-66) underpass for hiking, running, cycling, and inline skating. The park also connects into other popular local green spaces, including Georgetown Waterfront Park and Meridian Hill Park, and has additional facilities like an equestrian center, playgrounds, picnic areas, an 18-hole golf course, and nature center and planetarium, making it a cultural and educational hub as well.

Things to Do

  • Situated along 12 miles from the Potomac River to the Maryland border, Rock Creek Park is Washington, D.C.'s largest park. With both paved multi-used and dirt paths, the trails here wind through majestic forest canopy and along lush creek beds and past historic structures like mills and Civil War-era forts—all in the middle of the city. The park also has 13 miles of dedicated bridle paths, and the Rock Creek Park Horse Center offers guided trail rides as well as lessons.
  • Start your visit at the Nature Center and Planetarium. Doubling as the park's visitor center, the facility has a bookstore, a children's discovery room, exhibits dedicated to the park's plants and animals, live animal displays, a bird observation deck, and a garden. With 75 seats, the planetarium screens short nature films and hosts ranger-led programming. After visiting the center, explore the half-mile Woodland Trail or the quarter-mile, accessible Edge of the Woods trail.
  • Play the links at the park's 18-hole course off 16th Street in Brightwood, bring your racket to practice on one of more than two dozen courts at the Rock Creek Tennis Center, or settle in for a picnic at one of several scenic shelters.
  • Permitted between the Joyce Road bridge and the Peirce Mill Dam, canoeing and kayaking are only allowed when the creek water is above two feet deep and is recommended only for advanced and expert boaters. Rentals are available at Thompson's Boat Center.

Best Hikes and Trails

From flat, gentle paths along lush creek beds to steep and rocky trails into dense forests, the park has varied terrain appropriate for all skill levels. Some paths are paved and ideal for bicycles and wheelchairs, while others are more technical, with stream crossings and rock scrambles.

  • Boulder Bridge Loop: A favorite of President Theodore Roosevelt, this well-maintained, 3-mile loop departs from the Nature Center. The mostly shady path wind through woodlands, past bubbling creek rapids, and over the iconic Boulder Bridge, offerings some excellent views of the lush valley below.
  • Milkhouse Ford Hike: Experience some of the city's history via the 1.75-mile, family-friendly loop hike. The relatively easy path descends through brushy thickets toward the creek valley, where you can spot white-tailed deer, fox, squirrels, and other wildlife. Other highlights include a Civil War-era fort, a poet's cabin, historic earthen works and mounds, and the creek crossing–or ford–that gives the trail its name.
  • Western Ridge Trail: For a longer excursion, try this 9-mile out-and-back trail that starts at the DC/Maryland border and runs to Bluff Bridge on the park's southern edge. The trailhead is located near historic Fort DeRussy, and the path is a mix of rugged and rocky terrain and more level paths as it twists and turns around the rushing creek and through deep woodlands, leaving the city noise behind.
  • Hiking/Biking Loop: This wheelchair-accessible, fully paved multi-use trail is popular with pedestrians and cyclists and starts at Picnic Grove 10 along Beach Drive, which is closed to cars on the weekends. Note that parts of the path are shared with vehicular traffic and very steep. Restroom facilities are available.

Golf, Horseback Riding, and Tennis

The park is not just a destination for hiking—it has facilities for golf, horseback riding, and tennis as well. Adjacent to 16th street in the Brightwood neighborhood, the Rock Creek Golf Park has a free practice green as well as an 18-hole course. Reservations are required for tee times beginning daily at 6:30 a.m.

At the Rock Creek Park Horse Center—the city's only public riding facility—visitors can take lessons, pony rides, or sign up for guided trail rides through the park's network of equestrian trials.

The Rock Creek Tennis Center has more than two dozen outdoor clay and hard courts, plus five heated indoor courts for those who want to keep up with their game in winter. Reservations are required, and the center also offers lessons and clinics and hosts the annual ATP Tour Event.

Where to Camp

Overnight camping is not permitted inside Rock Creek Park, but several nearby sites offer accommodations for those with tents and RVs.

  • Cherry Hill Park: Open year-round, Cherry Hill in College Park, MD has a variety of options, ranging from RV and tent sites to cabins, glamping pods, yurts, and cottages. Amenities include ADA-accessible bathhouses, two pools and a splash pad, 24-hour laundry, a miniature golf course and game room, dog park, and fitness center. Take a free shuttle into town or connect to the area's massive trail system just steps from the front entrance.
  • Camp Meade RV Park and Camp Ground: Located just 30 miles northeast of D.C., this campground has options for tents and RVs, plus on-site laundry and showers, boat rentals, game room, volleyball courts, and even a bowling center.
  • Lake Fairfax Park: With a water park-style activity pool, playground, swimming pool, walking trails, and 18-acre lake with boat rides and pedal boat rentals, Lake Fairfax is a great, family-friendly option 20 minutes west of the District. Sites are available for both RVs and tents, and facilities include accessible restrooms with hot showers.

Where to Stay Nearby

From luxury boutique hotels to reliable chains, there are several hotel options within a few miles of the park's Nature Center.

  • Holiday Inn Express Washington DC N-Silver Spring: Within walking distance of the Silver Spring Metro station and less than 3 miles from the park, the Holiday Inn is a clean, convenient choice with amenities such as free breakfast and a fitness center.
  • The Line DC: Housed inside a 110-year old historic church in the heart of Adams Morgan, this boutique property is a stylish, contemporary choice just 2.5 miles from the Nature Center and Planetarium. The hotel is pet-friendly, with bright and boho-style rooms, and within walking distance of the Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan Metro Station and the neighborhood's lively bars, coffee shops, and boutiques.
  • Kimpton Hotel Monaco: Centrally located in Penn Quarter, the Monaco is a mile from the National Mall and about 2 miles from Rock Creek's southernmost trails. The stately marble building used to be a U.S. Post Office and combined with elegant furnishings and outstanding service, it's worth the splurge.
Country Road in Autumn
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How to Get There

Just 2.5 miles from downtown DC, the park is easily accessible by car and public transportation. If traveling by car, parking is available at Rock Creek Park Nature Center and Planetarium (5200 Glover Road NW) and Pierce Mill historical site (2401 Tilden Street NW) as well as on streets adjacent to the park.

From downtown DC, take 16th Street NW for 5 miles and then merge onto Military Road NW. Then turn right onto Glover Road NW. Stay left when the road splits at Picnic Grove #13 and continue up the hill and turn left at Rock Creek Nature Center and Rock Creek Horse Center farm. Follow signage to the left to access the parking lots.

From Silver Spring, MD, take US-29 S/Georgia Avenue into the District, then turn right on Alaska Avenue NW. At just under a mile, turn left onto 16th Street NW, then stay right onto the ramp for Military Road W/Connective Avenue. Merge onto Military Road, which turns into Glover Road, and follow directions above.

To access the park via public transportation, take the Metro to either Friendship Heights (red line) or Fort Totten (yellow line). From both stops, take the E-4 bus, and disembark at either the Military + Glover stop (from Friendship Heights) or Military + Oregon stop (Fort Totten), where you will cross Military Road. A small paved trail leads to the nature center.

Accessibility

Rock Creek Park welcomes visitors of all ability levels. Several of the trails are accessible, including the 7-mile Hiking/Biking Loop and the Edge of the Woods path that departs from the Nature Center and Planetarium, which has accessible facilities—including restrooms—and two accessible parking spaces immediately adjacent to the entrance. Peirce Mill also has accessible parking and facilities, as well as access to a paved trail.

Assistive listening devices can be requested three days in advance for ranger-led programs, while the park offers American Sign Language interpreters for visitors with two weeks notice.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Take advantage of the weekend and holiday Beach Drive street closures to cycle or jog all the way from Georgetown Waterfront Park to the Maryland border without the hassle of vehicular traffic.
  • Make advance reservations for picnic shelters between May and October via www.recreation.gov.
  • Visit Peirce Mill, a 19th-century water-powered gristmill just south of the Nature Center, on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month for guided tours and children's activities.
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Rock Creek Park: The Complete Guide