Every time I go hiking in Rock Creek Park, I have a different experience.
With 1,750 acres running through much of Northwest DC, the urban park is more than double the size of New York’s Central Park. It’s got thick forest, mild to strenuous hiking trails, long bicycle highways, and– as you have may have inferred, a creek scattered with rocks. 33 miles of it.
It would take several visits to experience half of what Rock Creek Park has to offer. This was my fourth.
Trail running originally brought me to Rock Creek, and my ass was swiftly handed to me by the more strenuous trails. This time, I wanted to try biking to, and through, it. I decided to make a Saturday out of it; here’s how it went.
Biking -> Rock Creek Park
I live in the Northeast part of DC, about 6 mi from RCP’s Nature Center and Planetarium. I could have biked to a closer entrance, but I wanted to grab park maps and look around. If it’s your first visit to Rock Creek, I recommend doing the same— more details on why in the next section.
When I ran to Rock Creek Park I took Florida Avenue, a major street in DC spanning NE and NW Washington. It was a classic urban run, with great graffiti and people watching as I passed millennial-packed patios. But it’s hot, congested, and sometimes stressful— not exactly a relaxing run through the woods.
On my bike, Google Maps took me through the Metropolitan Branch Trail and tucked-away neighborhoods. The MBT trail– a scenic urban trail alongside the metro– has some of the best (and most concentrated) graffiti murals in the city.
The trail spit me out at a paper factory, which smelled like shit, then a surprisingly thick patch of forest where two deer trotted out. I biked through Brentwood and Fort Totten, neighborhoods I was happy to explore. Colorful row houses, farmers markets, an art fair stocked with cultural clothing. Quiet streets with little traffic.
In its own way, the bike ride to Rock Creek Park was just as beautiful as the ride within. Rides like this are great for recognizing the unique beauty of your city.
Start: Rock Creek Park Nature Center and Planetarium
When I first entered the park, I was surprised with a slight chill. The park is noticeably cooler than the rest of DC, which is known as an “urban heat island” due to additional heat from asphalt, buildings, and cars.
Between the temperature drop and my dampened sweat, I was cool as I sped through the forest. Removing my headphones, I was inundated by the sounds of nature. The road– closed to cars on the weekend– spat me downhill, almost faster than I could handle. Later, I discovered I burned through a brake pad.
I made it to the Nature Center and Planetarium, only getting lost twice. By then I had burned off breakfast and sat down at a picnic table for lunch– a peanut-butter-banana sandwich and small container of berries. Usually one to read or scroll while eating, I just listened to the nature. You don’t realize, in the city, how little nature you hear until suddenly it surrounds you.
In the Center, I grabbed a map of the park and another detailing “highlighted hikes.” The other times I had been hiking in Rock Creek Park, I just entered wherever I stumbled upon first. I had no idea where I really was in the park or where I could go. I just explored the trails until ready to figure out an exit plan. Still fun, but this time I wanted a game plan for hiking in Rock Creek Park.
The Nature Center and Planetarium also has:
• Exhibits on the plants and animals of Rock Creek Park. (Bonus: live snakes.)
• A gift shop with a unique book selection. I got this one… so much for my “no-spend activity.”
• Genuinely helpful and friendly people at the desk. One person even offered some DSLR photography tips.
• Bathrooms and water fountains, of which there aren’t many in the park.
• A Planetarium, though programs were canceled during my visit.
Side note: the center does NOT offer snacks or refreshments. My business side wants to tell them to put out some trail mix and a few Gatorades and invest the markup into the park. But maybe it’s a littering concern. Regardless, make sure you bring enough snacks.
Rapids Bridge Hike
The “highlighted hikes” flyer mapped out three hikes:
• Boulder Bridge Hike - 3.5 miles • Rapids Bridge Hike - 2 miles • Milkhouse Ford Hike - 1.75 miles
Having just biked several hours, I opted for the middle distance, the Rapids Bridge Hike. The hike was perfect— with much of it winding directly along the Creek, which bubbled and spouted faster than what I usually imagine a creek able to do.
Impressive boulders sat throughout, where couples sat and talked, families played, sole parties read or just put their feet in the water. A dad and his young sons alerted me to a snapping turtle they’d spotted under the water. They invited me onto their rock to see.
I passed the Rapids Bridge, and stopped to watch the natural rapids that occur only in this 1.5-mile stretch of the creek.
Cutting away from the creek, I walked beneath a concrete bridge which looked somewhat haunting in the trees. Its graffiti sprawled mostly positive things. No politics, which often manage to permeate graffiti in DC.
The hike ends near the horse stables, which explains why I passed increasingly more dung– and then a few riders– at the final bend. Signage is a little bare, so I made a wrong turn somewhere. I eventually found the Center with the help of Google maps. All hail technology.
After leaving the center, I biked 1.3 miles to the Van Ness metro stop. I bought some snacks and, yanking my bike on the metro, enjoyed the air-conditioned ride home.
For more information about hiking in Rock Creek Park, visit the National Park Service website.