Escape D.C.'s Bustle in Rock Creek Park

Katherine RivardTravel Ideas
A couple sitting on a park bench and bikers on a paved pathway next to the Potomac River along the Georgetown Waterfront Park in Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC
— National Park Service

Once beloved by Theodore Roosevelt and still enjoyed by locals and tourists alike, Rock Creek Park is a surprisingly large swath of land encompassing greenery, monuments, other smaller parks, and historic buildings throughout the District of Columbia. Locals are quick to assert their familiarity with the park, as it is a consistent favorite among runners and cyclists. The park’s trails are also perfect for calm hikes surrounded by foliage. Take a day (or a week) to explore all of the opportunities available to visitors in this urban park.

Washington’s Woodlands

A woman hiking on a dirt path through a forest of bright green trees at Rock Creek Park
National Park Service

Rise early in the day and have a hearty breakfast to prepare for a day of adventuring. The Nature Center opens at 9 a.m. Make this your first stop to speak with park rangers, grab a map, and view displays about the park’s flora and fauna.

You can easily spend the entire morning along one of the park’s many trails. Picnic sites, playgrounds, and exercise spots abound, and a bike route stretches from the Lincoln Memorial all the way to Maryland. Some of the trails are paved, while others allow you to feel the rocks and branches beneath your sneakers as you travel alongside the park’s namesake creek.

On your hike, you’ll feel far from the government buildings and business of downtown as you breathe in the fresh, mossy air. Listen to birds chirping playfully, admire butterflies flitting past, and be amazed by the vast variety of mushrooms colorfully dotting the park’s floor. Spot the camouflaged cicadas shells, ogle at a thick slimy worm, laugh at the ducks bobbing in the water, and see if you can get a peek at the chipmunks darting along the ground. Each step offers new sights — and whether you’re 7 or 70, you’re bound to learn something new about yourself and the world around you on this short jaunt in nature.

Other Park Surprises

Sunny exterior of the Rock Creek Park Nature Center and Planetarium
National Park Service

Wondering what other surprises you can find in the park? Think tennis courts, the National Park Service’s only planetarium, a golf course, a horse center, and a boat center! All of these spots are managed as part of Rock Creek Park by the National Park Service. With such an array of activities — there’s something for everyone.

An Urban Mill

Close-up of a metal hand crank inside Pierce Mill at Rock Creek Park
National Park Service

After your morning hike, take a walk through Peirce Mill — the last of the many mills in the area used during the 18th century. On the weekends, visitors can enter the barn, watch the milling process, and enjoy a short film about 19th-century agricultural production and nutritional habits at the Peirce plantation. A Park Stewards grant from the National Park Foundation in 2010 sponsored the film, which was created by high school students to provide more information about the plantation’s history.

The mill is open daily, and visitors are welcome to explore, popping into each of the four floors to witness the inner workings of a historic mill. Park rangers are available to answer any questions, and, once your tour is complete, explore the grounds or settle on a picnic bench outside for lunch.

A Park within a Park

Fallen yellow leaves on a paved walkway next to a line of trees at Montrose Park in Rock Creek Park
National Park Service

Walk or taxi to Georgetown for the next leg of your Rock Creek Park adventure. Set back from the commotion of Georgetown’s bustling shops, Montrose Park offers a quiet, gentle setting with soft grass and deep woodland. Originally part of rope-maker Richard Parrott’s District of Columbia estate, the park still has many features reminiscent of the 19th century. Cardinals hop about the surrounding bushes and old-time lampposts line the main path into the park. In the warmer months, guests laze about the sun-warmed grass, running about the playground, picnicking at a number of available tables, or sweating it out with a friend on one of the tennis courts.

On either side of the park, you can visit the Dumbarton Cemetery or the Dumbarton Museum, a free collection preserved by Harvard University. Or, explore Dumbarton Oaks Park, another asset of the greater Rock Creek Park area that is located right beside this smaller park and includes 16 acres of countryside-esque land.

The Little Stone House

The sun hitting the front of the Old Stone House along Rock Creek Park in Georgetown in Washington DC
National Park Service

From Montrose Park, walk along Georgetown’s red brick sidewalks directly to the heart of the neighborhood — M Street. Amidst throngs of tourists and designer shops stands a small, proud home — the Little Stone House. Over time, incorrect lore formed around the house, claiming that George Washington had stayed here. Though false, this mistake resulted in the home’s preservation. Today it remains the oldest structure on its original foundation in D.C. The 3-story home was built in 1765 and visitors can step off the street to be transported back to our nation’s early years. Walk through the home on your own or take a tour for additional information. After you’ve explored inside, rest for a moment in the scenic backyard, complete with benches to rest among flowers.

A Waterfront Walk

The paved walkway and green grasses along the Georgetown Waterfront next to the Potomac with Washington DC in the background
National Park Service

Before the sun fully sets and darkness settles in, take one last stop at Georgetown Waterfront Park to take in the Potomac River. Look for a labyrinth design at the western edge of the park or sit beside the fountain at the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and K Street, NW. Then, head off to dinner in the historic neighborhood — amazing dining options abound in this bustling area.

Cemeteries, playgrounds, a planetarium, waterfront parks, historic homes, and miles of hiking trails — all woven throughout Washington, D.C. That’s Rock Creek Park. With so many pieces of history and so many trails through nature, a visit to Rock Creek Park reminds one of the importance of urban parks. For more information on parks in other cities across the country, download our free Urban Playgrounds Owner’s Guide, then go #FindYourPark/#EncuentraTuParque.

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