Ranger Dan Winings
Rock Creek Park, the largest urban park in the National Park system, is truly a gem in our nation's capital with more than 1,700 acres of hardwood forest, meadows, and streams. Whether it’s exploring the nation’s history, walking along a quiet trail, bicycling along Rock Creek, attending a Ranger led program or viewing wildlife, Rock Creek Park offers visitors a bounty of things to do.
NPF talked to Park Ranger Dan Winings in 2012 about how to plan the perfect escape to Rock Creek Park.
Why did you become a park ranger?
My major in college was Biology, so I enjoy working outdoors. I also enjoy the wide variety of opportunities in the National Park Service. I have been able to do many different things, including working on a reproduction nineteenth-century canal boat, in a historic nineteenth-century mill, in an eighteenth-century colonial house, and at our Nature Center and Planetarium. I have had the opportunity to hike, ride horses, and fight forest fires while working for the National Park Service.
Can't Miss Activities
We have the only planetarium in the National Park System, located at the Nature Center at 5200 Glover Road, NW. We hold programs in the planetarium for the public on Saturdays and Sundays at 1 and 4 PM. At Peirce Mill, you will not want to miss the flour-grinding demonstrations in an authentic "Oliver Evans" mill. Personally, I always enjoy hiking in the park. My favorite time to hike in the park is winter. There are less people on the trails, and you can see farther into the forest.
I would say my favorite spot in the park is the Valley Trail near Boundary Bridge, especially in the spring. It is a large floodplain of Rock Creek and because of this, the area has the greatest abundance of our native wildflowers and amphibians.
You can kayak in Rock Creek Park. But there are a few things you need to keep in mind. The water level in the creek must be at least two feet deep. The only time there is enough water in the creek for kayaking is following a storm, which doesn't make for a very safe ride! Canoes and kayaks less than 20 feet in length are allowed and only hand launching is permitted. For safety reasons, no boats are allowed over the waterfall at Peirce Mill Dam at any time. Also, Rock Creek's waters have high levels of bacteria, which may make the creek unsafe for human contact.
Rock Creek Park has a great Junior Ranger Program. You can come to the Nature Center, Old Stone House or Peirce Barn and pick up a Junior Ranger Book. If you'd like, you can download the book online by clicking here. Once you complete the activities in the book, return it to us and we will give you a Rock Creek Park Junior Ranger badge or patch — your choice. We also conduct two-day Junior Ranger Camps in July and August for children ages 7-12.
Horseback riding has a long tradition in Rock Creek Park, dating back to the park's creation in 1890. There are many ways you can ride a horse here. You can bring your own horse. There is ample parking at the Nature Center for horse trailers. Or, you can visit the Rock Creek Public Horse Center. They have trail rides twice daily on Saturdays and Sundays from April through October. In July and August, they also offer once-daily trail rides on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. The hour-long ride costs $40.00. The Center also offers 15-minute pony rides for children older than two-and-a-half. Reservations are required, but you can make them by calling (202) 362-0117.
I guide the Sunday 11:00 AM trail ride, which takes place from May through October. So come join me on Sundays to see Rock Creek Park on horseback.
Herring still run in Rock Creek. The National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Federal Highway Administration and the D.C. Department of Transportation recently completed a project in the park to remove barriers to fish navigation, including installing a Denil Fishway at Peirce Mill Dam. Once the project was done, herring were able to swim into the upper reaches of the park. The fishway project should improve the annual migration as more fish become accustomed to it. The best time to see the fish run is late April or early May. However, the run is highly dependent on the water temperature and can vary a great deal.
Unfortunately, Rock Creek Park does not have campsites within the park. The nearest National Park Service site with camping is Greenbelt Park, which is located just outside Washington, DC in Greenbelt, Maryland. Greenbelt Park is within walking distance to a Metrorail station, and allows pets as long as they are leashed.
The weirdest thing I've seen in the park is a yellow Volkswagen Beetle stuck in a tree 10 feet off the ground. It was right at a sharp switch back on our main road and the driver apparently took the turn too fast, and the driver ended up going over the guardrail and ended up in the tree.