There are so many things to love about Rock Creek Park. That it’s a beautiful natural oasis smack in the middle of a bustling city is an overarching appeal. But the features within — miles of trails, opportunities galore for active recreation, educational activities, and historic sites among them — are what make it such a huge draw for both locals and visitors.
On the last day of Winter Break, we took advantage of, well, all of the above and headed to DC’s urban forest to explore Peirce Mill — with a creekside picnic and some hiking, to boot. It’s a great place to begin a Rock Creek outing. Besides being an interesting structure to explore, there’s a parking lot just across the street, picnic tables nearby, and it’s situated right by a couple of trails that run along the creek and the park’s western ridge.
After enjoying lunch al fresco, we headed inside Peirce Mill. Built in the 1820’s it operated commercially for over 70 years. Since then, it has undergone a few restorations and still actually runs now, though just for demonstration purposes and only from April – October.
The mill is pretty neat to tour even when it isn’t running as you can get a close look at the inner workings of a structure built before modern technology. Stone walls, thick wood beams, and wooden machinery, while restored and updated over time, maintain the original aesthetic. And it’s interesting to see how water from Rock Creek powered the mill — right outside is the trench where water was channeled to the water wheel alongside the building.
While we toured the three levels of the mill ourselves, the park rangers on duty were happy to answer questions and also showed us how the mill works via a small model. And along with giving us a lot of background on Peirce Mill and Rock Creek Park, one of the rangers engaged the kids in cute bird feeder projects. (Also, a bit of random trivia I learned from him: Rock Creek is the only park in the National Park System with a planetarium — it’s at the Nature Center and it’s free!)
After leaving the mill, we hit the trail for some hiking along the western ridge. It’s a pretty, hilly route through the woods that eventually takes you to the Nature Center a couple of miles along, but with daylight running out early, we turned around partway to head back to the car. But a visit to Peirce and the Nature Center with some good hiking in between would make for an excellent day-long outing!
Peirce Mill is located at the corner of Tilden Road and Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park. Hours are 12-4pm on weekends only November 1 – March 31, and 10am – 4pm Wednesday – Sunday from April 1 – October 31. Occasionally there ranger led activities and special events are hosted at the mill — see the calendar for details. Admission is free.