How lucky are we to have a large, beautiful national park right here in our city? Rock Creek Park sprawls gloriously through Northwest DC, its 1,700+ acres encompassing an amazing mix of recreation. There are nice hiking trails that traverse the tree-filled woods; historic sites like Peirce Mill and Old Stone House; a wonderful Nature Center that contains a planetarium (the only national park in the country to have one); tennis courts open for public play and the Rock Creek Tennis Center that also hosts a major annual tournament; the Carter Barron amphitheater that presents annual music series and more entertainment; the Horse Center, and of course, the beloved National Zoo.
Our family has enjoyed all of the above mentioned sites and activities over the years, most of them many times. But the ones we’ve taken advantage of most are the Zoo and hiking, the latter most recently over Thanksgiving weekend on Black Friday, when we always make a point to #optoutside instead of getting sucked in by the sales. Rock Creek is a go-to for many locals for a good hike in the District — the varying trail options and feeling of escaping the urban bustle (while still being in the city) are major appeals.
It was a pretty fall day, albeit it a cold one due to the wind. But that never stops us from getting out… as the saying goes, ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” (Not to mention my kids never seem to get cold!) We often begin our Rock Creek hikes at Peirce Mill. There is a small parking lot right across the street that always has open spots in our experience, and the paved path that runs along the creek next to it leads right to the green-blazed Western Ridge Trail.
There is a short uphill walk on the first section of the trail where we catch it near the Tilden Street Bridge, but it’s fairly mellow with just some gentle hills beyond that (the shorter section we often hike, anyway). The foliage was still in full effect this past weekend with plenty of leaves still on the trees, and we all remarked that it seemed especially brilliant this year — and so pretty with sunlight spilling through it all.
The full Western Ridge Trail winds a good 10-ish miles through Rock Creek Park, but we usually just hike to the Nature Center or a bit beyond and back, about three to four miles total. This visit we did less, turning around about a mile in, but hanging out in different areas longer to let Teddy the pup sniff around and find sticks.
During pre-Covid times, a lot of great ranger led programs were available at Rock Creek, from guided hikes to planetarium shows to kids activities. The Horse Center also offered trail and pony rides and welcomed people to tour the stables. All of those activities are suspended right now, but hopefully will be offered again soon.
I should mention that the Nature Center is another good starting point for a hike on the Western Trail, especially right now. There is a larger parking lot that tends not to fill up quickly while the facility is closed. And you can find even more great Rock Creek Park hikes here. Whatever route you choose, you’re in for a great walk in the woods.
Rock Creek Park is located mostly in Northwest DC (parts are in Maryland). Peirce Mill is located at the corner of Tilden Road and Beach Drive NW, and the parking lot is right next to it. The Rock Creek Nature Center is located at 5200 Glover Road NW. It’s open daily during daylight hours.