[Photo by James Losey]
Large, urban parks are a great resource for their cities — it's no wonder Central Park in Manhattan is called the lungs of the city. Not as manicured as its northern neighbor, Rock Creek Park's natural setting has a lot of great trails, with historic sites, forts, picnic areas, a bit of rock scrambling, and a lot of peace and solitude. Here are our three favorite trails in the park.
The Valley Trail along the eastern side of the park runs from Park Road (the same one that goes through Columbia Heights and Mt. Pleasant) up to the D.C.-Maryland line. If the full length is a little ambitious, go for the two-mile, one-way hike from the trailhead to Military Road or the nearby Joaquin Miller log cabin. Aside from crossing a few roads, you don't feel like you're in the city (and you may get a little jealous of the houses in Mt. Pleasant, Crestwood and other 'hoods that back onto the park). The trail meanders along the creek, hence the name, and you also pass a few interesting sights like the rock-covered Boulder Bridge.
On the other side of the creek, the Western Ridge Trail is a bit more strenuous, putting you up into the hills girding the area. Beginning at about the same area as the Valley Trail, the Western Ridge passes Peirce Mill and Peirce Barn, two historic structures from the 1820s, back when people did actual business in the park. The mill served to grind wheat and stopped working in 1897 when the wheel broke. Farther up the Western Ridge, you gain altitude and have to occasionally climb over rocks or branches before reaching the park's Nature Center and Planetarium, a small museum about the flora and fauna in the park (which is more diverse than you might think). It's worth noting that the Nature Center is also one of the few places in the park with water and a bathroom, plus a small gift shop. There are multiple picnic areas along the trail, as well. The hike from the trailhead to the Nature Center is about 2 miles, though it also continues to the Maryland border.
Between the Western Ridge and Valley Trails runs Military Road NW, so named because it linked together Washington's Civil War forts that served as a defensive ring around the city. One of those forts, Fort DeRussy, still exists just north of the road on a little trail spur. Hidden back in the trees, the fort has been reduced over the years to a steep 10 foot tall ridge, surrounded by a ditch to make it hard for Confederate troops to scale the walls. The fort commanded the Rock Creek Valley and the country roads in the area, as well as firing its cannons at the approaches to other nearby forts like Fort Stevens, which lies near 13th and Quackenbos Streets NW.
And a good thing too, as Fort Stevens was attacked during the war when Southern troops raided the city down Georgia Avenue. DeRussy's guns helped thwart the assault, which was witnessed in person by President Abraham Lincoln, who rode up with his wife, Mary. A probably apocryphal story claims that Lincoln was standing on the parapet of Fort Stevens, watching the fighting within Rebel rifle range when a young soldier pulled him down, yelling "Get down, you damn fool!" The man was said to have been a young Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a future Supreme Court justice. The battle was also the only time that a sitting US President faced enemy fire. The trail to the fort has a number of plaques describing the battle and the fort, and the quiet of the place makes it easy to imagine what it might have been like to serve in the fort, sitting and waiting to defend the city. The spur to the fort is a short one, and serves to link the Western Ridge and Valley Trails, if you wanted to try them all as a loop. Bring water and snacks, though. The map helps, too, and you can even listen to some music about the park before you go to help get you pumped up.