[See also this newer post, A Trail Guide to Rock Creek Park.]
I haven’t been traveling much lately; housework and yardwork dominated my spring and early summer. Recreationally, my goal for this summer has been to walk many of the local trails I’ve never hiked before. So recently I’ve been returning to Rock Creek Park, a major national park in our area that I first wrote about three years ago in Rediscovering Rock Creek Park.
The park’s Nature Center, a good place to start a hike, is a mere 3-mile drive from my home. The Western Ridge Trail, which extends the length of the park, passes right by it. From the Nature Center you can also hike three marked loops or invent your own route using the many trail options in that area.
Over several visits, I hiked each of the marked loops, and also the Western Ridge Trail from the Nature Center toward the northern edge of the park, through wooded areas I’d never explored.
If you are going to hike here you should download PDFs of the official Rock Creek Park map and the park’s Highlighted Hikes brochure. Trust me, you will need them. You may need to consult Google Maps too. When you zoom in far enough, it reveals unmarked trails that don’t show up on the PDFs.
The Loop Hikes
When I hiked the park three years ago, I noticed many brown trail marker posts being installed. It turns out that these were to mark a new system of loop hikes using various named and unnamed hiking and horse trails. The two main trails running through the park are marked by painted blazes—green for the Western Ridge Trail and blue for the Valley Trail. The loop hikes are marked by colored duct tape wrapped around the posts.
The tape blazes can be problematic. Over time, the colors can fade (the pink and orange tape are hard to tell apart in places) and the tape can be pulled off by the mischievous (as I noticed at one trail juncture). But with the brochure in hand, the loop hikes are not hard to follow, although I did get confused in places and miss a couple of turns where markers were absent.
Boulder Bridge Hike
3.5 miles, pink blazes
This hike takes you down the hillside and along Rock Creek via wide and easy to walk horse trails, on the hikers-only Valley Trail across the creek, and back via the Western Ridge Trail. It’s a pleasant and scenic walk, although were I to do it again I would skip the Valley Trail segment between the Rapids Bridge and Boulder Bridge and stick to the less rocky trails on the west side of the creek.
The walk along this rushing section of Rock Creek is, I think, the prettiest in the park. Even though Beach Drive is right across the creek, you barely notice. On weekdays there is little traffic, and on weekends this stretch of road is closed to cars. I visited during the week and ran across just a few walkers and joggers. The sense of isolation in the woods along Western Ridge Trail made me feel like I could have been far from civilization.
This isolation has a unsettling side as well. It bears remembering that congressional intern Chandra Levy vanished while presumably jogging in the park near here in 2001. Her remains were discovered in the woods by a dog walker a year later. The man tried and initially convicted for Levy’s murder had been serving time for assaulting other women in the park. A retrial in the Levy case resulted in the Salvadorian’s deportation rather than conviction. Her murder officially remains unsolved.
Rapids Bridge Hike
2 miles, orange blazes
This hike is basically a shorter version of the Boulder Bridge Hike. For the first two-thirds of the way it follows the same route, but then rather than crossing the creek, it veers uphill and back toward the Nature Center area.
This last third of the trail was the most surprising. Soon after heading uphill, I passed under a graceful arched bridge in the woods that carries Ross Drive over the trail. Then behind the park maintenance facility near the end of the trail, I followed a short side path toward a quarry-like pile of stones to see what they were. Beyond that pile of cut slabs were yet more piles, and then more. Some of these marble and sandstone pieces were intricately carved and obviously from an ornate building somewhere, not leftovers from a park structure, as I initially thought.
I had a hunch about what I had discovered, and I later verified it online. In 1958–61, the East Front of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., was expanded and renovated and the original building material removed. Two dozen tall Corinthian columns from the East Portico were disassembled and later relocated to the U.S. National Arboretum a few miles away, where 22 of them now stand in a meadow in a place of honor. Some blocks of material ended up near an abandoned sandstone quarry along the C&O Canal in Seneca, Maryland. And a large collection of this historic material, dating back to the early 1800s, was dumped here. What a find!
There appear to be more recent building pieces here too, as well as a few grist mill wheels, perhaps from the renovated Peirce Mill, which is located in the park.
The site is not unknown to curiosity seekers—Google “Capitol stones” and you’ll see. The Park Service does not advertise the existence or location of this trove. I suspect they don’t really want you poking around here, for obvious reasons, but nor are there signs or fences to keep you out. So if you visit, just be careful not to hurt yourself or disturb anything, and be respectful. Treat this as you would an archeological ruin.
Milkhouse Ford Hike
1.75 miles, yellow blazes
To reach the Milhouse Ford loop (see map above) from the Nature Center, you have to cross busy Military Road at a traffic light. Options for parking north of Military and closer to the loop will be better once the Beach Drive road reconstruction project is finished in the near future.
This loop takes you past the earthwork remains of Fort DeRussy, one of the many defensive installations built around Washington during the Civil War. (Military Road was built to link the forts on the north side of the city.) This fort actually saw action in the Battle of Fort Stevens in 1864, when a Confederate attack on Washington was repulsed. Fort Stevens (or what little is left of it) is about a mile away near the other side of the park.
The loop leads you down to and along Rock Creek. Here you will find Milkhouse Ford, where the main road through the park once crossed through the creek. You can still see brick pavers where the road disappears into the water, and a stone and concrete bench on the bank from which sightseers could watch the cars fording the creek.
I found the part of the loop that roughly parallels Military Road to be the least enjoyable. It’s close enough to the busy road in places to hear and see the traffic, and it’s rockier and more eroded than other sections. But once you learn the various trail routes, there are countless options for combining or extending the loop walks, or inventing your own.
The Western Ridge Trail
I enjoyed the sections of the Western Ridge Trail that I had covered on the loop hikes in the southern half of the park. So the day after the Fourth of July, I decided to hike the northern half of the trail. It was about 2.5 miles from the Nature Center to Boundary Bridge at the northern end of the park in Washington. (Rock Creek Park continues for a long distance in Maryland as a Montgomery County park.) I didn’t go the whole way to Boundary Bridge, instead opting to create a loop using other trails (see below).
Google Maps came in handy. There were many unmarked cross trails, and some trails near Rock Creek were fenced off because of the road construction. So I had to rely on the map app at trail intersections to figure out where I was. With Oregon Avenue on one side of you and Rock Creek on the other, you can’t get lost. But still, sometimes I just like to know precisely where I am.
From the Nature Center, I hiked about 2 miles on the Western Ridge Trail to Wise Road, about half a mile short of Boundary Bridge. Then I turned back, took an unmarked trail down to Rock Creek, and made my way back to the ridge trail via other paths. By the time I returned to the Nature Center, I had walked almost 4.5 miles.
The general nature of the northern section was much like the southern section—heavily wooded, gently hilly, and quiet, the trail wide and in good condition. But somehow it felt less remote. This was probably because I ran across more people here, mostly dog walkers and some joggers, no doubt from the nearby neighborhoods, and that spoiled the illusion of solitude. I like having a trail to myself. Here I definitely didn’t.
Once the road construction is done and all the trails reopened, I plan to park north of Military Road and walk the Western Ridge Trail all the way to Boundary Bridge and then back via other trails. I have also plotted out a route south of Military Road that will take me farther down the trail beside Rock Creek and then back via the Western Ridge Trail. That’s the great thing about Rock Creek Park; the options are almost endless. It’s not wilderness, but for a nice walk in the woods around here, it’s hard to beat.
David Romanowski, 2019