Rock Creek Park is the city of Washington’s largest park and the nation’s oldest urban national park. It extends from where Rock Creek empties into the Potomac River to the District of Columbia–Maryland boundary, about 9 miles north by car via Rock Creek Parkway and Beach Drive. Its wooded hillsides and valley and extensive trail system makes it an excellent place to bike, walk, and even ride a horse.
But if you look at a map of the park, the trail system can seem confusing and overwhelming. When you visit the park, you may have a hard time finding or following the trail signs and blazes. And if you’re intent on following a certain trail or making a particular loop, the lack of trail markings at key places can prove frustrating.
I’ve spent a lot of time and miles walking every main trail in the park and most of the minor ones. My goal here is to demystify the trail system, offer some general descriptions and suggestions, and point out a few spots where you might miss a turn or get disoriented.
I won’t provide a trail by trail description. Much of the fun of hiking a trail is discovering it for yourself.
You can’t really get terribly lost here. You’re either following a trail through Rock Creek’s valley or along its western ridge, or you’re on a trail linking the valley and ridge trails. Beach Drive and neighborhood streets are never far away.
The PDF version of the park map.
Still, when I go hiking here, I bring a park map or have one called up on my cell phone. Google Maps is helpful too. If you zoom in, it shows almost all the trails, even some not on the official park map. It can help you pinpoint your location if you get confused.
(Google Maps isn’t infallible. Navigating the area of the park near the Klingle Valley Trail is very confusing and disorienting, in part because Google Maps doesn’t show a relatively new section of paved trail.)
For official information and important alerts on the park, consult the National Park Service website for Rock Creek Park. Here on the Maps page, you can access two versions of the park map.
The first version is the “brochure map,” embedded in the webpage. It is identical to the map in the park brochure that you can pick up at the park’s Nature Center, if it’s open. When I tried to download this map, I got a poor-quality copy that’s not very useful.
The second version is an easily downloadable high-resolution PDF. I’ve used this version to produce the images in this blog post. Unfortunately, the PDF version is not the most recent! It does not include the two highlighted horse trail routes shown on the brochure map. (It just shows them as unnamed dashed lines.) My advice: Pick up a park brochure if you can at the Nature Center, or call up the online version of the brochure map on your cellphone.
THE THREE SECTIONS OF THE PARK
For the purposes of exploring the trail system, you can divide Rock Creek Park into three distinct sections, which I’ve marked on the map below. Most of the trails are in the central and northern sections, so that’s where this blog will focus.
The three sections of the park.
This section extends from the Potomac River to just north of the National Zoo. There is no distinct boundary between the southern and central sections of the park, but a good marker is the Bluff Bridge over Rock Creek, which is the southern terminus of the Western Ridge Trail.
The southern section of the park is narrow, and the only significant foot trail is one leading to Dumbarton Oaks Park, Montrose Park, and the U.S. Naval Observatory. The main route through this section is a paved foot and bike trail that runs from Georgetown past the Zoo to Peirce Mill and beyond. Most of this trail was repaved in recent years and is wide and smooth. The Klingle Valley Trail and other spur trails provide access from surrounding neighborhoods.
Walking a paved trail with lots of bicycles zipping by isn’t very relaxing to me, so I only visit here when I’m on a bike as well. I haven’t walked that one trail I mentioned above, so until I do, that’s all I’ll say about this section of the park.
This section extends from Bluff Bridge north to Military Road, a main east-west route that cuts across Rock Creek Park and creates a distinct boundary between the central and northern sections. The central section is my favorite part of the park. The Nature Center, just off Military Road, provides a good place to park, pick up maps, identify animals and plants you may see, and use restrooms. It’s normally closed on Monday and Tuesday and has been closed altogether during the pandemic shutdown.
Rock Creek from the Rapids Bridge.
Access to the central section of the park from the surrounding neighborhoods is more limited here than in the northern section. Perhaps for this reason, there seem to be fewer people on the trails here. Also, Rock Creek earns its name here, cascading over boulders and filling the air with a rushing sound.
The northern section starts at Military Road and ends at the District-Maryland boundary. Rock Creek Regional Park starts on the Maryland side of the boundary. Its paved Rock Creek Hiker-Biker Trail extends another 14 miles north to Lake Needwood, northeast of Rockville.
There are plenty of access points to the park from neighborhoods on both sides, so the trails in this section seem to attract greater numbers of joggers and dog walkers (most with unleashed dogs) than the central section. I come here mainly when I feel like taking a longer than normal walk. You can do a loop walk here almost 6 miles long.
THE THREE MAIN TRAILS
The three main trails.
The trail system in the central and northern sections of Rock Creek Park is basically quite simple. Extending through both of these sections are three main trails, all running north-south:
- The Valley Trail
- The Western Ridge Trail
- The Black Horse Trail
They all begin just north of the National Zoo near the Peirce Mill area and converge at the District-Maryland boundary at the northern edge of the park. All other trails connect with one or more of these three main trails.
Note that on the map, trails are designated in the following way:
- Foot trail: · · · · · · · · ·
- Horse and foot trail: – – – – –
- Bike and foot trail: ______
The Valley Trail
Appears here as dashed LIGHT PURPLE, but ORANGE on the brochure map. This trail runs north-south along the east side of the park. It parallels Rock Creek and stays fairly close to it for most of its length. The only place it crosses the creek is at Boundary Bridge, at the far northern end of the park at the trail terminus. It is marked by painted blue blazes.
The Western Ridge Trail
Appears on all maps as GREEN. This trail runs north-south along the western side of the park. It mostly traverses the valley highlands and then continues alongside Rock Creek at its southernmost end. It is marked by painted green blazes.
The Black Horse Trail
On the PDF map, the trail is unlabeled and shown only as a dashed line, so I’ve highlighted it here in DARK PURPLE. It appears as dashed LIGHT PURPLE on the brochure map. This horse trail route overlaps the Valley Trail for much of its way in the northern section of the park, then stays on the opposite (west) side of the creek for the rest of its distance. It never strays far from Rock Creek. Horse riders and walkers alike use this and other park horse trails. The trail is unmarked. You only know you are on it by signs indicating where horses are allowed. And by the occasional piles of horse poop.
Secondary trails in the park run roughly east and west and intersect with these three main trails. Most connect the Western Ridge Trail and Black Horse Trail like the steps between the two upright bars of a ladder.
And then, there’s the White Horse Trail (which appears as TAN on the brochure map). I don’t list this as a major trail because it mostly overlaps the Western Ridge Trail, dipping down into the valley and back to pass beneath Military Road. It goes by the Horse Center and Equestrian Field in the central part of the park. It is unmarked.
WHERE TO PARK
There are plenty of places to park in Rock Creek Park. I frequent the ones below because they have lots of spaces and are good starting points for hiking the trails.
The Nature Center
Just south of Military Road, the Nature Center is where I usually park when I visit the central part of the park. It provides easy access to the Western Ridge Trail and other trails in that area. Check before you go to see if the Nature Center itself if open. You can pick up maps, use the restroom, and fill up water bottles here. An alternative nearby parking lot is Picnic Area 13, right off Military Road. It also has ample parking and is right on the Western Ridge Trail.
Peirce Mill is where I park if I want to start hiking from the southern end of any of the main trails. There is a small parking lot off Tilden Street right across from the mill and a larger parking lot right along Beach Drive just north of Tilden. There is also a small lot just north of Peirce Mill off Broad Branch Road. Note that Beach Drive is closed to motorized traffic north of Broad Branch Road on weekends and holidays. Since April 2020, it has been closed on weekdays as well, but that could change.
Picnic Area 6
Just north of Military Road and accessible from the exit off Military, this picnic area has a large lot with plenty of parking. I park there when I want to hike the northern section. Even with roads closed to through-traffic, you can still drive up Beach Drive here to access other parking lots. The road is blocked off just past Picnic Area 9.
I don’t recommend the small parking lot near picnic area 22, just south of Military Road. Although conveniently located right near the creek and trails, it can only accommodate about six legally parked cars. A couple more vehicles often crowd in, making it very difficult to get in or out and increasing the chances of your car getting scraped or dented.
THREE HIGHLIGHTED LOOP HIKES
A good way to start exploring the trails in Rock Creek Park is to follow the three loop routes the Park Service has created. All begin at the Nature Center. Each route is marked by colored duct tape wrapped around brown posts.
Again, the two main foot trails through the park are marked by painted blazes—green for the Western Ridge Trail and blue for the Valley Trail. The horse trails are not marked by painted blazes.
You can download the Highlighted Hikes in Rock Creek Park brochure or pick up a copy of the two-sided sheet at the Nature Center. I copied the maps below from that brochure.
Boulder Bridge Hike
3.5 Miles, Pink Blazes
The Boulder Bridge Hike.
This hike takes you down the hillside and along Rock Creek via wide and easy 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, and this rushing section of Rock Creek is, I think, the prettiest in the park. The sense of isolation in the woods along the Western Ridge Trail can make you feel like you’re far from civilization.
Rapids Bridge Hike
2 Miles, Orange Blazes
The Rapids Bridge Hike and Milkhouse Ford Hike.
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 it veers uphill and back toward the Nature Center area. It offers a couple of surprises: a graceful arched bridge in the woods that you pass beneath, and a trove of carved stones removed from the U.S. Capitol Building during an 1958–61 expansion and renovation.
Milkhouse Ford Hike
1.75 Miles, Yellow Blazes
This loop takes you into the northern section of the park (see map above). From the Nature Center, you have to cross busy Military Road at a traffic light. The route takes you past the earthwork remains of Fort DeRussy and then down to Milkhouse Ford, where the main road through the park once crossed through Rock 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.
For more information and images on these three loop hikes, see my previous blog post, Rock Creek Park: Loop Hikes and the Western Ridge Trail.
HIKING IN THE CENTRAL SECTION
The parking lot at the Nature Center is a good starting point. Once you find the green painted blazes for the Western Ridge or the pink or orange tape blazes for the loop routes, the trails are fairly easy to follow. But finding where they start can be a challenge at first. The Highlighted Hikes brochure has detailed directions, and Google Maps may come in handy as well.
The Loop Hike Routes
Trails in the central section of the park.
To follow the Boulder Bridge Hike (pink blazes) or Rapids Bridge Hike (orange blazes), walk to the south end of the Nature Center parking lot and follow the road around to your left to the Horse Center. You’ll pass by a large building and end up at a coral. The trail head is to the left of the coral.
Walking down this wide and easy horse trail will lead you to Rock Creek, and the lovely trail alongside it, part of the unmarked Black Horse Trail. Both hiking routes continue alongside the creek until they diverge at the Rapids Bridge.
The Boulder Bridge route crosses the creek and picks up the Valley Trail, then recrosses farther south at Boulder Bridge and heads back uphill to connect with the Western Ridge Trail for the return. The Valley Trail is not a horse trail, so it’s narrower and goes uphill and downhill a bit, but it is not a difficult trail. You can choose to avoid this section by not crossing Rapids Bridge and staying on the horse trail. You will intersect with the Boulder Bridge route as it cuts back uphill from the bridge. Just watch for the pink blazes.
The Rapids Bridge route heads back uphill sooner, just past the Rapids Bridge, and ends up behind one of the horse barns at the Horse Center. The trails and roads in this area are confusing, but the Nature Center is actually close by, just north of the horse barns area.
The Western Ridge Trail
To hike the Western Ridge Trail from the Nature Center, head downhill from the Nature Center parking lot and cross Glover Road and Ridge Road to Picnic Area 13. Google Maps actually doesn’t show this connection very well. You just have to watch for a path, blaze, or trail sign close to the Nature Center. There is more than one way to go. Once you reach the picnic area, look for the green blazes and head into the woods.
The (unmarked) White Horse Trail and Western Ridge Trail mostly overlap, but here and there the Western Ridge Trail loops away from the horse trail for a short distance, taking you into the woods and farther away from Ridge Road.
The main point of confusion on this trail is where you reach the fenced Equestrian Field. Right beside the fenced area, the Western Ridge Trail cuts off to the right. However, there are no trail signs or blazes to indicate this until after you’ve made the turn! There, the two trails split again, the Western Ridge Trail to the left and the horse trail to the right. They both end up at Broad Branch Road.
Beach Drive and Rock Creek from the southern end of the Black Horse Trail.
If you miss that turn, you’ll just end up taking a shortcut down to the Black Horse Trail, the trail that follows Rock Creek. But if you hadn’t expected to end up there, it can be confusing and a little annoying.
Several unmarked trails connect the Western Ridge Trail and the (also unmarked) Black Horse Trail. Some are part of the marked loop routes, others are not. Once you get a sense of the trail system, you can make any number of loops for a hike as short or long as you want. You can also cross Rock Creek and pick up the Valley Trail to create even longer loop hikes.
The Peirce Mill Area
The Peirce Mill area is where both the Western Ridge Trail and Valley Trail begin (or end). But again, finding those points can be a little challenging at first.
The southernmost section of the Western Ridge Trail begins just beyond the small parking lot across Tilden Street from Peirce Mill. Here the Melvin C. Hazen Trail heads west up a side valley, and the Western Ridge Trail continues south—and splits in two. One route is labeled strenuous and the other moderate. They both end up at Bluff Bridge, about a third of a mile away. When I hiked here, I took the strenuous route. It was the only section of trail in the park where I’ve had to carefully climb over boulders in a few places. I wouldn’t call any of the trails in the park difficult, but this one comes closest. I’d probably take the moderate route in the future.
The Valley Trail
If you cross Bluff Bridge and head back north on the paved foot and bike trail, in a short distance you will see a sign for the Valley Trail. Follow the sign. You will cross Beach Drive and then Park Road before the trail heads into the woods. You can also reach the trailhead by following that same paved trail from Peirce Mill, rather than hiking down to Bluff Bridge and then back up.
Boulder Bridge from the Valley Trail.
The Valley Trail is narrower than the horse trails on the other side of the creek. It meanders uphill and downhill, in some places taking you right alongside the creek and in others along the hillside above it. From the Valley Trail you can access Boulder Bridge and the Rapids Bridge to cross the creek. Several side paths lead down to Beach Drive and the paths alongside it. Other unmarked trails split off and lead to the neighborhoods on the east side of the park. If you’re not sure which way to go, watch for and follow the blue painted blazes.
For more information and pictures from my first hike up the Valley Trail, see my previous blog post, Rediscovering Rock Creek Park.
HIKING IN THE NORTHERN SECTION
Trails in the northern section of the park.
The northern section of the park offers a somewhat different hiking experience than the central section. On the whole, the trails don’t feel as remote. You are often in sight of the road or large picnic grounds, within hearing range of neighborhood noise, or being passed by joggers and dog walkers. Rock Creek feels tamer here than the rockier run of rapids in the central section.
Still, it has its charms. The trails are quite nice and, as in the central section, you can make loops short or long. A hiking loop starting at Picnic Area 6 to Boundary Bridge and back can measure 5.5 miles or more.
The Valley Trail
You can access the Valley Trail just beyond the Military Road overpass. A trail sign beside Beach Drive shows where the trail heads off into the woods. They are many other access points as well.
The Valley Trail beside Rock Creek.
For about half of its length, the Valley Trail overlaps with the Black Horse Trail, so it’s wide and easy to walk. The foot trail–only sections range from narrow and overgrown (near Military Road) to fairly wide. They are not difficult to traverse. The trail stays on the east side of the creek. Where the horse trail veers away, it crosses the creek and follows it along the west side.
Several side trails connect with the neighborhoods along 16th Street, N.W., and smaller unmarked trails diverge in other directions. If you’re unsure of which way to go, watch for the blue blazes. You will pass signs for the Pine Creek Trail, which loops off to the right (east) just north of Sherrill Drive and reconnects with the Valley Trail a little farther north. It appears as an unlabeled dotted line on the park map. I haven’t walked this trail yet, but it looks like a nice alternative.
After the Valley Trail passes beneath West Beach Drive at the northern end of the park, it splits away to the right. Another unmarked but equally wide trail follows the shore of Rock Creek. The two trails converge at Boulder Bridge. The route along the creek in this area is so smooth and flat that you may even run across people pushing strollers.
Boundary Bridge at the northern border of Rock Creek Park.
The Valley Trail crosses Boundary Bridge and ends at Beach Drive. There is a small parking lot here, accessible from Maryland. Directly across Beach Drive, the Western Ridge Trail leads into the woods. A trail sign here notes that Military Road is 3.1 miles away via the Valley Trail and 2.4 miles via the Western Ridge Trail.
The Western Ridge Trail
The Western Ridge Trail overlaps with the unmarked White Horse Trail for almost its entire length here, so it’s wide and easy to walk. Although similar in character to the central section of the park, it feels less remote. Parts of it pass close enough to the nearby neighborhoods that you can hear vehicles and other noise.
Several trails, some marked on the map and some not, lead down to Beach Drive and the Black Horse Trail, creating opportunities for any number of loop routes. The creek crossing where the horse trail crosses Pinehurst Branch takes a bit of stepping from stone to stone, but you can avoid it by walking down a side path to Beach Drive.
When you reach an area where there are victory gardens and a horse coral, just south of Bingham Drive, it’s easy to lose track of the trail. Walking south, it seems to veer off to the right to follow alongside Oregon Avenue. The map shows this as the horse trail diverging from the Western Ridge Trail. Meanwhile, the Western Ridge Trail seems to end at a paved path. In three attempts to navigate this area, I’ve missed seeing trail signs or green blazes every time.
The former road crossing at Milkhouse Ford.
Although this lack of directional aids is annoying, you can’t get lost. Just head past the gardens and horse area by whatever route you can, and you will run into the Western Ridge Trail again. I think the trick is to walk between the gardens and fenced enclosure. That seems to be the route shown on the map.
Beyond that area, the first main trail to cut off to the left is the Milkhouse Ford trail, which lead back down to near Picnic Area 6. To reach the parking lot, you’ll have to cross the road bridge over the creek. This is another slightly confusing spot if you’re trying to follow the Black Horse Trail, which appears on the map to cross Rock Creek at the ford. If you don’t want to walk through the steam, just walk up to the road and cross there.
My blog posts on Rock Creek Park continue to get a fair number of views, so I thought there might be a need for a more detailed guide to the park trails. That’s why I created this post. I plan to update it now and then and make corrections and additions. Feel free to comment and let me know if you find any errors or have any suggestions on how to improve this guide and make it more useful.
Meanwhile, thanks for reading, and have a good hike!
David Romanowski, 2020