Quick access:
Go directly to content (Alt 1)Go directly to second-level navigation (Alt 3)Go directly to first-level navigation (Alt 2)

Washington DC
Rock Creek Park

Washington, DC, Rock Creek Park
© Roger Catlin

President Teddy Roosevelt may have been the most celebrated frequent visitor of Rock Creek Park, where he would take his family on picnics, bring Army buddies or ambassadors on challenging climbs over its rocky hills and lost his wedding ring over the Boulder Bridge.

Students from American University explored Rock Creek Park in Washington DC and asked residents what they love most about this unexpected oasis.

But the park itself was established by an act of Congress signed by Benjamin Harrison in 1890, more than a decade earlier than Roosevelt’s administration. Only the third national park established by the U.S. (after Yellowstone but before Yosemite), Rock Creek is the oldest natural urban park in the National Park System.

The 127-year-old act establishing the park declared its nearly 1,800 across be “perpetually dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasure ground for the benefit and enjoyment of people of the United States,” but also “”provide for the preservation from injury or spoliation of all timber, animals, or curiosities within said park, and their retention in their natural condition as nearly as possible.”

That means a large and wild woodlands that divides the District of Columbia, stretching from the Potomac River up to the National Zoo in the middle of the city, already established in 1899, and up to Maryland and beyond.

It also means someone can be immersed in the city bustle and urban tourism of the U.S. Capital one minute, and soon be beneath a canopy of old forest trees, amid ancient boulders with water rushing nearby, blotting out the sound of city life.

That continues today as well, though there have been plenty of improvements to provide a little of something for everyone. Twice the size of New York’s Central Park, Rock Creek Park has miles of trails, for biking, hiking, jogging and horse riding.

But it also has a full Nature Center that serves as a sort of visitor’s center, with a planetarium. There’s the 4,000-seat Carter Barron Amphitheater, lately closed for renovation, that has hosted everything from musicals to and Ella Fitzgerald to Johnny Mathis, B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, and Bruce Springsteen.

There are 30 picnic areas. There’s a tennis arena to watch big matches and dozens of hard and soft-surfaced courts to play.

There’s a big recreation field for soccer, football, volleyball, and field hockey and there’s even a golf course, installed in the Eisenhower era.

In addition to the miles of trails and paths maintained by the Potomac Appalachian trail Club, there is also a 1.5 mile exercise course and 13 miles of bridal trails for horse riders.

Bicyclists can ride from the Lincoln Memorial up through the city into Maryland, where it connects with that state’s Rock Creek Stream Valley and Rock Creek Regional Park in Montgomery County — an additional 4,000 acres, up to the headwaters of the creek in Laytonsville, 33 miles north of where it empties into the Potomac, with more than 30 streams having joined in along the way.

And though the National Zoo, run by the Smithsonian, is part of the park, drawing 2.7 million visitors last year, there is a lot of wildlife runs unfettered through the park as well. They counted 340 white-tailed deer 30 years ago and it’s only grown since then. The park is believed to have the largest density of raccoons in the U.S. and there are thought to be at least half dozen fox dens in the park as well as occasional coyotes.

There’s history, too, amid the trails, and treasures that can be as unexpected as the vast wildlife.

Ten thousand years before it was declared a park, it drew native peoples for hunting, gathering, and quarrying. An 1889 archeological dig by William Henry Holmes found evidence of the use of its Piney Branch watershed a source of quartzite for toolmaking 4,500 years earlier.

The arrival of Europeans in the early 17th century meant some settlement and industry along the creek, particularly in the form of mills. Nineteen water-powered mills operated along Rock Creek from 1820 to 1897, including one owned for a time by John Quincy Adams. One of the oldest mills, Pierce Mill, remains standing, and renovated, offering demonstrations of the old flour grinding process on the weekends.

The 1823 home of the mill owner’s son, Joshua Pierce, called the Klingle Mansion (after a nephew who briefly owned it later), now serves as park headquarters on a hilltop with a commanding view.

Ruins of forts that protected the city during the Civil War can be found in the other hills in wooded trails in the central portion of the park. Among them is Fort DeRussy, deep in the woods, with regrown trees hiding its views — one of 68 fortifications in the city during that era.

A frequent companion on many of Roosevelt’s Rock Creek rambles was the French Ambassador Jules Jusserand, who kept up with Roosevelt’s pace and even joined him skinny-dipping when crossing the creek at one point.

Also in the center of the park, in a valley near the Rock Creek Horse Center, are a pile of architectural ruins from a 1958 renovation of the U.S. Capitol, its carved sandstone cornices and slabs piled unobtrusively and unmarked: history, stacked for the adventurous who happen upon it.

Other discoveries include the park include cabin of a Western “poet of the Sierras” Joaquin Miller, which was relocated there from the city’s Meridian Hill Park, which is one of 99 scattered D.C. properties that are also administered by Rock Creek, including Meridan Hill Park, Battery Kemble Park, Palisades Park, Glover Archbold Park , Dumbarton Oaks Park, Whitehaven Park and the Old Stone House in Georgetown — the oldest structure in the city (which will be closed for renovations through 2018). Together it encompasses 2,000 acres.

The biggest change to the park came with the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway, first built as a leisurely scenic byway designed in part by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., that grew to a major north-south byway for commuters to Maryland when the winding road from the Memorial Bridge was connected with Beach Road — named not after some sandy waterside area, but after district engineer commissioner Col. Lansing H. Beach who engineered among other things the iconic Boulder Bridge, which Teddy Roosevelt might have inadvertently named when he lost his a ring near there (He supposedly put an ad in the local paper that said: “Golden ring lost near Boulder Bridge in Rock Creek Park. If found, return to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Ask for Teddy”).

He never found the ring, but never soured him on the park.

“We liked Rock Creek for these walks because we could do so much scrambling and climbing along the cliffs,” Roosevelt recalled in his memoirs.

A frequent companion on many of Roosevelt’s Rock Creek rambles was the French Ambassador Jules Jusserand, who kept up with Roosevelt’s pace and even joined him skinny-dipping when crossing the creek at one point.

“I, too, for the honor of France removed my apparel, everything except my lavender kid gloves,” Jusserand recalled. When the President looked askance at that, he implored, “With your permission, Mr. President, I will keep these on; otherwise it would be embarrassing if we should meet ladies.”

 Jusserand became the first foreign diplomat honored with a memorial on U.S. public lands, with a granite bench on Beach Drive near Pierce Mill, dedicated in 1936 by Roosevelt’s fifth cousin, who also became president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.