Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Car-free DC: Rock Creek Park

This is the second article in a series on hikes in DC that can be reached by public transportation.

Rock Creek Park is a treasure. Especially on the weekend, when Beach drive is closed, it is fairly easy to reach places in the woods where you'd have no idea you were in the city. But most DC residents have barely scratched its surface. And so, we bring you ten points of entry to this 1,754 acre park in the heart of the city. We suggest a couple of our favorite circuit hikes below; you can follow along -- or come up with your own routes -- using this park map.

North to south (downstream):

  1. Boundary Bridge – Riley Spring Bridge loop: The hike that includes these two bridges, using the Valley Trail in one direction and the Western Ridge Trail in the other direction, is one of our favorites. You have two options for accessing this loop by public transit. To come in from the Valley Trail side, take one of the S buses that runs along 16th St. and get off at Juniper St. or Holly St. Alternatively, you can enter from the north: it's about three quarters of a mile from a bus stop on East-West Highway to Boundary Bridge. Take the J2 or J3 buses, which run from Silver Spring Metro to Bethesda Metro and stop at Jones Mill Road/Beach Drive, or Ride On Bus # 1, which runs between Silver Spring and Friendship Heights.
  2. Pinehurst Branch: The Pinehurst Branch is another favorite trail of ours; it follows a tributary of Rock Creek. The S bus Whittier St. stop on 16th St. is the closest we know of. There are several good trails going both south and north from here, leading to possibilities for one-way hikes between Whittier St. and points further north on 16th St., or the Nature Center.
  3. Nature Center: it's not huge, but they've got maps and other info and displays to help orient you to the park. Rangers also lead activities from here, and you can access several trails. The E2/3/4 buses stop at the intersection of Military Rd. and 27th St., on their run between Friendship Heights and Fort Totten.
  4. Soapstone Valley: This area was named "Best Place in Rock Creek Park You’ve Never Been To" in the City Paper's Best of DC 2008. Native Americans quarried several rock deposits in the area for tool supplies. You'll follow a small stream down to where it meets Rock Creek. From Van Ness Metro, you can find trailheads on either Yuma or Albemarle St.
  5. Carter Barron: another stop on the 16th St. S bus. We usually walk down Morrow Dr. to the park police station, where you can pick up the Valley Trail. Be forwarned, though, that there's no walking path on Morrow Dr. – you'll be on the shoulder.
  6. Peirce Mill: This was an 1820s gristmill whose waterwheel ran off Rock Creek. Nearby, the Art Barn is a carriage house that now serves as an art gallery. You can get there via Soapstone Valley, or come in through the Melvin C. Hazen Park, which is between the Van Ness and Cleveland Park Metro stops (enter between Rodman and Sedgwick on the east side of Connecticut Ave.)
  7. Piney Branch Parkway: Matt always wows groups with this route into the park. People can't believe how quickly you can reach tranquility from the bustle of the city. From Columbia Heights Metro, take Irving St. west, then take Mt. Pleasant St. north, jog left on Park Dr., then right again to continue north on Mt. Pleasant. The road dead-ends at a trailhead that will put you onto the trail that follows the Piney Branch Parkway.
  8. The Zoo: As you can see on the map, the National Zoo is not part of Rock Creek Park, but it's nestled right in there. From Woodley Park metro, one option is to go through the zoo and pick up the trail that follows the creek on the backside, near the kids' farm area. Alternatively you can go down the big hill along 24th St. as it heads down into the park. The stretch of park south of here has an exercise circuit with various stations. Note how narrow the park is getting down here – the trails continue along the creek, but you're right next to the Parkway – and unlike Beach Drive, it doesn't close down on weekends.
  9. P Street: Another access point to the stretch of the park south of Woodley Park, an easy walk from the Dupont Circle metro. Make sure you go down on the side of the Parkway that you want to be on, because there's too much traffic to cross easily (or safely). It's still pretty despite the cars, though.
  10. Thompson Boat Center: perched at the confluence of Rock Creek and the Potomac, the last stop in Rock Creek Park gives you a chance to explore in another way. The boat center offers boat rentals and lessons. It's about a half mile from Foggy Bottom Metro: go west on I St., left on New Hampshire, then right on Virginia, where you'll walk past the Watergate and then across the Parkway into the boat center. If the Red Line is more convenient, you can also get off at Farragut North and catch the 80 bus toward the Kennedy Center, getting off at New Hampshire and Virginia.

Other info:

Dogs: Dogs are welcome, but are supposed to be on-leash. And, of course, scoop your poop!

Bikes: Allowed on the trails marked as solid grey lines on the park map. In addition, large sections of Beach Drive are closed to cars on weekends (marked in yellow on the park map). Bikes can be stashed on the front of any Metrobus; you can take your bike on Metro anytime on the weekend, and anytime except 7-10am and 4-7pm during the week.

Do you have other tips on accessing Rock Creek? Have you visited recently? Leave a comment and let us know.