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Closure Notice: The District Department of Transportation and the National Park Service are working on a construction project that began in March 2021 and will affect much of the southern segment of the trail (between M Street and Broad Branch Road NW) until the project’s estimated completion in spring 2023. During this time, sections of the trail may be subject to closures and/or detours; please check the official project site for the latest information.
Located in the northwestern neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., Rock Creek Park serves as a lush natural oasis spanning more than 1,700 acres in the bustling heart of the nation’s capital. Established in 1890, it has the distinction of being the oldest and largest urban park in the national-park system. The park offers a variety of trails, consisting of a mix of dirt-surfaced paths for hikers, runners, and equestrians, as well as paved paths for bicyclists, wheelchair users, inline skaters, and walkers. We’ll focus this excursion on two paved, multiuse trail sections within the park.
For a quick sampler of the park experience (3.2 miles of traveling), begin at the Rock Creek Park Nature Center and Planetarium—the only planetarium in the national-park system. Open Wednesday–Sunday, 9 a.m.–5 p.m., the center offers educational exhibits and a bird observation deck and has access to plentiful parking, restrooms, and drinking water. (Equestrians, take note: The nature center is just north of the park’s Horse Center, which offers trail rides and riding lessons.) Pick up the paved trail just west of the nature center, and head north.
In a mere 0.1 mile, you’ll cross Military Road Northwest; although it’s a major thoroughfare, there are walking signals and a well-marked cross-walk. Continuing north, you’ll be paralleling Oregon Avenue Northwest through a residential area, pleasantly separated from the roadway by a row of trees. In 0.7 mile, you’ll reach Bingham Drive Northwest. From here, you can either continue north another 0.7 mile—almost to the Maryland border—under shady tree canopy to trail’s end at the intersection of Oregon Avenue and Chestnut Street/Wise Road, crossing pretty Pinehurst Branch about halfway up, or turn right at Bingham Drive Northwest—staying on the pathway paralleling the north side of the road—to loop back to your starting point at the nature center.
If you choose the loop, you’ll parallel Bingham Drive Northwest heading east for 0.3 mile before reaching a T-junction with Beach Drive Northwest. Turn right, and parallel Beach Drive as you head south. You’ll soon pass a large parking lot at Picnic Grove 7. In another 0.3 mile, you’ll see Joaquin Miller Cabin, a 19th-century log cabin built by the noted American poet. Restrooms are available across Beach Drive from the cabin, and Picnic Grove 6 is 500 feet south. Shortly thereafter, you’ll reach the underpass for Military Road Northwest; stay on the paved path and follow signs for the nature center, which is less than a mile farther on. The route back will take you over Rock Creek on the Joyce Road bridge and under Military Road a second time. Note that the route from Military Road back to the nature center has a steep grade.
For another fun adventure in the park, begin at Peirce Mill, a still-operational gristmill from the 1820s, and head south 4.6 miles to the vibrant Georgetown neighborhood. From the Peirce Mill visitor center (open limited hours, primarily on weekends), the trail meanders south through the park’s woodlands and along Rock Creek, the park’s name-sake. In 1.3 miles, you’ll reach the entrance to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo; this free attraction is home to 1,500 animals and is definitely worth a side trip. South of the zoo, you’ll have an iconic view of two historical bridges arching overhead: the William Howard Taft Bridge (Connecticut Avenue) and the Charles C. Glover Memorial Bridge (Massachusetts Avenue). Use caution at the Shoreham Drive crosswalk between the two bridges as it’s unsignaled. Winding southward, you’ll have roadway on one side and lush parkland on the other.
Just after the Pennsylvania Avenue underpass, don’t miss the opportunity to connect to the epic Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath, which follows a northwest course 184.5 miles to Cumberland, Maryland. Look for the narrow brick pathway heading west along the C&O Canal. A scant 0.1 mile farther south, you’ll head under the Whitehurst Freeway; nearby, you can hop on the Capital Crescent Trail, which heads north to Bethesda and Silver Spring. All three trails are part of the developing 800-mile Capital Trails Coalition network, a Rails-to-Trails Conservancy TrailNation project that aims to connect the greater Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.
The trail ends less than a mile farther south, a short distance from the Lincoln Memorial and the National Mall. This final tip of the trail is part of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Great American Rail-Trail, which spans the United States between Washington, D.C., and Washington State.
Parking is available at the Rock Creek Park Nature Center and Planetarium (5200 Glover Road NW), by the park's Pierce Mill historical site (2401 Tilden St. NW), and at a few Picnic Groves along Beach Dr NW. Note that parking for the mill is available on the south side of Tilden St off Shoemaker St NW. There are additional other access points and parking areas along the route; refer to the map for more details. For additional options including arrival by bus or transit, visit the National Park Service website.
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