Why Is Rock Creek Park Such a Bad Place for a Bike Ride?

The bike path that runs through the park is narrow, cracked, and crumbling, and the National Park Service hasn’t updated the public about it in more than two years.
Why Is Rock Creek Park Such a Bad Place for a Bike Ride?
The bike route in Rock Creek Park includes a two-foot-wide sidewalk in a tunnel full of car traffic. Photograph by Flickr user Jay Mallin.

Rock Creek Park, full of trees, streams, trails, and wildlife, is one of the District’s leading attractions for tourists, nature lovers, and people looking to get some exercise. It’s also a terrible place to ride a bike, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association says, with no sign that the path that runs between Beach Drive and Georgetown will be repaired any time soon.

The National Park Service hasn’t updated the public on the 3.7-mile trail since December 2011, when it presented a preliminary environmental assessment. Since then, the path has fallen into even greater disrepair, with asphalt crumbling away, gnarly tree roots bursting up from the ground, and frequent floods. The trail is also just eight feet wide and features many sharp, right-angle turns. In one spot, chunks of gravel have crumbled into the creek, with NPS responding by placing a few metal barricades to prevent cyclists from pedaling into the water.

“It is in terrible shape in its best parts,” says Greg Billing, WABA’s advocacy coordinator and the author of a petition that has collected more than 2,000 signatures from cyclists who would like to see the trail restored to an enjoyable ride. Billing says that many people who do want to ride in Rock Creek Park wind up pedaling down its parkway, a high-speed road not graded for cyclists.

Although the trail belongs to NPS, any reconstruction job would be carried out by the District Department of Transportation using federal grant money, and the two agencies have not been able to agree on a plan for years, Billing tells Washingtonian. The 2011 environmental study includes a $7.5 million proposal to rebuild the trail, including making it ten feet wide along most of the route and adding a bridge over Rock Creek just south of the National Zoo to divert bikes and pedestrians away from a vehicular tunnel.

The National Park Service says DDOT will include funds for the trail in its 2015 budget, but the usual pace of road projects, especially those that involve require coordination between District and federal agencies, has Billing expecting it will be much longer than that until Rock Creek Park becomes a nice place to ride a bike again. Meanwhile, the public remains uniformed about when, if ever, the project will move forward.

“They have not released an environmental assessment, which means they can’t move on to a design,” Billing says.

Until the trail gets fixed, Billing says he would not recommend Rock Creek Park to anyone looking for a pleasant bike ride. “It’s just a rough ride,” he says.

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Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.