For her book A Year in Rock Creek Park, Washington writer Melanie Choukas-Bradley spent hundreds of hours walking (and skiing) every nook and cranny of the park. Our challenge for her: Cram its highlights into a single hike on a single day. Here’s the path we followed—all seven miles—in pocket-guide format so you can take it, too.
8 AM: Breakfast
Clearly this is no day to go hungry, so your first stop is a Silver Spring institution: Parkway Deli. Because latkes, eggs, and lox—in heaping portions.
9 AM: Take in the Scenery
From Grubb Road, take this Boundary Trail down to the Valley Trail, our pick over the park’s west side because it follows Rock Creek and has way better scenery. Here are a few things you should be on the lookout for:
- Hear a high-pitched whistle? You may not see the wood thrush, the bird of DC, but its singsong call may be your soundtrack for the whole day.
- Look for a vernal pool—it’s the amphibians’ happy place. Toads and salamanders mate here, and if it’s spring, you’ll hear the sleigh-bell tune of the spring peeper frog. See any green or white golf-ball-like specimens near the water’s edge? They’re salamander eggs.
- Behold the scarlet oak. The District’s official tree—which grows throughout the park—can extend up to 80 feet. In the fall, it displays its can’t-miss/don’t-miss red leaves.
- See those who came before by way of their carvings on the park’s American beech trees—an illicit but decades-old tradition.
11 AM: Take a Break, Creekside
Just past the Pine Trail crossing, veer off to the right onto a short, unmarked side trail to get to “Laurel Ledge,” so named by Choukas-Bradley. You’ll have a sit-and-stay-awhile view of the creek (perfect for a picnic!), especially if you’re daring enough to climb down the ledge.
12 PM: Time For a History Lesson
- The Rolling Meadow Footbridge is one of eight built as part of public-works projects during the Depression.
- Until 1996, passenger cars (and before that, crop-filled wagons) were allowed to drive across the shallow parts of the creek here at Milkhouse Ford.
- Who cares if you finished your hash browns three hours ago? The grassy expanse around Miller Cabin is perfect for refueling. Bonus: great people-watching on the weekend.
- Now head west onto the footpath for about a half mile to see the remnants of Fort DeRussy, one of many Civil War forts that helped protect DC from Confederate capture. During one 1864 battle, Union soldiers fired the fort’s 100-pound cannon 28 times to fend off the enemy.
1 PM: Instagrammer’s Paradise
It’s technically not in the park, but in summer the meadow across from St. John’s High School = nature porn, packed with milkweed and butterflies.
2 PM History Lesson No. 2
- In 1902, President Teddy Roosevelt, who hiked the park regularly, lost a ring. A search failed to turn it up. Roosevelt put an ad in the paper saying, “Golden ring lost near Boulder Bridge. . . . If found, return to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Ask for Teddy.” The ring has yet to be found.
3 PM: Rock Climbing
Trust us, all the rock-scrambling is worth it when you get to Pulpit Rock. Sit. Savor. And psych yourself for more scrambling on the Teddy Roosevelt Trail, which you need to pick up here in order to cross Beach Drive and get onto the Western Ridge Trail.
4 PM: Check Out a 19th-Century Gristmill
Check out Peirce Mill, a 19th-century gristmill powered by the creek. Back outside, look upstream for the fish ladder, which helps herring and shad get up over the dam to mate.
5 PM: You Did It! Celebrate Your 7-Mile Hike With a Beer.
After seven miles, we called it a day here at Bluff Bridge. But you could go on, via the bike and foot trails that lead around the zoo and all the way to the Potomac. Better idea: Quit at Peirce Mill and Uber to St. Arnold’s Mussel Bar patio in Cleveland Park for liters of beer in boot glasses. You earned it.
4 Hacks That Will Make Your Day in Rock Creek Park
1. Parking. The Red Line drops you off in Silver Spring; it’s a short walk from there to Parkway Deli. Otherwise, park in the Boundary Bridge parking lot and walk north from there—but note that on weekends, the lot is accessible only coming from the north.
2. Charge your battery. Make sure your phone has 100 percent charge. Trails in the park aren’t well marked, so you’ll want Google Maps to help you along at times.
3. Use this map. If you insist on a paper map, order Map N from the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club.
4. This may sound obvious, but BYO water. Our route doesn’t have many spouts—you’ll find them only at Miller Cabin, the Nature Center, and Peirce Mill.
This article appears in our August 2016 issue of Washingtonian.