1. Be an ID expert
Identify hundreds of plants, critters and fungi with a quick picture and the use of cool phone apps, such as iNaturalist and Seek—the park boasts about 500 native plant species alone—or wonder at its array of winged creatures and download the Merlin app to identify birds by your sight or their songs. More than 150 bird species, from warblers to woodpeckers, live in or migrate through the park yearly. Many apps enable you to upload information and contribute data as a citizen scientist. The areas around the dog run, the nature center, the maintenance yard and the ridge are considered top birding spots.
2. Plan a picnic
Host a pandemic-friendly outdoor get-together or spread your blanket in one of the park’s 29 woodsy picnic areas that offer open green spaces, tables and benches, and easily accessed trails. Those near restrooms or shelters may require reservations. Bring your own firewood or charcoal to use the grills or stone chimneys in some areas. (It’s illegal to collect fallen branches and cut down trees.) Also bring trash bags to “pack out” your garbage. Popular spots include #1, #6, #13 and #24. Reserve a spot for half a day by searching for the park at recreation.gov.
3. Swing your racket
Hit the courts at Rock Creek Tennis Center, which features 25 outdoor courts (15 hard, 10 clay) and five indoor courts. The site’s stadium also hosts the annual Citi Open, an Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) event. Local pros lead early-bird clinics, junior camps and adult lessons year-round. The shop offers rackets, restringing, tennis gear and a snack bar. rockcreektennis.com; citiopentennis.com
4. Tee up
Swing a driver or practice putting at the affordable Rock Creek Golf Park. Rental clubs and carts are available, and the putting green is free. The par 65 course also has a pro shop and a snack bar that offers sandwiches, sodas and beer. Only the front nine holes were open at press time. Lessons for juniors and adults, both group and private, are available. playdcgolf.com/rock-creek
5. Ride a horse
Saddle up and mosey through the woods on horseback—like many presidents did—on the 13 miles of dirt and gravel bridle paths, starting at the Rock Creek Park Horse Center. The center usually offers 20-minute beginner pony rides for ages 2½ to 7, one-hour guided trail rides for ages 12 and older, and lessons and camps. Group lessons for previous students resumed this fall, and center officials hope to accept new students and restart the pony and guided rides in 2022. Sign up online to be added to their interest list. rockcreekhorsecenter.com
6. Let the kids play
Little ones can shake off those indoor blues and climb, slide or skip through the park’s five playgrounds—most of which have swings, slides and bridges. Pack binoculars and magnifying glasses to help your kids connect more deeply with the park’s abundant flora and fauna. The National Park Service app listing for Rock Creek Park shows the playground locations, and you can download brochures for adventures—animal-themed exercises, bird-watching, wayside exhibits and nature checklists—that kids can do along the almost 1-mile TRACK trail (and many other locations), along with a map of that trail at kidsinparks.com/rock-creek-park.
7. Go on a snowy adventure
Slip and slide down a snowy hill as the D.C. winter weather gods allow. Check out the hill near Taft Bridge that slides parallel to Shoreham Drive. Another favorite spot is west of the creek and off Williamsburg Lane, just north of the National Zoo. Some stretches of the asphalt trails that are close to the roads lend themselves to cross-country skiing, as does Beach Drive when it’s closed. Or just enjoy the trails and woods in their snow-kissed beauty.
8. Buff up on history
Check out the historic features that dot the park. The Milkhouse Ford Loop trail, a 1.75-mile jaunt, winds past some significant sites, including Milkhouse Ford, where wagons and horses used to cross the creek (cars used it until the 1990s), the Joaquin Miller Cabin, and Fort DeRussy, a Civil War battle site with earthen mounds (where the guns sat) and a dry moat. You can follow the trail and learn more about each site and the Battle of Fort Stevens on the National Park Service app.
9. Go for a hike