November-December 2021

Green oasis

For nature lovers, Rock Creek Park offers a peaceful refuge

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When Jeanne Braha lived in Chevy Chase’s Rock Creek Forest neighborhood, she ran a 3-mile loop in adjacent Rock Creek Park nearly every day. One morning an owl chased her down the trail—perhaps, she says, mistaking her ponytail for a squirrel. “It was terrifying in the moment,” says Braha, who is executive director of the Rock Creek Conservancy. “But looking back now, it was one of the most amazing things that ever happened to me.”

Braha has since moved a little farther from the park, but she still spends as much time there as possible. During the past year, she held in-person, socially distanced walking meetings along the section of Beach Drive that is expected to remain closed to cars through December. Her frequent ventures into the park kept her sane during the coronavirus pandemic, she says.

Like Braha, other people stuck at home due to the pandemic flocked to the park to walk, hike and cycle—and to seek out the soothing balm of nature. While official National Park Service (NPS) numbers don’t reflect an increase in visitors to the park in 2020 and into 2021, park staff anecdotally report that visitation increased dramatically. They say some days it was difficult—even amid 1,754 acres—to socially distance. But on other days, visitors were able to keep a safe amount of space between them as they enjoyed a park whose many pleasures comfort, inspire and heal.

Read more: Things to do in Rock Creek Park

Know your park

Rock Creek Park is a unit of the National Park Service, and it’s located only in Washington, D.C. The park is frequently confused with Rock Creek Regional Park in Maryland, which is managed by Montgomery County, says Dana Dierkes, Rock Creek Park’s chief of interpretation, education and outreach. To add to the confusion, Rock Creek Park covers an area that’s almost twice the size as its main and best-known section, and the entirety of the park contains traffic circles and pocket parks throughout the District, as well as Montrose Park, Meridian Hill Park and Dumbarton Oaks Park. So how do visitors know whether they are in the national park or the regional park, which meet at the Maryland-D.C. border? “Look at park signs,” Dierkes says. “NPS signs have the famous NPS arrowhead.”

The act that established Rock Creek Park was authorized by Congress in 1890 and describes a tract of land on both sides of the creek that shall be “dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasure ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people of the United States.” Within the national park system, only Sequoia in California and Yellowstone are older, according to the NPS. Before the land became a national park, indigenous people had long lived in the area, and their original footpaths became trails and hauling roads used by European colonists who accessed the mills along the creek.

The land also was considered for the site of a new executive mansion before it became a park. Although the White House stayed in downtown D.C., many of its residents ventured into the park. President Theodore Roosevelt used to enjoy swims in the creek and long hikes through Rock Creek Valley, and famously lost a gold ring near Boulder Bridge along Beach Drive, a couple of miles north of Peirce Mill. In 1915, while courting Edith Bolling Galt (who would become his second wife), President Woodrow Wilson would have his driver take them to a spot on Ross Drive and wait while the couple walked in the woods.

Rock Creek originates near Lake Needwood in Derwood, Maryland, and empties into the Potomac River at Thompson Boat Center near the Watergate complex in the District. The creek has a main stem of 33 miles and more than 30 tributaries.

Increasingly, heavy rains draining into the creek have caused floods in the park. On July 8, 2019, for example, one of the heaviest downpours on record deluged the District with 3.3 inches of rain in an hour; at Sherrill Drive, the creek rose about 4 feet in an hour, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The Capital Weather Gang’s Jason Samenow says rising temperatures linked to climate change are leading to heavier precipitation and an increased threat of flooding. He says 2018 was the wettest year on record in D.C., and last year was the seventh wettest. The flooding and stormwater lead to erosion, which damages trails, roads and bridges in the park, officials say.

According to Anacostia Riverkeeper’s volunteer-led water quality monitoring report from 2020, the creek is more polluted than the Anacostia and Potomac rivers when it comes to bacteria, including E. coli and fecal coliform. Rock Creek Conservancy, the park’s nonprofit partner, is working with DC Water as part of the Clean Rivers Project to reduce the level of pollution caused by combined sewer overflow, which happens when the system is overwhelmed during a storm. They’re building green infrastructure such as permeable pavement and water-friendly landscaping that will allow the water to infiltrate the soil, evaporate or be absorbed by plants before entering the creek.

In the years before bridges spanned the creek, people drove their cars right through it, crossing a series of fords such as Milkhouse Ford and Klingle Ford. In 1908, Roosevelt was thrown from a horse that was skittish about crossing Broad Branch Ford. That same year, high water swept a car into the creek. A century ago, swimming was allowed in Rock Creek, but today it’s prohibited for people and pooches alike—as is bathing and wading. For the best views of the water, walk along Valley Trail or Beach Drive, and across Rapids Bridge and Boulder Bridge.

Boundary Bridge, which spans the creek between Maryland and D.C. Photo by Skip Brown

The wild side

The park’s trees, perhaps more than any other feature, make Rock Creek Park the exquisite haven to which urban dwellers have retreated for 131 years. The park is flush with sugar maples, mayapples and pawpaws (they were once planted by George Washington at Mount Vernon and produce the largest edible fruit native to North America). Visitors with knowledge of tree varieties might recognize chestnut oak and American beech trees on the hilltops, and a mixture of oaks on the flatter eastern side of the park. Tulip, sycamore, river birch, green ash and American elm trees, all of which are tolerant of flooding, are found closer to the creek.

The park is also home to about 200 species of mushrooms. The Mycological Association of Washington, D.C., offers fungi “forays” in the park, during which you might see the oyster mushroom and turkey tail, but keep your distance from the deadly mushroom called destroying angel. Check online to see when the strolls reopen to the public. Also keep an eye on the calendar of naturalist Melanie Choukas-Bradley, author of A Year in Rock Creek Park. She sometimes leads walks in the park.

Those who spend enough time in the park might be lucky enough to hear the yips that are most often encountered in the Western U.S. “We believe there are several families of coyotes in the park,” Dierkes says. The existence of coyotes was first confirmed in 2004, and Dierkes says she has heard them; a colleague saw a litter of pups in 2017.

Other resident animals include red and gray foxes, beavers, southern flying squirrels, short-tailed shrews, raccoons and six species of bats. The park is also home to salamanders, snakes, lizards and turtles, and more than 150 species of birds—some of which are en route to South America or Canada. Some pass through the park, such as the golden-winged and cerulean warblers; others, including the wood thrush—the District’s official bird—nest in the park.

White-tailed deer moved into the park in the 1980s as a result of suburban development fragmenting forests and creating “edge habitats” that provided plenty of food and shelter. By the early 1990s, sightings were so frequent that the park service stopped counting the animals. Predator-free except for vehicles, the population has been growing and damaging vegetation ever since.

The park service has to balance the needs of plants, wildlife and humans, so it created what it calls an “adaptive management approach” that involves shooting a certain number of deer each season to keep populations below 15 to 20 deer per square mile—higher numbers are too damaging to vegetation. Without this management, deer populations would quickly rebound and eat nearly all tree seedlings and other plants, the park service says. Since deer management began in 2012, the number of seedlings has tripled—so the park service deems the plan a success. Officials say the number of deer killed each year depends on the status of vegetation and weather conditions during the management period; 24 deer were killed last winter, and 34 during the winter of 2019-2020, according to Dierkes.

More than a century ago, a dam and decorative waterfall at Peirce Mill blocked the upstream route for fish who live in the ocean and make their way through the Chesapeake Bay, up the Potomac River and into Rock Creek to lay eggs in fresh water. Between 2003 and 2006, the park opened 21 miles of migratory fish spawning habitat in the creek and its tributaries with a ladder-like ramp structure over the 8-foot historic dam; fish can climb the ladder to continue upstream. Reports show that shad and blueback herring successfully climb to the place where their ancestors were born and lay their eggs.

Also living in the park is the District’s only endangered species: the Hay’s spring amphipod, which Mayor Muriel Bowser named the “state” amphipod in 2016. The centimeter-long, shrimplike crustacean, which has only been documented in D.C., was discovered in 1940 and has been on the endangered list since 1982. It lives underground in the springs of the creek and doesn’t have eyes or pigmentation, using its legs to feel around dark crevices.

The Valley Trail includes sections that are among the more challenging to hike in the park. Photo by Skip Brown

Trails to take

Braha struggles to pick a favorite trail in the park, but she particularly likes walking on Beach Drive, where she enjoys the bridges and little waterfalls along the way. “Just close your eyes and listen,” she says. The most challenging trails in the park, according to Dierkes, are the 3½-mile Boulder Bridge Hike and the southern half of Valley Trail (from Military Road to Boulder Bridge), a narrow path with lots of hills and tree roots. Less strenuous are the 6½-mile Northern Circuit Hike and the Southern Circuit Hike (5.2 miles). If you have kids in your crew, try starting at the Rock Creek Park Nature Center, near the intersection of Military and Glover roads, and exploring the Edge of the Woods Trail, a paved trail that’s a quarter-mile long, or the Woodland Trail, a half-mile trail that starts just beyond the center.

For one of the park’s best elevated views, check out Pulpit Rock at the intersection of the Theodore Roosevelt and Valley trails—it’s even more stunning once the trees are bare. Visitors will find the park’s highest spots, nearly 340 feet above sea level, at the horse center, slightly south of the nature center; Fort DeRussy, just north of Military Road; and the U.S. Park Police horse stables off Oregon Avenue. Keep an eye out for the forthcoming trailhead signs, which will make navigation easier than ever, and consider downloading the new National Park Service app, which includes interactive trail maps and other helpful information. Also, work is underway to reconstruct almost 4 miles of paved trails and add a pedestrian bridge near the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, which will improve connectivity between the park and the zoo, and provide more space for cyclists, walkers and runners.

Alex Sanders, a district manager of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC), says in addition to official trails, the park also has so-called social trails. Social trails often are created by people as convenient shortcuts or paths of opportunity (say, between a neighborhood and a park) rather than as a planned trail. These trails damage vegetation, fragment the forest and significantly reduce habitat for all sorts of plants and animals, including ground-nesting birds, Sanders says. The main section of the park has 20 miles of designated trails, including the two primary trails, the Western Ridge Trail and the Valley Trail, and many connector trails. But Dierkes says there are as many as 30 miles of social trails.

“In some parts of the park, social trails are a very big problem, and it’s almost impossible to tell the official trail from the unofficial trail,” says Sanders, whose favorite official trail is the Melvin Hazen Trail between Rock Creek and Connecticut Avenue. “This is an urban park, so it’s challenging.” Although Sanders has seen evidence of people using a chain saw to illegally maintain social trails, he acknowledges that most people have no idea when they’re not on a designated trail.

Eliminating social trails can be complicated, involving public education, outreach and signage, according to Sanders. PATC, a 94-year-old nonprofit organization that built and maintains part of the Appalachian Trail, is made up almost entirely of volunteers. The organization maintains the hiking trails in Rock Creek Park, including the clipping of vegetation and controlling of erosion from stormwater runoff—work the park service isn’t funded to do, according to Sanders. “Portions of the park are literally washing away, and that includes trails that will be difficult to reroute,” Sanders says. He says PATC welcomes volunteers for its trail maintenance projects that are held on Saturdays; upcoming dates are Oct. 30 and Nov. 13.

A 4½-mile stretch of Beach Drive has been closed to vehicles since April 2020. Photo by Skip Brown

The green scene

The park’s lush green appearance in certain areas comes from unwelcome invaders—non-native invasive plants threatening the upper canopy. They’re competing for water, nutrients and light, strangling native plants and sometimes ousting the natives altogether. They reduce natural biodiversity, draw pollinators away from native plants and replace food sources for wildlife. Once they move in, these pesky, aggressive invasives are difficult and costly to evict, park botanist Ana Chuquin says.

“The non-native invasive species come in different ways to the park,” Chuquin says. “We have so many roads and neighborhoods nearby, and the seeds hitchhike on boots and clothing or get carried by birds or water.” Sometimes neighbors unknowingly plant these non-natives, like the ubiquitous English ivy, often used as ground cover but known to creep rapidly into the park. Other times, residents or landscaping companies illegally dump backyard clippings in the park. “They might think, ‘What’s the big deal? Everything’s green,’ ” Chuquin says. Other park invaders include porcelain berry, bush honeysuckle, Asiatic bittersweet and purple loosestrife. She suggests that nearby residents talk to plant societies and local nurseries about planting species in their yards that are native to the region.

Rock Creek Conservancy, whose volunteer corps is instrumental in removing invasive species and trash from the park, asks locals to take a pledge to remove invasives from their properties. The group also has worked to create five “mini-oases” within the park, microcosms of what the land could look like without the invaders. According to Braha, these restored oasis sites have about 5% non-native invasive plant coverage, compared with more than 20% in the rest of the park. Thousands of volunteers have worked on these oases—such as those at Normanstone Run (at the intersection of Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway and the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge) and in the western section of Melvin Hazen Park (near Cleveland Park Metro)—to show what could be done on a larger scale by removing invasive plants, introducing native replacements and working with neighbors to develop environmental stewardship. On Sept. 25, which was National Public Lands Day, Rock Creek Conservancy held a “Weed Wrangle,” an event that’s part of a national movement to remove non-native invasive species.

Invasive plants aren’t the only unwelcome visitors. Some people release their unwanted fish, turtles and bunnies in the park, which then compete with native animals for resources, Dierkes says.

On stage

Entertainment at the park isn’t limited to communing with nature. Long enjoyed by area residents, the Carter Barron Amphitheater has offered a variety of entertainment over the years, including free live performances of Shakespeare plays from 1991 to 2009. According to Rock Creek Park A to Z by David and Lorraine Swerdloff, the amphitheater spotlight was on musical icons Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong in the 1950s, and Bruce Springsteen rocked out there in 1975. The book also recounts how the theater hosted a production of the Ice Capades in August 1955, which, in addition to an ice rink, featured free sledding on 25 tons of machine-made snow.

After the amphitheater closed in 2017 for stage repairs, the park expanded that repair project to all backstage infrastructure, front-of-house spaces and other public areas. Officials say they aren’t sure when the work will be completed. Though the amphitheater remains closed, its parking lot is still used for Washington Area Bicyclist Association’s (WABA) popular learn-to-ride classes.

Car-free fun

In April 2020, the District closed Beach Drive to vehicles from Broad Branch Road to the Maryland state line. The 4½-mile stretch quickly filled with runners, skaters, strollers and cyclists. This stretch, which follows the creek, had previously been closed only on weekends and holidays for about 40 years, and there’s now a strong push—led by WABA—to permanently ban vehicle traffic. The park service, however, says it plans to reopen the road to vehicles once the pandemic subsides to accommodate the thousands of drivers who commute daily through the park. The nature center, which is home to the only planetarium in the national park system, is also expected to reopen, along with other indoor areas such as Peirce Mill.

Braha says she’s looking forward to these reopenings, although her favorite spots in the park are outside—the trails, bridges and creek views. “It’s my happy place to go,” she says. “You can leave Connecticut Avenue or 16th Street and within five or 10 minutes feel like you’re somewhere else. Getting away is so important—especially these days.”

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.-based writer.