One of the best things about Washington is that it's easy to escape from. You can reach the mountains or the beach in a few hours -- given there's no backup on the Capital Beltway, of course. Or you can simply retreat to the middle of the city to the peace and quiet of Rock Creek Park.
The park is where Washingtonians have gone for more than 100 years. This forested oasis of 1,754 acres (an additional 4,193 acres of Rock Creek Park lie in Montgomery County) features hiking, biking, horseback riding, picnicking, golf and tennis, but perhaps what it offers offers best is the opportunity to enjoy a true wooded getaway right in the heart of Washington.
Growing up near Washington, I remember the perception of Rock Creek Park as a sort of forest primeval. You heard stories about deer leaving the boundaries of the park and ending up in the middle of a city street. The many winding roads seemed to go noplace special. A novice motorist's greatest fear was to get on one of the side streets and end up in some Godforsaken part of the city -- or even worse, trapped forever inside the park, like Charlie riding the subway in the Kingston Trio song "Ballad of the MTA."
For unlike most city parks, which are laid out with a sense of orderliness, Rock Creek Park is 85 percent woodland and filled with wildlife. Established by an act of Congress in 1890, the park is home to 22 types of snake, 40 kinds of mammal and 150 bird species, according to the National Park Service, which administers it. There are a number of trails for hiking, biking and riding -- the park service has its own stables -- and on any given day you can see Washingtonians retreating from the Corridors of Power for a few hours of exercise and solitude.
Granted, the latter can be hard to find in Rock Creek Park on busy days. On Saturdays and Sundays, for instance, much of Beach Drive -- the main road in the northern part of the park -- is closed to automobile traffic, so it can be filled with cyclists. The biking and hiking trails often are congested in the lower stretches of the park, near Georgetown and the National Zoo. Picnic areas can fill up in a hurry on peak days.
There's also the matter of Rock Creek Park's being a major north-south commuting artery between downtown Washington and suburban Maryland. Many of the winding roads in the park were built in the 1930s, when large suburban development was unfathomable. Today the traffic crush can be overwhelming, especially during rush hours, when all lanes on the Rock Creek Parkway and Beach Drive become one way (southbound in the morning, northbound in the evening).
But for the most part, Rock Creek Park is a thoroughly pleasant place to spend most or all of a day. If sightseeing becomes tiring, find a picnic site and spread out the lunch on a blanket. Or get a map from the Park Service and find an obscure-looking trail for an hour of hiking.
The best place to begin might be in the northern reaches of the park. First, get maps and other information at the Park Police Substation and Information Center, on Beach Drive south of the Military Road overpass (you can pick up Military Road off two major north-south roads, Connecticut Avenue and 16th Street). Then it's a short drive to the Rock Creek Nature Center and Planetarium.
The Nature Center offers films, guided nature walks and slide shows. You get a good sense of the park's variety of wildlife and plant life -- beavers, hawks, foxes and even a bald eagle are represented in startlingly realistic fashion through the wonders of taxidermy. There's also Max, the great horned owl -- a live one, rescued by rangers years ago after an auto accident had cost him a wing. Now Max stays on a high perch in the center, serenely looking down on the crowds of nature lovers who ooooh and ahhh at the lifelike stuffed animals in the glass cages.
Invariably, some visitors happen to glance up to his perch. The reaction can be something like this: "Honey, do you think that one's -- no, it couldn't be." Then: "He did move, didn't he?"
At the nearby Horse Center, the stables are a favorite destination for curious children. The park service maintains about 11 miles of riding trails in the northern part of the park, and lessons are
For hikers, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club maintains several trails, including a 1.5-mile exercise course near the Connecticut Avenue bridge. The 4.3-mile Western Ridge Trail is considered strenuous and the 5.2-mile Valley Trail moderate (the latter runs near a pleasant stream). There is an orienteering course north of the stables, near Oregon Avenue.
If you don't mind the hills and the congestion, biking can be glorious in Rock Creek Park. Not only can the cyclist reach much of the park by bike, but the 7.5-mile main biking trail ends near Memorial Bridge. You then can cycle into Georgetown and onto the C&O; Canal up to Great Falls Park, or head along the Potomac River along West Potomac Park and the Tidal Basin -- a favorite run of mine. The energetic can cross the river to Virginia and pick up the trail to Old Town Alexandria and Mount Vernon.
A favorite place to stop for bikers and hikers is Pierce Mill, located near the intersection of Beach Drive and Park Road. At one time, there were eight mills on Rock Creek; now only Pierce Mill remains. Built by Isaac Pierce in 1794, it was closed as an operating mill in 1897 and for decades was used as a public teahouse. Now restored by the park service, the mill offers a fascinating look at 18th and 19th century technology. Wheat-grinding demonstrations are held Wednesdays to Sundays, and guided tours of the mills are offered weekends.
Isaac Pierce's former carriage house on the original 150-acre site now houses artworks. The Art Barn contains monthlong exhibits by area artists, and art classes are held there. It's also open Wednesdays to Sundays.
Many a Washington-area tennis player learned the game at the park's complex at 16th and Kennedy streets. It was refurbished recently and now features 15 soft-surface and 10 hard-surface courts. And Thompson's Boat House, near Georgetown, is a good place to rent bikes, rowboats and canoes.
Rock Creek Park may not fill me with the same sense of foreboding as before, but I still approach it with curiosity, even wonderment. At heart, I suspect, the park touches the Luddite in us all -- its unspoiled and undeveloped nature runs blessedly counter to the stresses and chaos of urban life. In a city filled with pretensions, its attributes are authentic, its appeal is genuine.