Hiking in Washington, D.C.

There aren’t many major cities that can claim to have true hiking trails within a mile of downtown. Washington, D.C. is one of them.

Rock Creek Park is a sprawling 1,754-acre park overseen by the National Park Service that meanders the entire length of the U.S. capital. The park follows a creek by the same name that winds its way through the city before dumping into the Potomac River in Georgetown.

Rock Creek Park has always been one of the major draws for me to live in the city. Spending time on the trails transports me out of the cramped, bustling city and into a tranquil refuge. If it was a good enough refuge for President Theodore Roosevelt, an avid conservationist who used to take cabinet members and diplomats on grueling hikes through the park, then it’s good enough for me!

And it’s not some planned park, landscaped and bounded by gridded streets. With the exception of a few creekside roads and soaring bridges that allow traffic to pass through the park, as well as deforestation activity that took place during the American Civil War to stop Confederate soldiers from advancing on the city, the bulk of Rock Creek Park has been kept wild.

Hiking in Rock Creek Park

Two main hiking trails run north-south (the Western Ridge Trail and the Valley Trail), and are connected by many smaller trails that run east-west. The creek runs through a deep valley that can have steep walls in places, making a hike through Rock Creek a little more strenuous than “just another walk in the park.”

I recently spent a morning hiking with my friend, Nicole, whose apartment in the Cleveland Park neighborhood backs to the park. A trail is literally right outside of her door. Lucky.

I’ve hiked the trails around her apartment in the past, but on this day we checked out two local landmarks: The Pierce-Klingle Estate and Pierce Mill. Both are located near the Cleveland Park neighborhood in Northwest D.C.

You can hike the Western Ridge Trail between the two sites. They’re about a quarter-mile apart and it takes maybe ten minutes to get from one to the other. Not exactly a strenuous hike. If you’re looking to spend some real quality time in nature, definitely plan to extend your hike in either direction beyond the landmarks.

The Pierce-Klingle House

The Pierce-Klingle Mansion in Rock Creek Park

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The Pierce-Klingle House (popularly known as the Klingle Mansion) isn’t particularly notable for its history, though it did see some historic figures visit in its day. Among its visitors were John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster.

The house was built in 1823 by Joshua Pierce, a horticulturist who introduced box gardens to the Washington. He was the first person to put ornamental plantings at D.C. landmarks including the White House and the U.S. Capitol.

That’s about the extent of its historical interest, beyond being a cool restored 19th-century estate. The reason the Pierce-Klingle Estate is part of Rock Creek Park is because it was included in the original government land purchase that formed the reserve.

See? Turns out you don’t have to be some world-famous luminary to have your house maintained forever as a federal landmark. You just have to have good timing, and perhaps an interest in horticulture.

As for us, we enjoyed wandering the frost-dusted grounds on our way to the trail.

Hiking in Washington, D.C.

The Hike

The trail between the two landmarks is quite picturesque, winding its way through the woods along the elevated banks of the creek.

Hiking in Rock Creek Park

I enjoyed dropping down to the water level and exploring the small islands in the creek. It took me back to when I was a kid growing up in Kansas City, exploring the creek in my backyard, searching for crawfish and stacking up rocks to dam the water.

Peirce Mill

Peirce Mill Rock Creek Park

By Dale Youngkin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Peirce Mill was built in 1929 to harness the energy of Rock Creek’s current to grind corn, wheat and rye. It operated until 1897 when the turbine broke and was never replaced. As was common in this area, slaves performed most of the labor at the site prior to the Civil War.

Peirce Mill was incorporated into Rock Creek Park in 1890 and has been maintained by the National Park Service since 1933. It’s the last remaining mill in the District of Columbia, and is open year-round to visitors. (Hours are listed here.)

Redefining an Urban Park

Rock Creek Park is truly a treasure, and a park like this is a rarity in U.S. cities. Sure, many other cities (including Minneapolis, one of my favorites) boast abundant outdoor spaces for residents. But never have I experienced such a wild area set so close to a city’s main business district.

Think you might like to check it out? Have a favorite urban park that I should know about? Let me know in the comments!

Photos: Seanie Blue

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Rock Creek Park: Hiking in Washington, D.C.