Rock Creek Park: Valley and Western Ridge Trails

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The District is a surprising mix of scenic and city.

When I decided to leave Massachusetts, it wasn’t with the thought that DC was going to become my forever home. I just knew I was tired of being cold all the time and I desperately missed the sun. I really thought, especially in those first few weeks holed up in my studio apartment, that DC would be a year or two stop on my way to eventually settling in a more southern state.

I hated DC in my first few months here. I was hyper-paranoid after hearing way too many horror stories dating back to DC’s reign as the nation’s murder capital. I was frustrated with the poorly-lit, unreliable metro system. I didn’t have any friends. Everyone was dressed way too formally. I was unhappy being back in school. My list of negatives went on and on forever.

IMG_20160121_233346And then…something changed. I started meeting people, establishing friendships that are so important to me now that I can’t believe I didn’t know any of these people six years ago. I discovered a city that loves local news so much that Channel 4 has 12 hours of it a day (yay!). I learned about the neighborhoods and their character. I uncovered an endless number of delicious restaurants to try out and obsess over foodie style. And best of all, I found nature.

I knew DC had a park system before I moved here. Of course, there’s the National Mall, but I’d also heard about Rock Creek Park. Unfortunately, I knew about it for all the wrong reasons. Before I saw it for the first time, I imagined it was like Central Park or the Boston Common – a giant green space laid out in the middle of the city. I had it all wrong. Rock Creek is located below the city, around the city, through the city. If you know what to look for, there are entry points to the park all over the northwest quadrant of DC.

Established by an Act of Congress in 1890, Rock Creek was our nation’s third national park preceded only by Yosemite and Mackinac. The park is more than 2,000 acres (over 3 square miles) and stretches to Maryland where it connects to Rock Creek Stream Valley Park and Rock Creek Regional Park.

Let’s put the park’s size into perspective. According to Wikipedia, Central Park is 843 acres (1.3 square miles) located in a city that’s 305 square miles. In contrast, DC is only 68.3 square miles. While DC is small on total landmass, it still has 7,464 acres of parkland, including Rock Creek Park, squeezed into it. That means parks make up an astounding 19 percent of the city’s total area.


Ducks enjoying themselves in Rock Creek.

I saw Rock Creek Park before I ever stepped foot on it. I could see it in glimpses from the Rock Creek Parkway. On my walks between Woodley Park and Dupont, I would sometimes pause on Taft Bridge to watch the traffic and the runners on Rock Creek Trail. I would see them and think, “I want to go down there and see what that’s all about.” But I didn’t go.

In retrospect, I’m not sure why I waited. Maybe I was afraid it wouldn’t be as great as it looked from the bridge. It wasn’t until I was mostly through with my graduate program and desperate for a space to stop and think that I finally ventured onto the paved paths of Rock Creek Trail.

I loved it.

Since that first visit, Rock Creek has become my favorite place to shrug off the weight of my life. As grad school ended and I transitioned from being a student to being unemployed to being back in the workforce, I walked off my worries on the paved route going past Georgetown, along the Potomac, over Memorial Bridge to Arlington Cemetery, and back home again. It was on this path that I decided to sign up for the Avon Walk, committing myself to walking 39.3 miles in two days, and it was in Rock Creek that I trained my body to go distances that I once thought impossible.

I’ve spent untold hours of my life in Rock Creek Park, but until this December, I’d never been on its unpaved trails. I’d seen the entrances to these trails before, but I didn’t know the routes and was unsure how to navigate them safely. After several months of trail hiking in the wild, it seemed silly for me to still be afraid to tackle a challenge in my own backyard. With winter closing in, my weekend day trips to the mountains had come to an end. Rock Creek Park seemed like the best way to get my nature fix in during the shorter winter days.

IMG_20160119_082738I started researching. One of my friends directed me to Active Life DC and while I was on the site, I found an article for a Rock Creek Park 10 miler looping the Western Ridge and Valley Trails. The start point for the route was only 1.5 miles from my place, so it seemed like the perfect fit for my first outing.

With the trailhead so close to my home, I opted to walk directly to the Western Ridge trailhead at Peirce Mill rather than rely on public transit. This ended up being a terrible idea. From looking at Google maps, it seemed like walking down Park Road would be the most direct route. Wrong. For reasons that I don’t understand, the sidewalk completely disappeared just before I reached Peirce Mill (I’ve since learned that the paved Rock Creek Trail goes directly to the trailhead).

The busy road next to me was situated against a hill. The steep incline would have made walking next to the road treacherous. I almost turned around in defeat, but then I noticed a sign for the Meadowlark trail. According to my phone, this path would eventually link up with Valley Trail, so it seemed like a good alternative.

Once again, I was wrong.

With leaves covering the ground and zero blazes in sight, I was wandering blindly in the woods. If I wasn’t less than two miles from my apartment, I would have been panicking. The situation literally went downhill when I encountered a supersized ditch. I didn’t want to go into the ditch, but I also didn’t want to turn around. I was paralyzed with indecision. As I stood, staring stupidly into the ditch, an older gentleman with a dog came out of nowhere and just headed into the thing like it was nothing.

He schooled me. Properly shamed, I carefully made my way down the steep incline, up the other side, and straight into someone’s private driveway. Before I could say, “trespassing,” I spotted a sign on the other side of the driveway for Valley Trail.

When I set out that morning, I had a plan to do the Western Ridge Trail first, since all of my handy instructions were guiding me in that direction. But plans change. After my weird detour, I didn’t want to tempt fate any further, so I decided to do the route in reverse and followed the bright blue blazes onto Valley Trail.

The first moments on the trail involved a short, but surprisingly steep, uphill hike. This was the first sign that this outing was going to be slightly more challenging than I was expecting. Carefully crossing Blagden Avenue, I continued up to Pulpit Rock.

From Pulpit Rock, the trail sharply descended and took me right up against Rock Creek. I was surprised by how wide and wild the creek was in this part of the park. The trail also changed, becoming narrower and rocky.

This rocky stretch was by far my favorite part of the loop. The challenge presented by the rocks demanded my full attention. I had to think about my footwork and watch for loose rocks and exposed roots. Otherwise, I risked tripping and taking a dive into the water.


The loop is right off of Beach Road, which is closed to traffic on weekends.

About two miles from the trailhead (this is per Map My Run, so it may not be 100% exact), the trail abruptly exited onto Beach Road next to a Park Police Station. This part was extremely confusing. At first, I stood around looking helpless. Then I got my bearings, turned right and walked past the station. Staying on Beach Road, I walked through the intersection with Joyce Road and under the Military Road overpass. Spotting a blue blaze on the right side of the street, I followed it back into the woods.

(Now that I know what to look for, I’ve discovered that there are actually blue blazes painted on stationary objects on the right side of the street. I wish I’d noticed them the first time I did this trail!)

After the Park Police Station, the trail became a little more sedate. I felt like I was in a secluded wild area, There were moments where I couldn’t hear the city traffic at all and it became easy to forget I was hiking on the edges of the District. Since the trail was less rocky, there were also more trail runners, walkers, and cute dogs out enjoying the beautiful day.

One mile into this part of the trek, I hit the first of several “fake” trails. These are unofficial trails that have been cut into the woods from continued local usage. I veered to the left, which, after seeing more blue blazes turned out to be the correct choice. However, looking at Google Maps, messing up wouldn’t have taken me too far off course. This false trail eventually links back up with the Valley Trail. In a half mile, there was another division in the route, and I bared left to stay on Valley Trail.

The majority of the trail was very well marked; however, as I got closer to the DC/Maryland border, the bright blue trail markers disappeared. In their place were weird black blazes. I’m not sure why there was a sudden change in trail blaze color, but I read that this would happen in the Active Life DC article, so I was prepared for it.

Five miles from the trailhead, I reached the DC/Maryland border, Boundary Bridge, and the end of Valley Trail. There are restrooms and picnic tables at this halfway point. If I needed a break, this would have been the perfect spot for it. Since the first half of the loop took longer than I was expecting (almost three hours), I pressed on without stopping.

Crossing Beach Drive, I spotted a sign directing me up the hill and onto Western Ridge Trail to complete the loop.


Creek crossing on Western Ridge Trail.

Western Ridge is wide, well maintained, and marked by bright green blazes. It also doesn’t feel quite as remote as Valley Trail. There were more road crossings and more spots where I brushed against civilization.

The first road crossing came a half mile into the trail at Wise Road. The next obstacle, about a half a mile later, was a small creek crossing. I didn’t see any way to avoid walking across the creek, so I just went for it. I was wearing waterproof shoes, which helped me avoid a wet-foot catastrophe.

The strangest part of this trail came a half mile after the creek crossing. The trail, with no warning, dumped me out against a road. The green blazes pointed me to a small access road with a mix of civilian and park police cars. To my right was a really nicely maintained community garden. In front of me were horse pens holding two massive horses.

According to the map, the horse stables belonged to the Park Police, and (allegedly) I wasn’t trespassing. I double checked the directions, which told me to walk toward the nearest pen. Once there, I made a right and walked toward the woods. After reaching the woods, I turned left onto a muddy path. There were some benches in this area, and I paused for a bit to watch the horses pace around their pens. Then I walked into the woods where I found the next green blaze.

I only stayed in the woods for another half mile before reaching the intersection of Oregon Avenue and Military Road. As I approached the intersection I could hear what sounded like screams of terror. I walked faster. I started pulling out my phone to call 9/11, even though I had no idea what I was reporting. Then, I came out at the top of a hill and, with nothing but trees obstructing the sound, I realized I was hearing cheers. If I’d looked at the map, I would have known I was walking toward St. John’s College High School. The cheers were coming from some kind of game. Good thing I put the phone away.

With the high school on my right, I crossed Military Road and walked toward the Rock Creek Park Nature Center and Planetarium. Yet another great opportunity to use a restroom. From there, I traveled downhill and crossed Glover and Ridge Roads. This is another spot where I almost lost the trail. I looked around dumbly for a bit before spotting the green blaze in a copse of trees just to the right of the road.

Shortly after going back into the woods, I reached Grant Road. This was a dangerous road crossing. The street is curved into a blind turn, and I saw two cars whip by at fast speed right as I approached. I carefully crossed the street and headed back into the safety of the trees.

After that, it was smooth sailing for the last two miles toward Peirce Mill. Learning my lesson from the morning, I took Rock Creek Trail back to my part of the city, completing 13 miles in five hours door to door.

My ratings

Difficulty – 2

Solitude – 2

Fun – 3

I love this loop. I’ve now done it a few times and it’s quickly become one of my favorites in DC. There are only so many 13 mile hikes that can stay engaging on repeated outings, and, in my opinion, this is one of them. It’s also been a great way to keep myself in shape for the more intensive treks I plan to make once the weather is better.

5 thoughts on “Rock Creek Park: Valley and Western Ridge Trails

  1. Pingback: Hidden in DC: Meridian Hill Park | City to Trail

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