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Go take a hike--and more ways to enjoy Rock Creek Park this monthD.C.'s backyard celebrates its 125th year

Washington’s backyard park is celebrating its quasquicentennial this year (yes, that's a real word) and offering up even more ways to take advantage of the city’s wild and wooded backyard.

At 125 years old, Rock Creek Park is older than the National Park Service that now runs it, which will celebrate its centennial next year.

The nearly 3,000-acre park follows its eponymous stream from D.C.’s northern border all the way to the Potomac River, though its broadest section is located just north of the Smithsonian's National Zoo.

While most commuters are familiar with the park’s popular paved trails running alongside Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway, park managers are getting the word out that it has a lot more to offer.

The park features more than 32 miles of trails, many of which weave through wooded areas and alongside the lively Rock Creek (which, as the name implies, features boulders of varying sizes in and around the stream).

Park ranger Tony Linforth describes the trail system as a ladder. The long Western Ridge Trail and Valley Trail run north and south to form the sides of the "ladder," while dozens of shorter trails cut across the stream valley to connect them. This means hikers can avoid the dreaded out-and-back by creating any number of loops out of the trails. That said, be sure to download a map or grab a paper version at the park’s Nature Center before heading out, as trails are not always clearly marked.

If you want a little more guidance, consider joining a ranger-guided trail walk to discover remnants of Civil War-era forts or to brush up on tree species that might be spotted along the trail. Sections of the park also offer audio tours via cellphone.
Each month this year features extra events, with many of them culminating in September around the park’s actual birthday. April marks the opening of the historic Peirce Mill located at the park. On April 25, visitors can watch the mill fire up its 2000-pound millstones for the first time this year, using the “old-fashioned renewable energy” of Rock Creek’s flowing water to turn corn into meal.
The Georgetown waterfront and Thompson Boat House also are part of the park, along with the historic Old Stone House (and its stately magnolia tree) in Georgetown.

“Presidents and residents, we like to say, have always enjoyed the park,” says National Park Service spokesman Nate Adams, noting the affinity that presidents like Teddy Roosevelt had for the urban escape. “We’ve been lucky to have some fantastic stewards over the years.”

The park was first considered for preservation in the late 1860s as the city was quickly rebuilding and expanding following the Civil War. With higher population came more diseases and a growing appreciation for nature near the city. It wasn’t until 1890 that the park became official, penned into being by President Benjamin Harrison.
It was nearly home to a new White House at one point, and still features mysterious stone rubble that was once part of the U.S. Capitol. Native Americans were thought to have fished and hunted in the creek before Europeans settled nearby, using it to run their flour mills.

Today, the park is home to seven major stream valleys, providing habitat for more than 180 species of birds, 40 species of fish and six species of bats. The park technically borders 30 different countries because of its proximity to embassies and consulates, with land owned by foreign countries, in the District.

Rock Creek Park is twice the size of New York City’s Central Park, but far less cultivated. Which, fans would argue, makes it that much more enticing to explore.
Learn more about the park here and see its schedule of events for April here

Read more articles by Whitney Pipkin.

Whitney Pipkin is a freelance journalist who covers food, agriculture, and the environment and lives in Alexandria, Va. She writes about food, etc. at thinkabouteat.com.
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