April 27, 2016

Rock Creek Park - Western Ridge Trail (DC, April 2016)


Rock Creek

Rock Creek Park
Western Ridge Trail to the National Zoo. Including Pierce Mill and Old Stone House
April 13, 2016
Start point: 38.96132, -77.05274
End Point: 38.92456, -77.05218

Washington, D.C.
70° F - it was beautiful outside!
All photos made on my OnePlus One phone

This was the third leg of my Week of DC Hikes in April 2016. The massive Rock Creek Park was an urban oasis that I never took advantage of when I lived in DC. Since moving, I have read about Teddy Roosevelt's fondness for the park, as well as many other DC residents who found solace in its forests, hills, and babbling waters. It was time for me to experience the park for myself.


I decided to start at the Nature Center at the park and hike south down the Western Ridge Trail. I also visited the Old Stone House, as I discovered it too was a part of the park and I failed to visit it when I previously lived in the city.


Western Ridge Trail

The Western Ridge runs the extent of Rock Creek Park. The park generally runs north to south in central/western DC. It connects with the National Zoo and has multiple historical landmarks throughout the park. A mountainous ridge runs within the park's boundaries and is heavily forested. The namesake Rock Creek runs along the park's length as well, providing lifeblood to the park's flora. Great views can be seen from the high points of the ridges, and relaxing opportunities to sit are provided by the creek.

The Western Ridge Trail is green blazed throughout the park. Bicycles are not allowed on this trail. Being an NPS-managed trail, it's also important to remember to leave the natural objects as you find them. No picking flowers or collecting rocks!

Trail at Nature Center

Natural Park Area Sign

I started my hike at the Nature Center after I jumped off the bus on Military Drive. The Nature Center provides exhibits and programs for visitors on the natural history of the park. Some specimens are on display of the park's wild inhabitants. A number of brochures are also available. They are not open on all days, so it was good I checked the schedule before heading out.

Nature Center

The path mostly hugs the slopes when heading southbound from Nature Center. It's a dense thicket, though, and spectacular during a sunny day.

Trail at Nature Center

Forested path

Ridgeside trail

Being mid-April, some of the leaves were starting to find their way onto branches. In the summer, this forest will provide a nice canopy to trail-goers and provide rescue from the blazing DC heat.

Leaves are coming in

Forest trail

Forest trail

One big thing that caught my eye on the ridge were all of the layered or stratified rocks jutting out of the landscape. Many trees were growing straight into it, their roots twisting around to find paths of least resistance.

Layered rock throughout the park

Growing directly in layered rock

Layered rock

A horse pasture was a surprise after the snaking trail through the forest. A wooden fence is ready to help keep your horses in while you have a picnic and grill some beans.

IMG_20160413_135216

Pasture - Horse Staging Area

Pasture - Horse Staging Area

It was also evident that this was a big public park in an urban area. Many trees had been deeply carved by residents professing their love for each other. The tree records this amorous history probably a lot longer than these high school flings lasted.

Carved trees

After about a mile or two, the trail descended down to the creek.

Steps down the ridge

Downhill to the base of the ridge

I FINALLY got to see the moniker creek of the hike. Green fields rested next to a tree-lined creek. Car traffic ran parallel to the creek on the other side, but could easily be ignored.

Rock Creek

Rock Creek

Rock Creek

A downy woodpecker was playing in the thick vegetation under one of the trees. He stayed long enough for me to grab a photo.

Downy Woodpecker

The creek walk was short-lived though. It only spanned a short distance across the field, terminating at the Pierce Mill. Another hill was waiting for hikers of the Western Ridge Trail and needed to be scaled to continue. However, I stopped in Pierce Mill for a while to soak up some history (see the section below).

Pierce Mill

Pierce Mill

Creek-side trail

Rock Creek

After you pass Pierce Mill, the Western Ridge Trail continues, but splits into two directions. I was offered a choice: "moderate" or "strenuous." I chose moderate because I was battling some blisters from the weekend and didn't want to kill myself too hard. The moderate path, though, was still uphill and gave me a workout. However, just after a few vertical feet, it was worth the view of the creek's tiny valley I just walked through.

Bridge across creek

Moderate, or Strenuous?

Western Ridge Trail

This portion of the trail led me up to the top of a hill just north of the National Zoo where a village of rich houses sit. A portion of the trail connects with the communities at the top of the hill. What a great access point for the people living up here!

Western Ridge Trail

Western Ridge Trail

Again, what comes up must come down. I descended the southern ridge and found myself crossing the creek again. This time, I walked along a walled trail that protected me from the sound of the cars on its reverse.

Pedestrian Bridge

Walled path next to the Zoo

A fence now appeared to my right, ostensibly protecting the National Zoo from intruders and keeping its big cats from escaping into Rock Creek Park. Some deer were hanging out on the zoo side of the creek. I managed to snap a photo through the chain link fence.

Deer residents

This was such a fun hike that I regret not doing it while I was living in town. This feeling ended up being a recurring theme for me, but it has been tempered with gladness that I was able to at least experience it at least once and capture some pretty photos with good weather. No wonder Teddy Roosevelt loved taking walks through the forest and hills!

You don't think about DC as having a lot of big hills or forests, but, to the surprise of many, they have a large community of wildlife right in the heart of the city. Given some time and observation, I'm sure I'd spot many of the wild residents of Rock Creek Park as they go about their daily lives. The natural history of this park is rich and will hopefully be preserved for more generations to come.


Pierce Mill

I stopped at Pierce Mill during my trek on the Western Ridge Trail. The mill rests in a small valley next to Rock Creek between two of the ridges on the Western Ridge Trail. As I entered the mill, a couple of friendly NPS Rangers greeted me and shared the history of the mill with me.

Pierce Mill

Inside Pierce Mill

Inside Pierce Mill

The grindstones and gears all work, and demonstrations are given at scheduled times. I, of course, missed one of these demos.

Gears and Grindstones at Pierce Mill

Gears and Grindstones at Pierce Mill

Gears and Grindstones at Pierce Mill

Outside, a canal directs water to the waterwheel to power the grindstones.

Pierce Mill Water Wheel Canal

These old structures spoke a lot about the character and history of the park as the Western Ridge Trail ran parallel to Rock Creek for a short time.


Old Stone House

Old Stone House

I always knew this building was on M street, but I never took the opportunity to visit when I went to Georgetown. One thing I learned about the Old Stone House during this trip was that it was a part of Rock Creek Park, and is managed by the National Park Service. The Old Stone House is close to the southernmost point of Rock Creek, and is a stop for those looking to explore the park.

An unassuming gray stone building sits amid the bustle of shoppers and diners on M street. At first glance, you'd think it was just a really old house. But inside, the house is set to be representative of its history and operation during the 18th Century. From the story that was told to me, it was the house of a regular person who took advantage of the canal. Additional rooms were built over time, and the bottom floor was turned into a store for local residents. It was originally preserved because of an inaccurate tie to George Washington. However, despite the error in ownership, it remains a historically valuable structure on the southern edge of Rock Creek.

Old Stone House

The front door invites people in from the street. A small gift shop was run by an NPS ranger, who also talked about the history of the house. The structure went through many versions, adding both vertical and historical stories with each renovation.

Old Stone House Kitchen

Rooms are set up to be similar to how they would have looked during the house's actual use.

Old Stone House Sitting Room

Old Stone House Sitting Room

A garden park is in the back of the house for visitors to enjoy.

Old Stone House Garden

Old Stone House Garden


Extras

There were multiple national park passport stamps that I grabbed from three Rock Creek Park sites: The Nature Center, Pierce Mill, and The Old Stone House. Stamps included the portion of the Potomac Heritage Trail as well as the NPS Centennial stamp.

Rock Creek Park - Meridian Hill Passport StampRock Creek Park - Nature Center Passport StampRock Creek Park - Klingle Mansion Passport StampPotomac Heritage National Scenic Trail - Rock Creek Park Portion - Passport Stamp
Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway Passport StampRock Creek Park - Pierce Mill Passport StampRock Creek Park Old Stone House Passport StampRock Creek Park Centennial Passport Stamp

The Old Stone House also had a trail patch available for purchase.

Rock Creek Park Patch

Photo Album


Trail Map

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