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Created in 1890, Rock Creek Park was purchased by Congress for its “pleasant valleys and ravines, primeval forests and open fields, its running waters, its rocks clothed with rich ferns and mosses, its repose and tranquility, its light and shade, its ever-varying shrubbery, its beautiful and extensive views,” according to a Corps of Engineers officer quoted in the National Park Service’s administrative history. A 1,750-acre valley within the District of Columbia, extending 12 miles from the Potomac River to the Maryland border, it’s one of the biggest and finest city parks in the nation. Parts of it are still wild; coyotes have been sighted here, joining the red and gray foxes, raccoons, and beavers already resident. Most tourists encounter its southern tip, the section from the Kennedy Center to the National Zoo, but the park widens and travels much farther from there. Among the park’s attractions are playgrounds, an extensive system of hiking and biking trails, sports facilities, remains of Civil War fortifications, and acres and acres of wooded parklands.
For full information on the wide range of park programs and activities, visit the Rock Creek Nature Center and Planetarium, 5200 Glover Rd. NW (tel. 202/895-6070), Wednesday through Sunday from 9am to 5pm. To get to the center by public transportation, take the Metro to Friendship Heights and transfer to bus no. E4 to Military Road and Oregon Avenue/Glover Road, then walk up the hill about 100 yards.
The Nature Center and Planetarium is the scene of numerous activities, including weekend planetarium shows, nature films, crafts demonstrations, live animal demonstrations, guided nature walks, plus a mix of lectures, films, and other events. Self-guided nature trails begin here. All activities are free, but for planetarium shows you need to pick up tickets a half-hour in advance. The Nature Center is closed on federal holidays.
At Tilden Street and Beach Drive, you can see the recently refurbished, water-powered 1820s gristmill, used until not so long ago to grind corn and wheat into flour. It’s called Peirce Mill (a man named Isaac Peirce built it). The mill is open for tours (Nov, Dec, and Mar Sat–Sun 10am to 4pm; Jan–Feb Sat–Sun noon to 4pm; Apr–Oct Fri–Sun 10am–4pm); the mill seldom operates, however. Check the website, www.nps.gov/pimi, or call [tel] 202/895-6070.
You’ll find convenient free parking throughout the park.
In addition to the circumscribed 1,750-acre park, Rock Creek Park’s charter extends to include the maintenance of other parks, gardens, and buildings throughout the city.
In Georgetown, the park’s offerings include D.C.’s oldest standing structure, the 1765 Old Stone House, located on busy M St. NW; the 10-acre, Potomac River–focused Georgetown Waterfront Park (www.georgetownwaterfrontpark.org), a swath of greenways, plazas, and walkways, with benches, a labyrinth, and overlooks—you owe it to yourself to take a stroll here; and in upper Georgetown, the family-friendly Montrose Park, a favorite place for picnicking and playing tennis; and Dumbarton Oaks Park, a 27-acre preserve of naturalistic gardens. Both Montrose and Dumbarton Oaks parks adjoin each other and the Dumbarton Oaks estate and formal gardens.
Along 16th Street NW, about 1 mile north of the White House, is Meridian Hill Park (www.nps.gov/mehi), 12 acres in size, and located between the Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights neighborhoods. Meridian Hill Park is worth a visit for several reasons: Its view serves up the White House, the Washington Monument, and the Jefferson Memorial in the distance; its cascading fountain is the longest in North America; and planted amid its landscaped gardens are a potpourri of statues of famous people: Joan of Arc, Dante, President Buchanan. Best of all is the mix of people you’ll find here, mostly from the nearby diverse neighborhoods, and the assorted activities they get up to: yoga lessons, soccer matches, and Sunday afternoon through evening, spring through fall, an African drum circle.