When Matt Brooks heads out from his Northwest D.C. home for a winding bike ride, mere blocks from Washington’s corridors of power, he quickly ducks away into an incongruously scenic retreat. “It’s easy to get lost in the best possible sense of the word,” Brooks says. “One minute you’re biking between perpetual traffic and sidewalks packed with pedestrians, and the next, you’re pedaling around a breezy bend of asphalt with no cars, buildings or traces of the city in sight.”
Beloved by locals, rarely explored by tourists — unless you count visitors to the National Zoo — Rock Creek Park is 1,700 federally protected acres that form America’s oldest natural urban national park, established in 1890. Central Park hogs the limelight in typical New York style, but Rock Creek is more than three times its size — boasting 32 miles of trails and tree-lined moments that feel far removed from city life. There’s even a free planetarium.
Locals “absolutely value Rock Creek so much.”
Anne Baker, of the Rock Creek Conservancy
And in a city that can feel like one big monument, the park has its own colorful history. It was the site of the only time a sitting U.S. president came under direct fire from an enemy combatant. (Abraham Lincoln escaped Fort Stevens unscathed in 1864.) For decades, the park has demarcated some of Washington’s wealthiest — and whitest — neighborhoods from the rest, though gentrification has altered the dividing lines. Its darker moments include 2002, when the remains of murdered congressional intern Chandra Levy were found here.
The present scourge is white-tailed deer, which one OZY editor lovingly refers to as furry Lyme vectors, and which are overpopulating the park and ravaging its vegetation. In a program that launched with some controversy, the National Park Service brought in sharpshooters to cull the herd — very carefully, considering all the human neighbors. (Homeless shelters get the venison.) The Rock Creek Conservancy is also working to eradicate invasive species, with volunteers yanking out English ivy and bush honeysuckle. Anne Baker, communications manager for the conservancy, marvels that there are more volunteers to protect Rock Creek than in her previous job for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy — you know, the one that runs from Maine to Georgia. Locals “absolutely value Rock Creek so much,” Baker says. “They know there is this gem in the city, and they do everything they can to protect it.”
Though it draws 2 million people a year, the park remains under the radar for visitors when compared to popular monuments and museums. And for the next few months, it’s about to be a source of frustration: Beginning after Labor Day, portions of Beach Drive — a critical D.C.-to-Maryland commuter artery that snakes through the park — will close completely, along with the adjacent trail, for urgent repairs over the next three years. Traffic mayhem in an already clogged city is sure to follow. Drivers with elevated blood pressure are advised to take a walk in the park.