Rock Creek in winterMap of Rock Creek Park + phone resources
Interactive map of Rock Creek Park
History of Rock Creek Park
Natural History of Rock Creek Park
Geology of Rock Creek Park
Fish in Rock Creek:
Denil fishway reopens Rock Creek for spawning

Hiking in Rock Creek Park
Rock Creek trails in Montgomery County, MD
American Discovery Trail info through MD & DC
Capital Crescent Trail connects with RCP
C&O Canal connects with RCP
Mt. Vernon Trail

Rock Creek Conservancy

2007 Rock Creek Park BioBlitz identified 666 unique species in the park

Biking in Rock Creek Park (Bike Washington)
Biking in Rock Creek Park (WABA)
Biking in Washington area (Potomac Pedalers)
Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail

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Rock Creek Park

Visitors to Washington know the Mall as a welcome swath of green among the city's monuments and museums. But hikers and bikers can head from the Mall into Rock Creek Park, a refreshing escape to a wilderness that goes north past the National Zoo and into Maryland. Created in 1890, Rock Creek Park is one of the largest forested urban parks in the United States, containing a wide variety of natural, historical, and recreational features in the midst of Washington, DC. It is nearly a mile wide in some places and is laced with an extensive system of trails and paths. Certain sections of Beach Drive, which parallels the creek, are closed to vehicles on weekends and holidays. Photos on these pages were taken along one of these sections, from Broad Branch north to Military Road.

Rock Creek in summerBritish Ambassador Lord James Bryce described the park this way in 1913:
"To Rock Creek there is nothing comparable in any capital city in Europe. What city in the world is there where a man...can within...a quarter of an hour on his own feet get into a beautiful rocky glen, such as you would find in the woods of Maine or Scotland...with a broad stream foaming over its stony bed and wild, leafy woods looking down on each side?"

Eons of Park history

What put the rocks in Rock Creek Park? The jumbled mass of rocks and ledges along and in Rock Creek is what is left of an ancient mountain range. The greatest abundance of boulders is located in a roughly one-mile stretch between Broad Branch and Military Roads, as this is the "fall line" separating two different geologic provinces—the Piedmont Plateau and the Coastal Plain.

The process began eons ago, when the ancient mountains slowly decayed until only their roots remained. Crustal movements caused this relatively level surface to tilt, and the eastern part of it was submerged. A new cycle of erosion set in, and the clay, sand, and gravel carried from the higher western region were deposited on the submerged surface. These sediments built up to form the Coastal Plain, extending from Washington, DC to the Atlantic Ocean. The higher surface west of Washington is called the Piedmont Plateau.

The boundary between the bedrock of the Piedmont Plateau and the soft sediment of the Coastal Plain is the fall line—a zone marked by falls and rapids along streams and rivers that cross it. The fall line is visible along Rock Creek in the rapids section south of Military Rd. It is along this stretch that one can see the great abundance of large boulders and outcroppings— predominantly boulder gneiss with the intrusion of granite gneisses, mica schist, and quartzite—that have been exposed by eons of downcutting and erosion of the Rock Creek Valley (photo at top is of Rapids Bridge).

>> Concise explanation of the geology of Washington, DC

>> Extensive information about the geology of Washington, DC can be found on Northern Virginia Community College Geology Instructor Callan Bentley's website.

Beginning at least 5,000 years ago, Piscataway Conoy Indians living and farming in what became Georgetown prized Rock Creek as a valuable food source, particularly in early spring when shad and river herring swam upstream to spawn. The Indians obtained quartzite and bluestone for spearheads and tools in several Rock Creek Park quarries.

>> The Native Woodland Peoples of the Rock Creek Valley [National Park Service PDF]
>> Archeology and History in Rock Creek Park [NPS-- includes Native American, Colonial, Civil War and 19th century history]

Deer in RCPRecords of early European settlers include the writings of Captain John Smith, which suggest he may have ventured by Rock Creek during the early 1600s. A trading post was founded at the mouth of the creek in 1703. As Georgetown and Alexandria developed into ports, ships could sail up Rock Creek as far as P Street. Beginning in 1760, mills drew power from the creek to serve farmers in the valley. Eventually 19 grist and bone mills, which also milled lumber, operated along the banks of the creek, and stone was removed from 17 quarries for numerous building projects in the area.

The most famous mill owner was Isaac Peirce (also spelled Pearce or Pierce), who in 1794 bought a mill and 150 acres along the creek where corn and wheat were ground into flour. By 1800 he controlled an estate stretching from today's National Zoo to Chevy Chase. In 1829, Isaac and his stonemason son Abner Peirce rebuilt Peirce Mill, which is today the only surviving mill along the creek. Their spring house, built in 1801, still stands in the middle of Tilden Street. Rock Creek Gallery occupies Peirce's carriage house. The family distillery is now a private home across the street.

Peirce Mill prospered until steam power undercut the water mills in the 1880s. The main shaft of the mill broke in 1897. [More on restoring and visiting the mill: Friends of Peirce Mill.]

Boulder BridgeArgyle Mill was located on what today is a clearing on the west side of Beach Drive just below Boulder Bridge. Built by the Peirces, it was owned by Thomas Blagden (1815-1870), whose father George was superintendent of the stone work used in constructing the Capitol. Both the mill and the estate were named Argyle after a region of western Scotland. The mill was severely damaged by flooding in 1889. The ruins were removed in 1899 during the initial construction of Beach Drive. One of the old bridge abutments leading to the mill survives on the east bank of the creek.

Beach Drive was named after Lansing Beach, who directed its original construction. The section between Military Road and the site of Argyle Mill was inaugurated in 1899. Boulder Bridge (pictured at left) was finished in 1902.

In 1904 the Peirce Mill waterfall was constructed to ornament what had become a popular picnic area and meeting place. By 1905 Peirce Mill was in use as a tea house. African-American Hattie L. Sewell took over the concession in 1920, but her lease was not renewed after racially motivated complaints. The Girl Feb. 2003 snowfallScouts ran the tea house for a while, followed by a charitable group within the War Department. The last tea was poured in 1934 when the first restoration of the mill was ordered. During the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps was active in the park, building the stone house now used by the Park Police.

Also in Rock Creek Park is the National Zoo, administered by the Smithsonian Institution. It features natural environments for many of its 2,000 animals. The park also has remnants of forts that protected the city during the Civil War, including Fort Stevens, the site of the only battle within the District of Columbia.

>> Buy the book to learn more about the area:

Crestwood: 300 Acres, 300 Years by David Swerdloff is the story of a Northwest Washington, D.C. neighborhood and its uncommon connections with the history of the Nation's Capital.

Using more than 200 photographs, maps, documents and news articles, the 132-page book explores a community that has had recognizable borders ever since the first survey of an estate called Argyle Cowall and Lorn in 1720.

We meet a wide variety of people who traveled to or through the area we now call Crestwood--including Native American tool makers, Civil War soldiers, horse racing fans, city dwellers looking for an outing "in the country" and U.S. presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt. The book uncovers links between Crestwood and St. Elizabeths hospital, the building of the U.S. Capitol, Russian diplomacy, the escape attempt by D.C. slaves aboard The Pearl, the first mass protest march on Washington and four Supreme Court decisions.

Even readers who may not be able to locate Crestwood on a map will gain insights into how D.C. developed beyond its central core and learn to recognize historical clues hidden in plain sight in a community's streets, structures and landscapes.

All proceeds benefit the Crestwood Citizens Association.

Order from Amazon or from Politics and Prose

Download preface pages including table of contents (pdf)