Rock Creek Park: its historical significance and recreational opportunities

Updated: Jan 25, 2021

by Woodland Crisfield

Along Boulder bridge, visitors can relax by a calming creek, and explore the surrounding environment via the park’s numerous hiking trails. (Photo: W. Crisfield.)

Tucked away amongst the District’s modern buildings and towering monuments sits a 1,754-acre park in Northwest Washington, entirely within the boundaries of the capital district. There can be found lush green forests with wild flowers along a winding creek. Rock Creek Park is as old as the nation itself, and has been enjoyed by many capital region residents for decades. Here is its story.

The land was originally inhabited by the Native American Anacostan and Piscataway tribes who used the surrounding chestnut oak and hickory trees to build settlements beside the creek. They cultivated the forest’s nutrient rich topsoil for agriculture. The tribes also hunted the animals that populated the land as another source of food. Recent archaeological digs have unearthed artifacts from the original inhabitants dating as far back as 7000 BCE.

The first known Europeans settled the land in 1703, when a trading post was established at the mouth of Rock Creek where it empties into the Potomac river. The Rock Creek valley was only sparsely populated by European settlers, as the lack of transportation and rocky terrain were a barrier to any major development.

During the Civil War, the Park’s lands would undergo a drastic change, as most of the trees north of what is now Military Road were deforested by the Union army to maintain a clear line-of-sight between Fort Stevens and Fort DeRussy. The two forts were set up on opposite sides of the park and served as a defense against potential Confederate advances on the capital. In addition to deforestation, the park’s topsoil was damaged due to the construction of trenches by the infantry that surrounded the forts.

In the years that followed the Civil War, landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. and John Charles Olmsted were tasked by the National Park Service to take measures to preserve the remaining lands and natural beauty that surrounded what would become Rock Creek Park.

In a report to the Park Service, the Olmsted brothers took note of the Park’s idyllic scenery and remarked on its potential as a place of recreation and leisure for Washington residents who could seek respite there from the city’s hustle and bustle.

The goal of the Park Service in preserving the land would be realized on September 27, 1890 when President Benjamin Harrison signed legislation that would protect the Park from further development. Rock Creek Park would become the third site in the nation’s history to be managed and protected by the National Park Service after Yellowstone National Park and Mackinac Island National Park in Michigan.

These days visitors to the park are offered an abundance of recreational opportunities within its bounds. Some of these include the 32 miles of hiking trails, horseback riding at the Park’s Horse Center, eating in one of the park’s many picnic areas, and playing golf at the Park’s 9-hole course. These attractions make the Park one of the District’s most visited locations.