You don’t have to go to the boondocks to go hiking or horseback riding in deep woods teeming with deer, raccoons and even coyotes. You can do that in Rock Creek Park, a refuge for nature — and stressed Capitol Hill types — that spreads more than nine miles long and up to a mile wide in the District of Columbia.
There is room for culture and science here, too. The 4,200-seat Carter Barron Amphitheatre located in Rock Creek Park is the site of a summer concert series, and the Rock Creek Nature Center features an array of exhibits that tell about the park's ecosystem, including a working beehive visible through glass panes.
Congress established Rock Creek Park in 1890, a few days before passage of legislation establishing Yosemite National Park. The National Park Service assumed management of Rock Creek Park in 1933.
Things to do
Cyclists can get a good workout riding on the Rock Creek Trail, which winds 25 miles from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington through Rock Creek Park to Lake Needwood Park in Montgomery County, Maryland. Beach Drive between Military and Broad Branch roads is closed to cars on weekends and holidays for bicycling, hiking, jogging and skating.
A guided horseback ride, starting at Rock Creek Park Horse Center, is a fun way to explore the north end of the park along 13 miles of dirt and gravel bridle trails. Riders must be at least 12 years old. There is a ranger-led horseback tour Sunday mornings.
Tennis anyone? The Rock Creek Park Tennis Center has 10 hard courts and 15 clay courts.
There is also an 18-hole public golf course within the boundaries of Rock Creek Park.
Why you’ll want to come back
The 163-acre National Zoo, part of the Smithsonian Institution, is located on the south end of Rock Creek Park. The zoo has 2,000 animals of nearly 400 species, including giant pandas, clouded leopards, Asian elephants, orangutans, bison and black-footed ferrets.
Flora and fauna
The District of Columbia contains habitat for more than donkeys and elephants. Rock Creek Park has 160 species of birds, 30 types of mammals and 35 types of fish. Coyotes have called Rock Creek Park home since spring 2004 when the first sightings were reported. The park also harbors red fox, gray fox, gray squirrel raccoons and an abundance of whitetail deer.
The park forests are made up of white oak, chestnut oak, hickory, ash, black walnut, holly, black gum, American beech and Eastern hophornbeam, sometimes called ironwood.
By the numbers
Park size: 1,755 acres or 2.7 square miles
2010 visitation: 1.9 million
Funky fact: Rock Creek Park has the only planetarium in the National Park System. The planetarium is part of the Rock Creek Park Nature Center.
Inset photo of clouded leopard: Smithsonian's National Zoo/Flickr