Exploring Washington’s Great Outdoors

The Great Tours: Washington, D.C.—Lecture 23 Guide

Washington, D.C. is not just an urban landscape but it also offers many parks and hiking trails with breathtaking nature views. All around the city, you can find some hidden and not-so-hidden wild spaces, where Washingtonians like to hike and bike, play golf, ride horses, have picnics and barbecues, and enjoy the landscape and the wildlife.

This guide looks at several of those locations, including:
• Rock Creek Park
• Potomac River sites
• The Potomac Heritage Trail and the Mount Vernon Trail
• Great Falls Park
• Anacostia River sites

Rock Creek Park

Rock Creek Park is a 1,754-acre oasis that winds along the spine of the city, just west of the 16th Street NW meridian line. It passes through some of D.C.’s oldest neighborhoods and brushes up against some famous landmarks, including the National Zoo, Dumbarton Oaks, and the Hillwood Estate.

instructional gif for blue and green links in The Great Tours DC articles

The valley of Rock Creek—which runs from Lake Needwood in Montgomery County, Maryland, south to meet the Potomac River at Georgetown—was inhabited by Native Americans for millennia before European settlers arrived in the 17th century.

If you really love a good walk, you could hike the whole length of the park by starting in Georgetown, at the trailhead on M Street, between 27th Street and 28th Street. For shorter hikes, there are entry points and parking access all along the park, particularly north of the National Zoo. Two of the best places to start exploring this northern end of the park are the Rock Creek Nature Center and the Peirce Mill historic site.

Rock Creek Park Washington D.C. with stone bridge over water
Rock Creek Park ,Washington, D.C.

The Rock Creek Nature Center is just off Military Road NW, between the Chevy Chase and Brightwood neighborhoods of Northwest D.C. It is the main visitor center, open Wednesday through Sunday. This is the place to pick up maps, brochures, books, and ranger-led tours.

Further to the south, historic Peirce Mill is just off Tilden Drive, between the Cleveland Park and Van Ness neighborhoods. It offers access to both the Western Ridge Trail and the Valley Trail on the opposite side of Rock Creek itself.

The mill itself also offers visitors unique insights into the area’s history. This gristmill ran from the 1820s until 1897. Its inner workings have been restored, and visitors can watch grain being ground by water power, as it was in the 19th century.

Potomac River Sites

C&O Canal towpath in Georgetown with bridge
The C&O Canal towpath in Georgetown
The Potomac River features long stretches of riverfront that have been allowed to remain or have been restored to something like their natural state, where the only structures you will find are 19th-century buildings that served the commercial traffic along the Potomac River. One of the longest of these stretches is the C&O Canal towpath.

The towpath formally begins in Georgetown, at Lock 1, off 29th Street and just south of M Street. From there, it runs west along both sides of the canal, behind the historic buildings of Georgetown, many of which have been converted into shops and restaurants.

If you want to continue your walk beyond Georgetown, make sure to cross over one of the pedestrian bridges to the south side of the canal before passing under the Key Bridge. Your last chance to do so is at 34th Street. The path then continues along the riverfront below Georgetown University and turns northwest.

At around the third mile, you will reach an inlet and boathouse at a place called Fletcher’s Cove. This boathouse was run by the Fletcher family from 1850 to 2004 and is still in operation under the National Park Service today. Fletcher’s Cove is the point where the sights and sounds of the city truly begin to fall away. You will be able to spot lots of native wildlife, from great blue herons to white-tailed deer, beavers, and box turtles.

North from here, the trail intersects with dozens of historic sites, recreation areas, and campgrounds. One notable location is Glen Echo Park. For serious hikers and climbers, the aptly named Billy Goat Trail lies a few miles west of Glen Echo, at the Carderock Recreational Area. The Billy Goat Trail connects Carderock to Great Falls Park and Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center, where you can learn more about the history of the canal. From April through October, you can also pick up a mule-drawn canal boat ride here and experience this historic mode of travel.

If boating is of interest, there are plenty of places within the C&O Canal National Park area to rent canoes and kayaks along the river, including at Fletcher’s Cove and at Thompson’s Boat Center in Georgetown. Paddling tours and classes are also available.

You can rent bikes at both of these locations as well, and you are welcome to bring your own bike. Most of the lower towpath is broad, flat, and bike-friendly. Finally, if camping is of interest, the lower towpath offers a special opportunity: Six of the canal’s historic lock keepers’ houses have been refurbished and are available for overnight stays.

These cabins are managed by the C&O Canal Trust. Each of them offers different features and amenities and has been restored to a different historical period, from the 1830s to the 1950s. If you are interested in this unique historical experience, check the trust’s website for more information.

The Potomac Heritage Trail and the Mount Vernon Trail

Mount Vernon Trail with trees and green grass
The Mount Vernon Trail runs through Arlington, Old Town Alexandria, and all the way to George Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon.

For those of you spending time on the Virginia side of the river, similar trails and parks await. From the Key Bridge, two trails run along the riverfront: The Potomac Heritage Trail starts just below the bridge and runs north, and the Mount Vernon Trail runs south.

The Mount Vernon Trail runs through Arlington, Old Town Alexandria, and all the way to George Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon. Notably, Roosevelt Island, a local favorite, is accessible via a bridge from the Mount Vernon Trail. To the south of Roosevelt Island are Columbia Island, Lady Bird Johnson Park, and Gravelly Point.

If you head north from Roosevelt Island instead, you will soon find yourself on the Potomac Heritage Trail. The Potomac Heritage Trail is actually a series of trails, and they extend well beyond the D.C. area. One section follows the Potomac upriver about 10 miles, from Roosevelt Island to the D.C. beltway, concluding at Turkey Run Park. The trail offers beautiful views of the Potomac and the D.C. side of the river, including Georgetown University’s campus and the Foxhall and Palisades neighborhoods of D.C.

Great Falls Park

Great Falls, Virginia water running with sunset
Great Falls Park offers about 15 miles of hiking trails.

Ten miles upriver from Turkey Run Park is Great Falls Park, which is maintained by the National Park Service. This is the companion park to Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center, the state park on the Maryland side of the river. It is one of the most popular natural recreation areas in the region and can be extremely busy on weekends from the spring through the fall, with long waits to get into the parking lot. For nature lovers, the view is worth it.

From one of the three overlooks, visitors look down on steepest fall line anywhere on the Eastern Seaboard. The waters of the Potomac tumble 76 feet in less than a mile through a rocky channel that narrows from 1,000 feet to 60 feet. The waters spill out into Mather Gorge. Because of the narrowing of the river here, it is prone to flooding.

Additionally, the park offers about 15 miles of hiking trails. The hiking trails at Great Falls connect to Riverbend Park to the north and Difficult Run Stream Valley Park to the south, both excellent places to continue your outdoor adventure.

Anacostia River Sites

Giant lily pads at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Washington D.C.
Giant lily pads can be seen at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Washington, D.C.

Let’s now look to the often-underappreciated shores of the Anacostia River. Two places particularly worth visiting are the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens and the United States National Arboretum.

The Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens are the northernmost section of the Anacostia Park complex, right on the northeastern border of D.C. It was once part of the ancient wetlands that bordered the river, which local Native American tribes used for food, medicine, and clean water.

British settlers cleared the Anacostia wetlands for farming. The Industrial Revolution and the city’s 20th-century boom slowly turned the river into a dumping ground. It wasn’t until the late 20th century that city planners recognized the ecological and cultural value of this area and set about restoring the wetlands to their natural state.

The gardens themselves developed out of a small farm and commercial water-lily nursery owned by Helen Shaw. Her father, a Civil War veteran, had moved there in the 1880s and planted the first lilies in the location. From 1930 to 1938, Shaw fought off dredging and development of the land. Congress finally purchased the land and added it to the new Anacostia Park, to be managed by the National Park Service.

Today, the park and surrounding wetlands look much as they did in colonial times. Federal wildlife researchers estimate that 150 species of land plants, 76 species of birds, 9 species of mammals, and 8 species of reptiles share the space with the descendants of the Shaws’ water lilies. Rangers lead garden tours and birding walks along a mile and a half of trails.

The United States National Arboretum stands on the west bank of the Anacostia, exactly opposite the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. Consisting of 446 heavily wooded acres, beautifully designed gardens, and special exhibits, it is a gardener’s delight.

Use these online resources to help plan your trip.
Rock Creek Park
C&O Canal Trust
Great Falls Park
Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens