At a Glance
Rock Creek Park is a peaceful and beautiful refuge within a bustling city. Because of its location in the midst of our nation’s capital, the park has a rich cultural history. It also boasts a rich natural history. With great variation in the landscape, Rock Creek Park has a wide diversity of habitats in which natural communities can flourish.
The landscape in Rock Creek Park includes a variety of captivating natural features—
- a winding, rocky creek in the bottom of a steep valley with a stretch of rapids;
- patches of flat, fertile floodplains with infrequent seasonal pools and groundwater seeps;
- valley walls that rise dramatically with jagged rock outcrops to high ridges and bluffs;
- moist, fern-laden ravines;
- rolling hillsides cloaked with American beech;
- cobblestone-sprinkled dry hilltops dense with oak trees and mountain laurel.
Reading the Landscape
No story about any one feature at Rock Creek Park—whether plant or animal, bedrock, shape of the land, stream, or historic/current land use—is complete without understanding something about how each impacts all the others.
Let this website help weave together some of these stories and develop your ability to "read the landscape" at Rock Creek Park the way a skilled naturalist can read animal tracks. Explore the website and learn how plants and animals interact with each other and the physical setting to form recognizable natural communities.
Learn how humans have influenced those natural communities in the past, and continue to do so today—check out Water & Land Use in the Stewardship and Ecological Threats section.
How the Park Came To Be
Rock Creek Park is the oldest and largest urban national park in the United States. Recognized in the early days of Washington, D.C., as a remarkable, peaceful retreat for residents and visitors to the nation’s capital, the area was established as a national park by Congress in 1890 for the preservation “of all timber, animals or curiosities … and their retention in the natural condition, as nearly as possible.”1 Its core 1,754 acres consisted of a roughly six-mile stretch of Rock Creek with its accompanying valleys and ridges as it flows from the Maryland state line south to the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park (the National Zoo), along with two of its major tributaries and their valleys—Broad Branch and Piney Branch.2 3
Because of its size, Rock Creek Park offers ample space for recreational pursuits (among them picnicking, hiking, biking, jogging, horseback riding, tennis, and golf), while also functioning as a nature oasis for residents and visitors to Washington, D.C.—human AND animal.