Throughout the year, sports enthusiasts enjoy the courts, courses, fields and trails of Rock Creek Park.
The athletes of Rock Creek Park have ranged from hikers and rollerbladers to world champions in tennis, golf and bicycle racing. Summertime visitors rent watercraft at the mouth of the creek at Thompson Boat Center. Winter storms attract cross-country skiers, who may be cheered to know the park holds the DC record for deepest snowfall (33 inches in 1922). Once or twice a year, the creek may flow high enough to allow brave kayakers to venture out.
From the beginning, the park's wild environment provided the perfect setting for hiking, horseback riding and — until the streams became too polluted and fishing was prohibited north of Porter Street — swimming and angling. Ice skaters used to gather after a hard freeze at a shallow section of the creek near the National Zoo. Formal hiking and bridle paths were added in the early 20th century. Equestrians took advantage of the Equitation Field beginning in the 1930s and a modern horse center starting in 1972.
Foot and Pedal Power
Today, typical half-day loop hikes from the Nature Center take you past the creek's wildest whitewater, historic bridges and fords, Civil War defenses and even a stack of cement pieces once part of the US Capitol. Or make your own way along any of the blazed trails, including the Valley Trail that stretches from the Jusserand Memorial near Park Road north to the marshland by Boundary Bridge at the DC/Maryland line. Even a brief ramble along a park trail will help you connect with nature in the middle of the city.
Bicycle riders pedaled the scenic country roads in and around Rock Creek valley before the park was established. The first paved bike paths didn't appear until the 1960s, when the National Park Service also began testing the idea of closing parts of Beach Drive to motor traffic. A Sunday auto-ban became permanent in 1972, with Saturdays and holidays added in 1981. Nearly the entire park was shut down in June 1978 for America's first international bicycle event in 66 years — the Junior World Cycling Championships.
Today Capital Bikeshare makes bicycles available at several locations near the park. Federal and DC transportation officials are rehabilitating the paved biking/hiking trail from P Street to Broad Branch Road — and rebuilding all of Beach Drive — with work targeted to end in 2017.
Playing on the Plateau
The park became the home of organized sports after the Brightwood Reservoir opened near 16th Street and Colorado Avenue in 1900. When park authorities (under pressure from Congress) allowed the DC Water Department to use the parcel, they were agreeing for the first time not to preserve a section of the park in its natural state. The decision was made easier because the reservoir was located on an isolated plateau just 300 yards south of a working racetrack. Horse races continued at the track until 1909 — and the venue also hosted occasional baseball games, bicycle competitions and Washington's first automobile races.
Once the precedent was set to allow the reservoir, it seemed natural to use the rest of the plateau for recreation. A nine-hole golf course was laid out in 1907, though never completed. Playing fields and tennis courts were built in 1916. More space became available after the reservoir was bulldozed in 1937. Today the fields at 16th and Kennedy Streets can be reserved through DC's Department of Parks and Recreation for use by soccer, football, baseball, field hockey and other sports teams.
Courts on the plateau began hosting pro tennis tournaments in 1969. The William H. G. Fitzgerald Tennis Stadium opened in 1987 (to the delight of Andre Agassi, who won the singles title five times). Women's play was added to the tournament in 2012. The annual event supports the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation's programs to help the lives of under-served DC youngsters.
The park finally did get its public golf course in the 1920s — over the protests of former President Woodrow Wilson, who called plans for a course "an unforgivable piece of vandalism." The links were forced to shrink by about 25 percent during the 1950s due to the construction of Joyce Road and the addition of new lanes to Military Road. Other recreation facilities built along Rock Creek include the Thompson Boat Center (1960) — home base for rowing clubs and crews from area high schools and universities — and the Park Road tennis courts (1926).
On a typical weekend, you can now find people pursuing all of their favorite sports. Hikers and horse riders follow wooded trails. Bicyclists wheel along paved paths. Golf and tennis enthusiasts aim for their personal best. Teams compete on playing fields. Frisbees fly at picnic areas. And the section of Beach Drive closed to traffic attracts a colorful congregation of visitors, both on foot and using non-motorized contraptions that range from in-line skates and recumbent bikes to tricycles for kids and wheeled carriers for dogs. Rock Creek Park can give anybody a sporting chance.