Family-Friendly Hikes in Rock Creek Park

Published on December 26, 2019 - Updated on February 10, 2020

Our Guide to Hiking Rock Creek Park with Kids

Rock Creek Park is one of the many delightful features of living in or near DC, but at over 1,750 acres in size, it can seem intimidating to get started exploring. But it's actually incredibly accessible once you get the lay of the land! Not surprisingly, the park stretches generally north to south along Rock Creek. There are smaller offshoots, but we suggest sticking to the central portion of the park to get started, and we've included some of our favorite hikes to help.

Two primary trails run north-south: Western Ridge Trail (on the western side of the creek) and Valley Trail (on the eastern side of Rock Creek). The National Park Service describes these two trails as the rails of a ladder, with smaller trails traversing east and west between them as rungs. That's a great visual to keep in mind.

While Valley Trail offers enjoyable hiking, much of the main trail is close to and elevated above Beach Drive, and that can be harrowing with little kids. We generally suggest starting with the hikes located on the western side of the park and then loop in portions of Valley Trail as you get a little more comfortable, but we've included one short hike to Boulder Bridge on Valley Trail below.

Note that while the main trails are named and marked, many of the smaller trails are not. We've highlighted the portions you'll be taking on each of the hikes below alongside the dotted trail maps. Also, several of these hikes take you along and down to Rock Creek. While the creek has been cleaned up significantly over the years, this is most definitely still an urban park, and the water quality is not swimmable, so keep the kids out of the actual water.

We highly suggest checking out the full park map before you go and pick up a paper copy of the map at the Rock Creek Nature Center before embarking on any of these hikes. In fact, it's the starting point for our first (and stroller-friendly) hike below!

Nature Center Paved "Hike" -- 2 miles

hike with kids

We've put this hike in quotation marks because it's really more of a walk on a paved path, but it works well to get you out in the park a bit even if all you're working with is a regular stroller. This hike starts at the impressive Rock Creek Nature Center and Planetarium (a destination for the kids all on its own, although the Planetarium temporarily closed for repairs). There is a large parking lot with plenty of room. The rangers at the center are great and there are interesting exhibits of wildlife found in the park. There is a very short paved loop around the nature center as well. We recommend popping in here, using the bathrooms, filling water bottles, etc. before getting started.

After finishing at the nature center, walk a few hundred feet to pick up a paved portion of Western Ridge Trail and turn right. Walk down to Military Road and cross at the light. Continue along the paved path as it follows the stretch of Military Road, but in the woods a bit. You'll reach the creek, and you can continue to follow the path to the right (south) along the creek for a few hundred feet until you reach a grassy picnic area. You can take a break here or walk across the Joyce Road bridge, turn right to see a small, sandy beach area by the creek just in front of the Rock Creek Park Station for the US Park Police (path marked in purple on the map above). There is a picnic bench here, and it's an inviting little area to play by the water. Afterward, head back up the way you came and back to the Nature Center.

Fort DeRussy Extension Option -- 1.75 miles

hiking with kids

If you're ready for something a little more challenging and don't need a stroller, this hike takes you through a few of the neat historical features of the park. Park at the Nature Center and follow the same path across the paved portion of the Western Trail, crossing Military Road at the light. Instead of continuing along the paved portion, however, look uphill just a bit for the marked dirt trail. Follow that east down towards the creek. You'll come to a placard and maker for the remains of Civil War defense Fort DeRussy. How cool is it that this fort saw Civil War action when Confederate troops attacked Fort Stevens!? Check out the remains of the fort and play a bit here.

hiking with kids

Continue down the path until you reach Rock Creek and a "T" in the trail. Go left and follow the trail north along the creek. About 1/4 mile in, look across the creek to spot the cabin of Joaquin Miller -- a poet and playwright who lived in this cabin in Meridian Hill in the 1880s.

Keep heading along the creek, and you'll see a roadway the travels right down into the creek! Here is Milkhouse Ford, and people used to drive directly through the creek at this location until the 1950s. It's a great spot to stop and look for wildlife now.

When you're ready to loop back, take the trail to the left that leads west up the hill. You'll be walking along a little tributary that has excellent spots for kids to play. At the top of the hill, you'll see green trail markings for Western Ridge Trail. Follow that to the left back to Military Road and then back to the Nature Center.

Rapids Bridge Hike -- 2 miles

rapids bridge hike

This looped hike also starts at the Rock Creek Nature Center and Planetarium. After parking and stopping into the center, if you like, walk back through the parking lot towards the Horse Center (another great destination!). Head towards the horse corral and pick up the trail just to the left of it. Start your hike by walking through the forest path heading towards the creek for about 1/2 mile. You'll come to Ross Drive and see the creek beyond it. Cross the drive here and keep walking through the grassy picnic area. When you reach the bridge crossing over the creek to Beach Drive, stop. Look to your right and pick up the trail heading south along the creek.

hike dc

Continue along the trail and consider popping down to the creek to let the kids climb the huge boulders here. As you head south, you'll start to see rapids forming in the creek -- the only spot this happens along the 33-mile creek. Walk until you reach Rapids Bridge. The bridge offers one of the prettiest places to snap a few pics of the kids in the park, so walk out to the middle of it, but don't cross it. There are tranquil areas to walk down to the creek here too.

When you're ready to continue, head back up to the path and continue south just about 150 feet. Look for an unmarked trail up to the right. Walk uphill along the trail alongside a little tributary to the creek. You'll come to a large bridge (Ross Drive), stay on the trail crossing under it. Continue on uphill until you reach back at the Horse Center.

Boulder Bridge Hike* -- less than 1 mile round trip

boulder bridge hike

This short hike is not stroller friendly, but it has a great view of the creek from up high and an entertaining area for kids to hop and scramble around rocks and skip stones into the creek by Boulder Bridge. Park at the cul-de-sac end of Colorado Avenue (marked on the map with a red star). There is street parking here for several hours, which should be plenty of time for this short hike. You'll see a trail sign just off of the cul-de-sac -- this is a small unnamed path that will take you to Valley Trail, and it's where you'll start. Head west down the trail, toward the creek, and you'll run right into Valley Trail (marked pink on the map).

Once you hit Valley Trail (you will see a blue trail marker on a tree), make a right and head north'ish. You'll pass Pulpit Rock -- stop here and take in the view for a bit. Then continue down the sloped trail towards the creek. There are great big trees here and beautiful areas for the kids to play as you walk. Once you get down to the creek, the path gets filled with boulders and rocks. Walk carefully, but kids love to play here too!

Keep walking until you start to approach Beach Drive. Look to your left, and you'll see beautiful Boulder Bridge. You can scramble down the bank here and play along the pebbled shoreline. Play here as long as you'd like, and then take the same route back to your parked car.

Optional Extension -- closer to 2 miles

hike with kids

If you'd like to make this hike a little more challenging, you can add an extension loop on after Boulder Bridge (marked in purple on map above). Carefully walk up to Boulder Bridge and cross over the creek -- there is no pedestrian crosswalk here, so mind the traffic. Pick up the dirt trail on the western side of the creek (there is a trail marker on the right side of the road) and head south, uphill. You'll follow this until you meet up with the Western Ridge Trail back down at the creek, where Blagden Avenue meets Beach Drive. Cross over the bridge here and find Theodore Roosevelt Trail at the corner of Blagden and Beach Drive. Take that north back up along the east side of the creek until you meet up with Valley Trail again (near Pulpit Rock). Follow the trail to the right, back out to where you parked on Colorado Avenue.


Thoughtfully captured by:
Rebecca Green
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