Urban Green Spaces: District of Columbia Edition

Author: Erin Murphy, SCA Alumni Council Member

When I moved to the District of Columbia more than three years ago, I sold my car. In my new neighborhood, I could walk across the street to a coffee shop, two blocks to a grocery store, and three blocks to a Metro station.

Adjusting to life in a big city was exciting, but I quickly realized there was something missing: I no longer had the ability to drive to a remote trailhead and head out for a hike. As an SCA alum who loves the great outdoors, this was frustrating, but exploring Washington revealed a lot of great opportunities to connect with nature.

I have since moved away from DC and now live in Maine (the exact opposite of a big city), but I miss the unique interconnectedness of shared parks in the urban environment. There is something exciting about sharing green space with tens of thousands of other people.

City living taught me that nature is all around you, if you stop for a minute to look for it. Here are my top five natural spaces and activities in the District.

Rock Creek Park (photo credit Natalie Prescott)

1. Meridian Hill Park

In DC, I lived in the Columbia Heights neighborhood. My morning running route included a few laps around Meridian Hill Park, but I quickly realized I needed to return and enjoy the scenery instead of just hurrying through on my run.

The park isn’t huge, but its location on a hill is a perfect way to remove yourself from the hustle and bustle of traffic for awhile. Plus, you get a great view out over the city from the south end of the park. I loved to set up here and read under the trees.

Tip: When DC gets a lot of snow the steps at Meridian Hill Park make for fantastic sledding. I went exploring after the snowstorm finished, and found a merry crowd of locals hanging out at the top of the steps, while brave urban sledders used trashcan lids and ironing boards to slide down the snowbanks.

2. The National Mall

The National Mall is a fantastic, wide open green space, but a lot of DC residents tend to stay away because of the tourists. I avoided these out of town visitors by running along the Mall instead of walking. I usually started up near the Capitol building, and from there could choose from multiple routes.

For a short run, loop around the Washington Monument and back. For a longer run, head from the Capitol down the length of the mall, past the WWII Memorial to the Lincoln Memorial. There is also the option to run around the Tidal Basin, but avoid this during cherry blossom season – when tourists can overcrowd the area.

The National Mall (photo credit Erin Murphy)

I ran along the National Mall at least once a week, in part because I enjoyed experiencing the immensity and beauty of the monuments up close, and also to appreciate how the vibe would change around them in the evening twilight.

Living in DC, it is easy to take for granted the many pieces of history located right in our backyard. Get out there, run past the tourists, and enjoy the heart of our nation’s capital.

The National Mall (photo credit Erin Murphy)

3. Rock Creek Park 

Rock Creek is arguably DC’s answer to Central Park in New York City, but it is often overlooked. Tucked away in the western part of the city, the park follows Rock Creek and is fairly long and narrow. There are some beautiful spots where traffic is high above the park on a bridge, and you can walk, bike, or run along the creek in peace and quiet.

I went hiking in the northern section of the park with a friend, and we were impressed – we hadn’t realized how many miles of trails there are. If you live in Dupont, Woodley Park, Columbia Heights, or other neighborhoods in Southwest or Northwest DC, Rock Creek Park is much closer than you think.

Rock Creek Park (photo credit Natalie Prescott)

4. The Potomac River

Admittedly, there are lots of jokes to be made about the Potomac River. Did you hear about the time they cancelled a triathlon because the river was too polluted for swimming? Yes, that really happened. Even so, getting out on the water is a great way to catch a breeze on a hot day, and you’ll get a different perspective on the city.

There are several launch points to choose from, and I usually went to Boating in DC in Georgetown to rent kayaks. You can head upriver for a more scenic paddle, or head down towards the Tidal Basin to take a look at the monuments from the water.

Apparently paddlers can pull their boats up onto Roosevelt Island and hike around the island, though I never tried it. A friend advised me that Roosevelt Island is less fun in the summer because it gets so humid and buggy, but it is worth a visit in the fall or spring. You can also rent stand-up paddleboards from Boat DC, but I always avoided that due to the questionable status of the water quality.

5. Day Trip: Shenandoah National Park

Sorry to break my own rules—this park is of course outside the District. Every once in a while, I think it’s worth the effort to get out of the city.

I did this several ways: once I bribed a friend with a car to join me on a hike, and once I used my Zipcar membership to rent a car for a day. The Zipcar option is convenient, though not super cheap – I recommend going with friends so you split the costs (I spent about $80 for a full day rental). You can drive out to the town of Front Royal in about two hours, enter the park at the northern entrance, and head to the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center for recommendations on hikes.

On one perfect Shenandoah day trip, I left DC early in the morning and was able to do several short hikes along the Skyline Drive, including Mary’s Rock and the Stony Man Summit. As the sun went down we stopped at the Skyland Dining Room for dinner, and then drove back to Washington.

Shenandoah National Park (photo credit Erin Murphy)

If you’re living in DC, or just visiting, I hope these tips can help you enjoy the many fantastic green spaces available in our capital city (and I didn’t even talk about the U.S. Botanic Garden). To those SCA alums living in other urban areas, remember – even though you aren’t out in the wilderness right now, you can still find the time and space to enjoy the natural world.