The loop in the northern end of Rock Creek Park that includes Boundary Bridge is one that Matt and I return to over and over. This time of year, the highlight for us is two large patches of skunk cabbage in flower. Later in the spring you'll find mountain laurels and pinxter azaleas. But it's beautiful any time of the year.
Landscape: River views and stretches of woods that make you feel like you can't possibly be in the middle of a city, especially on the weekend when Beach Drive is closed.
Terrain: Mostly smooth trails with some hills; one optional tricky spot on an eroded, root-covered hillside.
Car-Free: Easy access from buses on 16th St.
This narrated slide show walks you through the the route.
Expand this post for printable directions; click on the map above for a printable full-page .jpg.
In honor of our car-free friends, we'll start our trail description at the intersection of Holly St. and 16th St. NW, where there's a bus stop for the very reliable 16th St. buses. If you're driving, there's some limited street parking on Holly Street. Or you can start at a different spot on the route -- try parking on Parkside Drive, or the parking lot at Boundary Bridge.
From Holly Street, the trailhead you want is on 16th Street. Head downhill on the Pine Trail (skip the turnoff for Holly Trail). At the bottom of the hill, hang a left on the Valley Trail. You'll see some mountain laurels in this stretch of the trail. They'll be blooming in May.
Not long after you turn onto the Valley Trail, the main trail veers off to the left, away from Rock Creek. We like to head right, onto a less-traveled path. You're quite a ways above Rock Creek at this point and there's a nice overlook, complete with some pinxter azaleas that are just gorgeous in May.
From the overlook it's a quick and often slippery descent to river level. Watch your step. If you want to skip this tricky bit, head back to the main trail and make sure to head right to the bridge. Either way, you'll end up at river level in an area that frequently floods. Notice how different the soil and the plants are.
You'll go right to cross Riley Spring Bridge, then cross Beach Drive (it's closed here on weekends). You'll soon start going uphill and come to a T with no sign: this is the ridge trail. Hang a right.
There are some huge multi-stemmed tuliptrees along this trail. They'll also bloom in May, but the flowers are hard to see because they're so high up. Keep an eye out for fallen blossoms -- or for nectar that gets blown down on a windy day!
Cross Wise Road and continue on the Ridge Trail. Eventually you'll start heading down again, cross Beach Drive, and find yourself at Boundary Bridge. The dividing line between DC and Maryland crosses Rock Creek just upstream from the bridge.
From here, you're back on the Valley Trail, and this section is wide, flat floodplain. Notice how much moister it is than the ridge. There are lots of wet areas to the right of the trail, toward Rock Creek. This is a great spot to look for skunk cabbage. The flowers start coming up as early as January, and the big foliage later in the year. There are also several vernal ponds that make great places to look for tadpoles in the spring.
Eventually you'll come to a spot where the road passes over Rock Creek; you'll go under the bridge to stay on the Valley Trail. You'll be walking right along the river for a little while, then the trail starts to head uphill again.
Just before you go up, there are some very large rocks on the left of the trail. In front of them is another swampy area, chock full of skunk cabbage. The side of the rocks as the trail climbs is also an interesting mini-ecosystem with interesting plants and often bolete mushrooms in the summer. And at the top of the hill you're rewarded with a nice overlook over the river.
Beyond the overlook, there's a ravine where a stream sometimes runs to Rock Creek Park. Rather than cutting down and up, the trail follows the contour along the back edge of the valley, making a big U. Once you come out of the ravine, you'll be back in mountain laurel territory. Keep an eye out for the sign for the Pine Trail: that's your route back up to 16th Street.
Check back here and let us know what you see!