Beach Drive, which is a narrow strip of asphalt running almost the entire length of Rock Creek Park, and a favorite cut-through street for D.C.-area commuters, is partially closed for up to 3 years. For those of us who use that particular road to travel in, out, and through the District, it will likely turn the city streets above Rock Creek into a mess. For those who enjoy the peace beneath the city, it’s a blessing.
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In the early 20th Century, when monuments and museums sprung out of the ground at an alarming rate, row houses were built with extreme expediency, and the whole city seemed to be in the throes of development, Rock Creek Park was largely untouched. By 1920, there were a few landmarks that survived the generations, including a handful of settlements, a couple rotting Civil War-era fortifications, and the Peirce Mill. Still, most of Rock Creek Park was left to nature.
In fact, the park was “perpetually dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasure ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people of the United States,” in an act of Congress, in 1890. Rock Creek Park was the third-ever National Park established by Congress. That meant any future development in and around Rock Creek had to be negotiated with a branch of the Federal Government. Currently, that branch is the National Park Service, which didn’t formally control all National Parks until 1933, thanks to a major consolidation of government agencies under Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
By that point, Beach Drive was almost finished, though. For the generations before 1933, people on either side of Rock Creek used narrow, unpaved roads to navigate across the streams. The depth of the creek itself changes from bend to bend. In some spots, near a pebbly bank, the water is low enough to simply drive a car across it. In other spots, especially after a good rain, the water can get between six to eight feet deep. Naturally, the early roads through what would become Rock Creek Park crossed the water at shallow points.
Those early roads and routes disappeared (although, not entirely) as the construction of the Rock Creek Parkway finished in 1936. Now, instead of steep paths going up and down ravines, there is one major thoroughfare cutting through the park. And it’s about to shut down in a few weeks.
More than fifty years have passed since Beach Drive’s last re-paving. Potholes are common, and crumbling asphalt is rampant throughout the two-lane blacktop. Earlier this summer, the National Park Service released their plans to “rehabilitate” the pavement in Rock Creek. This means not only closures of the roads, but also closure of the paved trails that run alongside Beach Drive and the connecting roads.
While the series of closures will undoubtedly irk nearly every commuter who uses the Parkway to get to and from, and it will inevitably spill unwanted traffic onto the city streets, they will in no way prevent people from visiting Rock Creek Park on foot. While not heavily used, there are still a few old, steep, un-paved paths that tumble down into the woods from the neighborhoods. A cluster of oak trees hides a not-so-steep entrance to Rock Creek just behind Bancroft Elementary. There’s another path that goes down from where Calvert intersects Biltmore. And there’s even a path behind Dumbarton Oaks, which runs side-by-side to the cemetery.
The closure of Beach Drive doesn’t mean Rock Creek Park will be inaccessible– it just means people will have the chance to experience the park in the way it was enjoyed by the District over a century ago. There’s lots of exploring to do.
This piece originally ran August 16, 2016.