Many visitors who come to Washington are surprised by the abundance of parkland and greenery in the nation’s capital, which was bordered in L’Enfant’s time by the Rock Creek Valley. In the 1860’s, the Army Corps of Engineers proposed building a roadway through the valley, and thus the idea of Rock Creek Park was born. The slopes of the valley were carefully sculpted and sweeping roads were laid. The six-mile-long park runs from the Potomac up into Maryland and is the delight of bikers, hikers, joggers, and nature lovers throughout the city. The views along Rock Creek Parkway are among Washington’s best-kept secrets, seldom appreciated by tourists.
One man who did appreciate Rock Creek Park, however, was Theodore Roosevelt. When he first became president he was a vigorous 42 year old, an advocate of "the strenuous life" fond of chopping down trees on the outskirts of Washington and swimming across the Potomac. The press had a field day covering his athletic outings. Roosevelt was particularly fond of what he called "scrambles," exhausting cross-country hikes. His favorite place in Washington for these expeditions was Rock Creek Park, where he led members of his "Tennis Cabinet" and various hapless foreign diplomats on grueling hikes. His motto was "Over, Under or Through – But Never Around."
In January 1905, for example, he led a group of nine boys, including three of his sons, on a hike through Rock Creek Park. "I do not think that one of them saw anything incongruous in the President’s getting as bedaubed as mud as they got," he wrote, "or in my wiggling and clambering around jutting rocks, through cracks, and up what were really small cliff faces, just like the rest of them."
While the boys may have not found the President’s behavior odd, others were less forgiving. "Theodore!" Senator Henry Cabot Lodge once exclaimed, "if you knew how ridiculous you look up in that tree, you’d come down at once!"
The challenging "Theodore Roosevelt Trail" winds its way through gorges and woodlands of Rock Creek Park, but a hiker can rest at the Jules Jusserand Memorial bench near Pierce Mill on Beach Drive. Jusserand, the French Ambassador, was like Roosevelt an avid birdwatcher. The natty Jusserand gamely followed T.R. on many excursions, writing of one occasion when they forded a creek, "I, too, for the honor of France removed my apparel, everything except my lavender kid gloves. The President cast an inquiring look at this as if they, too, must come off, but I quickly forestalled any remark by saying, ‘With your permission, Mr. President, I will keep these on; otherwise it would be embarrassing if we should meet ladies.’"
Taking a drive or stroll through Rock Creek Park makes a refreshing change from the federal regularity of downtown Washington. Stop by the Nature Center off of Military Road for a guide and orientation to the park’s many facilities, which include a public riding stable, the Carter Barron amphitheater, a public golf course, and a planetarium.