Sunday, January 24, 2010

City Mouse, Country Mouse

When my husband's employer granted him an extended break over the holidays, we enthusiastically made plans for a "staycation", a stay-at-home vacation, to renew our appreciation of the place we call home. Busloads of school children and thousands of out-of-towners make a trip here to the Nation's Capitol every year to take advantage of the unique sights and sounds the District has to offer, but Washingtonians tend to avoid these overcrowded "tourist traps". By doing so, we ultimately miss out on fun opportunities to learn about our capitol city. Many famous tourism spots in Washington, such as the National Mall, the iconic monuments and memorials, and President's Park (The White House), are managed by the National Park Service. Other less celebrated national parks, accepting Rock Creek, Meridian Hill, Anacostia and Kenilworth, are virtually extensions of our backyards. The parks feature something of interest for every family member, from history buffs and animal lovers to gardeners and Scouts. When researching the National Park Service (NPS) website for the District of Columbia, my husband and I were reminded that winter is a great time to explore many of these places because, as every savvy traveler knows, popular sightseeing destinations become less crowded as temperatures drop.

Locals, unlike harried tourists with packed itineraries, have the luxury of time when exploring their hometown and can savor each site they pay a visit. They can also easily do what only the most seasoned or brazen travelers tend to do, which is to veer off the beaten path in search of a city's better kept secrets. Rock Creek Park (RCP) is one undervalued jewel with plenty of things to do, so we decided to spend a couple days reacquainting ourselves with this woodland in the Northwest quadrant of DC.

The slow winding road to the RCP Nature Center, located at 5200 Glover Road, NW, is perfect for a Sunday drive and those seeking solace away from the hustle and flow of urban life on a week day. We passed a few cyclists, backpackers and dog walkers along the way as well as families lunching at picnic areas. The parking lot, which is typically full in the summer, has plenty of spaces available in winter. A bike rack is also available in front of the center for those who prefer getting there on the power of their own two feet.

The Nature Center is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. every Wednesday through Sunday except Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years Day and Independence Day. During winter, the the trees around the center are mostly bare making it easier to see wild birds perched on the branches. I heard and then spied a Downy Woodpecker within seconds of our arrival. As we entered the center we were greeted by a park ranger seated at the information desk who provided us with an informative NPS pamphlet on Rock Creek Park, a map of scenic hiking trails near the Nature Center, and a calendar of free programs at the Nature Center and Planetarium. Ranger led programs at RCP are typically offered two or three times a day on weekends and once a day during the week; the calendar includes descriptions of each event and age recommendations for children attending them. The park ranger also told us about the NPS Junior Ranger Program and gave us a booklet for children to complete to learn about stewardship of our country's natural resources and to earn a Junior Ranger sticker and badge.

On the ground floor of the Nature Center is an exhibit hall where you will find plants and animals both native and introduced to Rock Creek Park. Children may learn more about the center's live animals and assist rangers in feeding them during "Creature Feature", Friday afternoons at 4pm. A "Please Touch" area familiarizes children with the tracks different creatures leave behind and permits closer inspection of animal, insect and plant specimens. It is amazing to discover what wildlife flourishes in and around the creek, meadows, and forest habitats of this inner city park, including Wood Ducks, Eastern Painted Turtles, White-tailed Deer and the occasional coyote. Across from the exhibit hall is a play room where kids may stage small performances with forest animal hand puppets, complete a giant puzzle on the life cycle of a Monarch Butterfly, create crayon rubbings of leaves, and pore over beautifully illustrated children's books like Stellaluna and Wild Tracks that explain the natural world .

The RCP Planetarium, accessible from inside the Nature Center, is the only planetarium in the national park system. "Winter Night Sky: When I Wish Upon a Star" and "Young Planetarium" presentations are shortened programs, tailored for the youngest star-gazers. The Nature Center is also the starting point for several hiking trails in RCP, including the scenic "Nature Center Hike" and "Rapids Bridge Hike". Join a park ranger for these exploratory hikes if you're feeling ambitious, or simply take a short self-guided walk on the "Edge of the Woods Trail" to familiarize yourself with Rock Creek Park's Eastern Hemlock, Tulip and Sassafras trees among others. The trail is stroller and wheelchair accessible with a guide rope for the visually impaired.

Before leaving the center, take a few minutes to browse the bookstore. The store sells a variety of items appropriate for children: Junior Ranger hats, Ranger Roberta dolls, plush stuffed animals and puppets, a wonderful assortment of NPS sticker-, coloring- and activity-books as well as field guides and educational picture books for children of all ages. Our find of the day was Sierra Club Knowledge Cards, "Urban Wildlife: Fascinating Facts about Birds, Beasts and Bugs in Your Neighborhood". National Park Service Passports can also be purchased here. NPS Passports are pocket-size guides to parks throughout the United States and include maps, photos and practical information for travelers, but they also serve as keepsakes. Individual rubber stamps are available at park visitor centers for you to stamp your passport at every visit. If you don't want to purchase an NPS Passport but think your children would enjoy collecting the stamps, make your own passport from a small blank notepad.

It's just a short walk from the Nature Center to the Rock Creek Horse Center. Horseback riding lessons and summer day camps are offered to children and adults at all riding levels, but instruction doesn't come cheap. One-hour guided trail rides are a more affordable alternative but available only from April to October. Ten-minute supervised pony rides are a great introduction for children ages 2 1/2 and up (and at least 30" tall). Reservations are required, and it is recommended that you book trail rides 6-8 weeks in advance. Two thirds of the horses boarded here are privately owned, and you are welcome to visit the boarding facility as long as you agree to follow some simple guidelines for your safety and the well-being of the animals. We stopped to watch a group lesson for young girls in the riding ring before heading home.

Good friends living in Manassas, Virginia, grow organic produce and raise honey bees on acres of land within hiking distance of Manassas National Battlefield Park which is also managed by the National Park Service. They sometimes tempt us "city mice" to visit with promises of fresh air and a taste of country life. While I cherish such opportunities to explore a beautiful historic area and natural environment, when we return home from trips to cities north and west of Washington, DC, I sometimes find myself exhaling in relief as we cross the district line and enter what is, to my mind, one of the most culturally significant and attractive urban landscapes in the United States. The tree-lined streets, historic homes and buildings, and lack of billboards certainly contribute to Washington's visual aesthetic, but arguably it is the multitude of park lands that improve our quality of life here and attract wayfarers from near and far.


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