A winter’s day in Rock Creek Park shows off the orange-tan bark of a boxelder, which flourishes in the park’s floodplain. Credit: ⒸSusan A. Roth.
In a national park as old as Yosemite and twice the size of New York City’s Central Park, walkers, runners and cyclists witness an annual transformation as the stark topography of Rock Creek Park’s winter landscape surrenders to the verdancy of early spring. When the days warm in the wild, wooded heart of Washington, D.C., the boxelders overhanging Rock Creek put forth pendent clusters of greenish gold flowers and tender green leaves. Tiny spicebush blossoms form a yellow haze throughout the stream valley as a melodic chorus of spring peepers pipes up from every vernal pool. Wood ducks paddle past budding trout lilies, and phoebes call out as they explore their nesting sites under the West Beach Drive bridge. Work may be gridlocked across town on Capitol Hill, but there’s no stopping the unfurling of the skunk cabbage leaves or the return of the alewives to Rock Creek.
But, lest we prematurely jumpstart the spring season in Rock Creek Park before properly honoring its predecessor, for three months before the first peep from the peepers, the beauty of winter reigns in the nation’s oldest urban national park, which, at 1,754 acres, is also one of the largest. The distinctive bark and architecture of trees that have escaped the axe since 1890 are on mesmerizing display in the leafless crowns of the creamy sycamores, red-barked river birches, dark black walnuts, sinewy ironwoods and tall tuliptrees of Rock Creek’s floodplain forest. When snow falls it creates celestial ice cream cones in the clusters of samaras high up in the tuliptree crowns, and it turns the open beaks of the jimsonweed capsules along the creek’s pebbled beaches into white rosebuds. In the park’s rocky upland woods, the limbs of many species of oak and hickory display their impressive profiles free of leaves along with their distinctive twigs and buds. They are offset by an evergreen understory of mountain laurel and Christmas fern. The smooth pewter of American beech tree trunks is contrasted by the bleached wheat of their marcescent winter leaves all along the Rock Creek Parkway, where they are admired by D.C. commuters, who are collectively grateful for a glimpse of wild winter beauty on the way to their K Street offices.
The unpredictability of Washington, D.C. winter weather brings constant anticipatory excitement and occasional dread to the human inhabitants of the nation’s capital. Freezes and thaws in Rock Creek create scalloped shelves of gold-veined ice that collapse to flood waters on a 50-degree day. The thermometer plunges to the single digits and creek ice forms, snow comes as the slightest flurry or as a coastal blizzard dropping 30 inches of wet powder. Ice skaters practice figure eights on the vernal pools, and cross country skiers traverse the vast network of hiking trails enraptured by the snow-laced stream valley forest.
For Stephanie Mason, who turned her back on a Capitol Hill career many years ago and now serves as Senior Naturalist for the Audubon Naturalist Society (ANS), the stillness of winter among the
leafless trees is punctuated by high drama in the Rock Creek Park winter bird flock.
“Mixed winter flocks of our resident Carolina chickadees and tufted titmice, joined by overwintering kinglets and more, always amuse me with their noisy defiance of an otherwise quiet winter
woods,” Mason says with a smile. “Their many eyes find more food in fewer and more dispersed places. Foraging in the season’s open, mostly leafless woodlands, their flocking behavior also helps the small birds stay alert to avoid predators. Imagine being a hungry sharp-shinned with its eye on one member of the group, only to have the entire flock scatter with explosive speed — and in all directions — as the hawk zooms in for the catch.”
Rock Creek is 33 miles long. The National Park Service, which celebrates its centennial this year with its theme “Find Your Park,” administers the creek and adjacent parkland within District lines. Montgomery County, Md. parkland dating to the 1930s shelters the creek’s 22-mile journey upstream from D.C., from springs on and around a golf course in Laytonsville, to the humble but legendary landmark at the D.C. border known as Boundary Bridge — one of several footbridges traversing the creek within the national park that dates to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. Together, D.C. and Maryland are fighting to enhance and restore the integrity of the stream valley and its waters under the Clean Water Act.
They have their work cut out for them.