Your Summer Refuge: Rock Creek Park

Many people shun high summer in Washington. And when wildfire smoke merges with our usual brew of heat and humidity, the out of doors do not beckon. Indeed, on the worst air quality days, we are urged not to go out at all.

And yet, I invite you to consider that summer is a time like no other to explore and appreciate Rock Creek Park. In our nation’s oldest urban national park, as old as Yosemite and twice the size of Central Park, many trees have been able to grow unchecked since 1890, rendering a canopy so deep and dense that the hot sun’s rays are but gentle beams barely kissing the forest floor. To step through the threshold of this urban woodland is to receive a welcome from nature’s AC.

This morning I returned to Rock Creek Park following a trip to the Dakota badlands and Black Hills, steeped in the memory of sage, prairie rose and ponderosa pine fragrances. Crossing Boundary Bridge and entering Rock Creek’s floodplain forest, I was enveloped by the smells of creek water, spicebush, and deep wet earth after a summer shower. Above my head and all around me a thousand layers of green told the story of a long-protected forest. Here the trees have known each other for decades and even centuries. To walk in their presence at the apex of the year, when each leaf is busy converting sunlight, CO2 and water to sustenance, and releasing the oxygen we breathe in the process, is to access memory of the forest primeval.

During the fall, Rock Creek Park parties in vivid color, in winter its wooded landscapes entice, whether snowy or bare, and in spring the bursting tree buds and wildflowers of the floodplain forest and upland woods put on a pastel parade. The park is blessed with four distinct seasons. Yet it is on the hot days of high summer that you can truly understand the power of the park and the depth of its forest canopy.

On my morning walk, the park was silent but for the ethereal song of the wood thrush (DC’s official bird), an occasional tuneburst from a cardinal or scarlet tanager, the croak of a lone bullfrog, and a gentle cricket chorus. Even human conversation was hushed. People walked and ran alone or in pairs, talking softly as if not to disturb the trees in their high summer industry. These were not the intense talks of May or October, when everything from a failed relationship to a legislative markup is hashed over on woodland trails.

Rock Creek Park is hardly the only place in our city to appreciate the cooling and cleansing power of trees during the summer months. Our city is blessed with protected parkland, gardens, landscaped buildings and memorials, and tree-lined streets, the legacy of many generations of commitment to greenspace. We are situated at the confluence of two rivers, with their many wooded tributaries. Walking to Nationals Park on the 4th of July, I was uplifted by the young trees lining nearby residential streets, most of them in seemingly vigorous health. I stopped to appreciate the maturing acorns of a young red oak, acorns abundantly clustered like grapes. The city has a goal to increase the tree canopy from 37% to 40% by 2032 and these healthy young trees spoke of the dedication to that mission.

Anyone doubting the importance of urban trees and the city’s canopy goal need only to choose a warm summer morning or evening to walk in Rock Creek Park. I missed the worst of the wildfire smoke when I was in the Dakotas, but this morning I chatted with another walker under the shade of a centuries-old oak in the park’s upland forest. We agreed that it was much hotter “out there,” and much cooler under the tall trees. The woman, who was walking with her dog, said, “I came here on a day when the smoke was bad at home. Under these trees the air felt fresh and clean.”

Melanie Choukas-Bradley is a naturalist, forest bathing guide, and author of several nature books, most recently Resilience—Connecting with Nature in a Time of Crisis and Finding Solace at Theodore Roosevelt Island.

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