Rock Creek Park | MILKHOUSE FORD LOOP HIKE

Milkhouse Ford Loop Hike map (click to enlarge)

Milkhouse Ford Loop Hike map (click to enlarge)

Length: 1.75-mile loop
Time: 1.5 hours
Difficulty: Easy to Moderately Strenuous due to two steep hills

The Milkhouse Ford Loop Hike is the name given to a hiking route by the National Park Service, not the name of any particular trail. The hike combines part of the Western Ridge Trail with the White and Black Horse trails and passes the site of Fort DeRussy, an old cabin, and Milkhouse Ford, a crossing point on Rock Creek back in the days before any bridges existed. The route is listed on a brochure called Half-Day Hikes in Rock Creek Park that you can pick up at the Rock Creek Nature Center for free.

The hike begins at the Nature Center on the Western Ridge Trail. If standing with the building entrance to your back, walk straight along the paved path in front of you until you get to the intersection with the Western Ridge Trail on the far side of the parking lot. Take a right to begin the hike, heading towards the Pinehurst Trail and Boundary Bridge. A sign points the way.

Start of the Milkhouse Ford Loop Hike

Start of the Milkhouse Ford Loop Hike

At this point the Western Ridge Trail is a paved path that runs along Glover Road, crosses Military Road, and continues uphill along Oregon Avenue (Glover changes names on the other side of Military Road). When you get to an intersection marked by a Fort DeRussy information panel, take a right. The sign is located about a quarter mile from the Nature Center.

Path along Oregon Avenue

Path along Oregon Avenue

Fort DeRussy information panel

Fort DeRussy information panel

No sooner do you make the turn than the trail forks, with the paved path continuing to the right and a dirt trail veering to the left. Take the dirt trail.

Take a left to hike to Fort DeRussy

Take a left to hike to Fort DeRussy

You don’t get fifty yards before you come to another intersection, and like most intersections in Rock Creek Park, there is no sign indicating what lies down either path. This is the start of the loop, and you can go around in either direction. I stayed straight, hiking in a counterclockwise direction along what is technically the White Horse Trail, though there is no identification sign. This is the quickest way to Fort DeRussy if visiting the fort is your only goal.

Stay straight at the second intersection

Stay straight at the second intersection

It is .1-mile to the intersection with a side trail that leads to the fort. The intersection is marked by a boulder with a memorial plaque on it. The detour adds a tenth of a mile to the hike.

Historical marker at Fort DeRussy

Historical marker at Fort DeRussy

Fort DeRussy is not a fort like you are probably thinking—an actual building—but is instead an earthen fort in which only dirt hills and gullies remain. In addition to being part of Rock Creek Park, the fort is part of the National Park system’s Civil War Defenses of Washington. It is one of the best preserved forts because Rock Creek became a park only 25 years after the Civil War and the land where the fort was situated was never developed.

Wall of Fort DuRussy

Wall of Fort DuRussy

When done at the fort, return to the main trail and take a left. The terrain is mildly hilly up until the .6-mile mark on the hike, at which point the trail takes a steep dive that lasts nearly a tenth of a mile. I was glad to be going down it, but even so, my knees sure took a pounding. The radical descent is due to the fact that you are approaching Rock Creek, and creeks and other streams are usually at the lowest point on the landscape.

Steep downhill hike towards Rock Creek

Steep downhill hike towards Rock Creek

As the hike approaches the one-mile point, the trail begins to parallel Military Road, and if you can’t always see the road, you can hear the traffic. You will soon come to another unmarked intersection—take a left to stay on route (the Black Horse Trail). A right leads over to the same paved trail that the Milkhouse Ford Loop Hike split from after turning right at the Fort DeRussy sign.

Shortly after the intersection the sounds of Rock Creek begin to replace those of Military Road, but at this point the trail is high above the creek on a ridge. For the next tenth of a mile it makes a gradual descent until finally coming level with the creek.

Trail follows along Rock Creek

Trail follows along Rock Creek

Depending on when you do this hike, there may or may not be an old cabin on the other side of the creek. The National Park Service has plans to move it to Picnic Area #14 because its current location is in a floodplain. The cabin belonged to a poet named Joaquin Miller, who was a popular character in Washington. Miller lived in the cabin back in the 1880s. It was originally located on Meridian Hill and moved to this location in 1912 when Meridian Hill Park was being developed. If you want to see it up close—if it hasn’t been moved—there is access to it from Beach Drive. However, it is not open to the public due to being unsafe to enter.

Miller Cabin

Miller Cabin

The next point of interest is Milkhouse Ford, less than a quarter mile farther up the trail (1.25 miles from the Nature Center). This was a traditional crossing point on Rock Creek. In 1904, pavement was laid across the creek so wagons and vehicles could cross more easily. This was the only crossing point in the area until the 1950s. The underwater pavement can still be seen. There is also a structure with a concrete bench, but I do not know if this is a modern structure, an early 1900s bench, or an earlier structure to which a modern bench was added.

West side of Milkhouse Ford and unknown structure

West side of Milkhouse Ford and unknown structure

East side of Milkhouse Ford

East side of Milkhouse Ford

Pavement across Rock Creek at Milkhouse Ford

Pavement across Rock Creek at Milkhouse Ford

You depart Milkhouse Ford on a paved road that leads up to Beach Drive. However, you won’t walk far on the road until coming to the point where the hiking trail continues. Look for the trailhead on your left.

Trailhead to continue the hike

Trailhead to continue the hike

At this point the trail leaves Rock Creek for good along an unnamed trail. Just as you had a downhill hike when approaching the creek, you now have an uphill climb when leaving it, though this hill is only moderate in difficulty. The trail follows a small stream that feeds into Rock Creek.

Uphill terrain after leaving Milkhouse Ford

Uphill terrain after leaving Milkhouse Ford

The trail runs along a stream that feeds into Rock Creek

The trail runs along a stream that feeds into Rock Creek

The last leg of the journey is along the Western Ridge Trail, which runs north to south through Rock Creek Park. The intersection is a quarter mile from Milkhouse Ford. Again, there is no trail sign indicating which way to turn. The important thing to remember is that the Western Ridge Trail is marked with green blazes (paint splotches) that are either painted on the trees or on posts along the side of the trail. With that in mind, turn left at the intersection to head south.

The West Ridge Trail is marked with green blazes

The West Ridge Trail is marked with green blazes

The next intersection, which is where the loop starts, is just a short ways down the trail. Remember to take a right to return to Oregon Avenue. If you take a left you’ll just start the loop hike all over again.

Back at the start of the loop hike

Back at the start of the loop hike

If you are looking for a hike that offers more than just exercise, I highly suggest the Milkhouse Ford Loop Hike. You get to see Fort DeRussy, walk along Rock Creek, see Milkhouse Ford, and might even get a glimpse of the old Miller Cabin. That’s quite a lot of history. The trail is easy to hike—no rocks or roots to trip you up—and the terrain is not too difficult. I do suggest hiking poles if you typically use them, but those who hike without them will have no problem.

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Last updated on April 30, 2020
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