Anyone who knows me, knows I have a thing for ruins when I travel. If something is old, ruined and abandoned, I want to see it and explore it. Little did I know I’ve been living just a couple miles away from the Capitol Stones – the best kept secret ruins in Washington, DC – for the past four years.
Since the stay at home order was issued for DC in response to the coronavirus pandemic, I have been walking a lot – like 3-4 hours a day sometimes! It’s been an amazing opportunity to explore this city I have lived in but never really adopted as my home. I had also already declared this year would be my year of hiking and I ventured into nearby Rock Creek Park to hike the trails instead of run on the running path for the first time in February. Now that my weekends are basically wide open, I’ve been going on increasingly longer hikes in the park, which culminated last Saturday when I hiked the full Rock Creek Park loop.
After sharing that accomplishment on Facebook, my friend Ed asked me if I had seen the Capitol Stones in the park.
It only took me a quick read of the Atlas Obscura article Ed shared with me to be completely intrigued – and to start planning my next hike!
In short, the Capitol Stones are pieces of the U.S. Capitol Building that were dumped in Rock Creek Park after renovations to the building in 1958. At that time, the east front of the building was expanded and rebuilt in marble. This project was the brainchild of the Capitol Architect, J. George Stewart, a former one-term congressman from Delaware with no architectural training (seems like he would fit in well with the current administration…). While the project moved ahead, they hadn’t thought about what to do with the stones that were removed (this also sounds familiar…).
The stones eventually went to the Capitol Power Plant, where they remained until 1975. Then, they were transferred to a National Park Service facility inside Rock Creek Park, where they have sat ever since. It’s likely other stones have been added from later renovations to the Capitol’s west façade.
I couldn’t believe that these pieces of history, some of which may date back to 1818, when the Capitol was rebuilt following the War of 1812, have just sitting in this popular park in the heart of the city for the past 45 years. And when I looked at a map of where they are located, I had been just a few hundred yards away at one point when I hiked the Rock Creek Park loop. I assumed they must be very well hidden; otherwise, why had I never heard about them before?
So this morning I set off to find the stones. My mission was made much easier by the fact that REI’s Hiking Project app shows exactly where they are. Since I was up for a nice hike anyway, I didn’t take the most direct route. I usually enter the park walking along the footpath on Piney Branch Drive. From there, it’s a short walk to the Bluff Bridge and the start of the Western Ridge Trail. I followed that north, past the Horse Arena, and then switched to the White Horse Trail, which leads to the Rock Creek Park Horse Center. The center is currently closed due to the pandemic, but it was easy enough to follow the trail past the center as it turned in to what the Hiking Project app calls Cross Trail #6 or the Rapids Bridge Loop. Whatever it’s called, there is no trail sign, but the trail is obvious.
After just a couple minutes, I spotted four people up ahead of me, emerging from the trees and bushes on the right side of the trail. When I reached the point where they’d been, I found myself looking right at an enormous pile of sandstone bricks.
But it wasn’t just one pile. There were probably a dozen or more piles. Some were stacked nicely, one stone right on top of the other. But others looked like they’d just been scattered by a dump truck. While many were nothing more than rectangular bricks, some clearly had once been part of the ornamental façade. I found many that had a letter and number inscribed on one end of the brick, which I can only guess refers to its former location in the Capitol Building.
After about 20 minutes of exploring and taking pictures, I continued my hike, following the trail all the down way to Rock Creek.
There about half a dozen different hiking routes you could take to get to the Capitol Stones, depending on where you want to start and how much time you have. If you’re driving, you can park as close as the Rock Creek Park Horse Center or the Rock Creek Park Nature Center. Both are most accessible by taking Glover Rd NW south from Military Rd NW.
What’s the most unusual site you’ve discovered in your own backyard?