History, picnic tables, hiking trails, and metro accessibility! What else do you need in an urban park?
I hadn’t been to Fort Totten park before but I’d heard about it for a while, so picked up a friend and we made the trip to NE DC.
This park houses the ruins of Fort Totten, named after General Joseph Gilbert Totten, a general in the War of 1812. Even with a history of warfare, it is an excellent spot for a momentary retreat into nature.
Fort Totten was an earthwork fort built in 1861 as part of the 68-fort circle that protected Washington, D.C.—the Union capital during the Civil War. When the Civil War ended, the land these forts inhabited was given back to landowners or abandoned. As a result, Fort Totten has pretty much been reclaimed by nature. It is now overseen by the National Park Service.
The park is fairly unassuming to look at from the street. Less of a tourist destination, it’s mostly frequented by picnicking neighbors, dog walkers, the occasional Civil War nerd, and deer. Lots of deer.
Fort Totten Park
- Civil War Fort
- Nature Walk
- Metro Accessible
How to getting there
Fort Totten Park is in a neighborhood of the same namesake located in the Northeast part of Washington, D.C. You can access the park via two main entrances that both exit onto Fort Totten Drive. It looks like this road may occasionally open up to vehicles, but based on the state of the road, those days are long gone.
We drove to Fort Totten Park on a very cold day and had no trouble finding a spot to park on the surrounding streets. We probably would have biked if it was nicer out since we both live relatively close to the park.
The park is extremely accessible via Fort Totten Metro, which is just a 12-minute walk away.
It’s also very bikeable, as it’s essentially on the Metro Branch Trail—a mostly protected bike trail that goes from Union Station to Silver Spring, MD. It would be easy to pick up some lunch (or drop off some compost) at the Monroe Street Farmers Market and bike up to this park for a picnic.
Things to Do: history, hiking, and more
See the ruins of Fort Totten
When you first arrive at the park, you are welcomed by a pastoral grassy field dotted with picnic tables and trees. Surrounding the field is a gravel and asphalt road that will take you up to the ruins of Fort Totten, which you’ll find at the top of the meadow.
First, you will pass an informative wayside sign. Then, if you look up to the top of the hill you should see a rock with a plaque commemorating the site (pictured above).
You can walk around the main fort from here or you can follow the gravel road around. The main path passes behind the fort and you’ll find a few isolated picnic tables back there.
There are clear “social trails” up into the main fort, but please don’t go exploring without a Ranger present. The fort is slowly being eroded away! The National Park Service recently put up signs to dissuade visitors from trampling the historic site.
Take a hike
It’s hard to imagine that not long ago this whole area was essentially a treeless countryside! Look at the Civil War-era pictures of Fort Totten and you’ll realize just how fast nature can really take hold.
To explore this nature, the short half-mile loop is perfect! If you’re facing the road from the top of the fort, the trail will be to the right hand side. To find the trail, walk along the main path until you find a picnic table next to a tree marked with a blue blaze. Then just follow the trail!
Despite being marked with a blaze throughout, I couldn’t find this trail labeled on any park maps. This leads me to believe that either the maps are not up-to-date or that it is not an official trail (and that there is a vigilante trail marker out there.) It could be either, but there are many social trails back in the forest, so stick to the blue blazes if you want to come out where you started.
I think the trail walks you along the ridge of an earthwork wall that used to connect the somewhat separate Totten battery to the main fort. As far as I can tell the trail is basically following the path of the outer wall (see map below).
We kept to the blazed trail for the most part but explored a couple of the social trails, which led out onto different roads. While definitely unsanctioned, some of these trails may be better access points depending on where you’re coming from.
Go on a picnic
There are at least five separate picnic table areas throughout the park and when it’s warmer I could see meeting up with friends for a bite to eat! Several of the picnic sites have signs of firepit activity, but it should be noted that fires in DC parks are generally not allowed outside of grilling stations and the Rock Creek Park fire chimneys.
As far as I can tell, there are no official grilling spots at Fort Totten Park. However, there are plenty of trashcans that look to be in pretty good shape.
Peep some nature
Even though we visited in January and the park is right next to the metro and several industrial sites, we were still able to spot some wildlife. As we hiked through the forested section we spotted a downy woodpecker, cardinals, and plenty of house sparrows.
We also saw ample evidence of deer making use of the meadow. There was so much deer poop in certain areas of the field that we almost didn’t make it all the way around the main fort. I suggest limiting my picnicking to the picnic tables.
Looking for a good place to picnic in DC? Here are my top picks.
Volunteer and get involved with park partners
- NPS – Fort Totten
- Civil War Defenses of Washington – History and Culture
- Ghosts of DC – Amazing Civil War Photos of Fort Totten
- Civil War Defenses of Washington – Then and Now Photos
- NPS – Civil War Defenses – Historic Resource Study
- National Archives: Fort Totten with Battery and Rifle Pit
- Library of Congress: Tour of the Civil War Defenses of Washington