For a big urban city, DC boasts a surprising number of places that showcase some really great nature. There are the obvious sites like Rock Creek Park and the National Arboretum. And then there are some lesser known, but no less wonderful, spots. Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is one of them.
We visit the park from time to time — it’s been a KFDC recommendation for years — but not as often as we should, considering how close we live. Tucked away behind a residential area in northeast DC, you could easily drive within a few blocks of it yet never know it’s there. (And you probably have driven that close; the park is located almost right off 295 just south of Route 50.) The hidden element aspect is part of the park’s allure. Just a small part, though.
The best part of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is what it contains, which is unlike anything you’ll find anywhere else in the District, or the country, for that matter — Kenilworth is the only national park devoted to cultivated water-loving plants. Numerous ponds make up much of the park, and depending on the time of year you go, they could be filled with small or giant lily pads, gorgeous lotus flowers and water lilies, and a variety of interesting aquatic plants.
Paths winding among the ponds make for excellent nature walks, letting visitors get a close look at the flora and fauna that thrives there. Along with the vegetation, it’s quite possible to see any number of marshland residents — frogs, turtles, geese, great blue herons, and more.
Beyond the ponds are wetlands that are a tidal flood plain of the Anacostia River. A boardwalk traverses part of these with lookout areas to take in scenic views of the marsh. On one side tall grass and plants extend for acres, the color variations lovely to see in changing light. On the other side, marsh plants sprout up from the water surrounded by lofty trees. Egrets, herons, ducks, and geese are practically guaranteed bird sightings, while eagles are a lucky glimpse.
The story of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is an interesting one. The land was originally owned by Walter B. Shaw, a Civil War veteran from Maine. In one of the ponds that was previously used to make ice, he planted water lilies from his home state and eventually built a business selling them around the world. The flowers also attracted thousands of visitors during summers. In the 1930’s, however, the gardens were nearly condemned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with orders to dredge the Anacostia River, but Shaw’s daughter Helen lobbied Congress to preserve the land, and eight acres of the garden were purchased for the National Park Service (much of the surrounding marsh land was left accidentally).
Now, they are part of a beautiful and peaceful place to explore. And while the best time to go is during the summer when the lotus flowers and water lilies are in spectacular full bloom, Kenilworth is pretty amazing during any season.
Rangers lead park tours everyday at 10am, and the park occasionally hosts Volunteer and Family Days, when the public is invited to help maintain the grounds. And every year in July they hold the Lotus & Water Lily Festival to celebrate the new bloom with activities for kids, dancing and drumming, gardening workshops, and park tours.
Whether you go soon or wait for the bloom, you’re in for something special.
Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens are located at 1550 Anacostia Avenue NE. There is a small Visitor Center, where you can learn more about the park, and kids can do some small activities. Restrooms are right next door, and picnic tables are located nearby. The park is open daily 9am – 5pm April 1 – October 31, and 8am – 4pm November 1 – March 31, except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day when it’s closed. Admission is free.