In this edition of Off the Beaten Turf, we venture out to a National Park where you can stomp through an ecosystem that harkens back to the District’s swampy beginnings (in a very pleasant way).
Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, at 1550 Anacostia Ave NE (map) is a little challenging to get to. The Park is located off of I-295, and by car you may have to brave some buzz-killing traffic. A more peaceful method of transportation may be by bike, or, if you are adventurous, by canoe: the Anacostia River passes right by the park, and a short trail connects the river to the main attractions.
As the name suggests, Kenilworth is aquatic; narrow pathways lead you through marshes filled with tall weeds and ponds sprouting with flowering water blooms. Because of the pathway structure and the tall plants, the surroundings envelope you perhaps more than in a typical park, and the height of the plants provide shade. A few benches rest on the sides of ponds for those who want to take a break from strolling.
At this time of year, the main attractions are the delicate white water lilies and towering pink lotuses that fill the ponds. In mid-July, the park held a festival celebrating the flowers, which makes us think that our early-August trip was just past the peak; a number of dried seed pods seem to confirm that. However, we still caught an impressive number of blooms sprouting up from the water. While the lilies sit gently on the rippling surface of the water, the lotus plants are so dense and tall that the water is almost entirely hidden from view.
A recent morning trip to the gardens was a welcome escape from the rush-hour traffic just a few blocks away; our only other company was a few camera-wielding visitors and butterflies, dragonflies, bees and frogs that were detectable only by the croaking from within the lush lotus foliage. Somewhat surprisingly, there weren’t any mosquitoes to swat away.
While it may feel like a trip to the tropics, the wetlands are actually native to DC; what eventually became Kenilworth was once the private aquatic garden of resident Walter Shaw in the 1800s. Shaw and his daughter planted the water lilies and tended to them for decades, before a National Park Service employee took over. Now, the park serves as a natural filtration system for water, natural habitat for adorable animals like mink, and a protective barrier during floods.
We may have missed the peak of beauty this summer, but our trip to the aquatic gardens was a peaceful break. We recommend going early in the day, as the flowers close up later on. So, if you’re looking to take a pre-work stroll or for a place to spend a weekend morning, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is a lovely place to enjoy DC’s native environment.