Lily Pads and Marshes in Washington D.C.: Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens

Photo of large lily pads in a pond; text: "Lily Pads and Marshes: Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens"

Dark pink blooms swayed over my son, their long, thin stems rising up from the muck. Lily pads the size of platters floated on the pond, their curved sides forming miniature walls. Blue dasher dragonflies flitted across the water, their wings nearly transparent. And a big, green tractor hauled dirt back and forth for a landscaping project. These were just a few of the wonders we saw at the Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens in Washington D.C. this past weekend, when we visited with the kids and my parents. The tractor was my son’s favorite.

As far as cliches go, “hidden gem” most easily springs to mind when you visit the Aquatic Gardens. It’s “East of the River” in Anacostia, making it far off the beaten path for tourists. It’s on the completely opposite side of the city from us. But despite the drive, I’m definitely glad we made time for it.

Great egret standing on a log on one foot in front of lily pads at Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens.

The main trail meanders around the aquatic gardens, pools of water built to grow water lilies and other aquatic plants. The plants started off normal enough – rafts of small lily pads dotted with little white flowers. A white great egret stood stock-still, ignoring the humans photographing it. Turtles sunned themselves on mostly-submerged logs. All pretty ordinary for a marsh.

But then about a third of the way around the path, the plants became increasingly more exotic. Flat, wide pancake-like pads with pin-prick holes and bright purple flowers spread out over the water. Huge lily pads that looked like serving plates for giant nymphs dotted the ponds. Tall pink flowers led to hard brown honeycomb structures after they died off. The original owners of the gardens, Walter Shaw and his daughter, Helen Shaw Fowler, brought these plants from all over the world, including the Amazon. Sprout seemed impressed by their size and beauty, reaching up to try to touch the flowers. He picked up one of the husks, examined it, and asked us, “What’s this?”

Large blossom of a pink water lily at Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens.

But not everything at the park is built by humans. The path around the pools leads into a boardwalk that spans one of the few wild marshes left in the city. With a border of large trees blocking any visible buildings, it felt like we were far from any urban area. The landscape was a mix of native and invasive plants, including cattails, lilies, and reeds. Tadpoles wiggled and mallard ducks flocked in the shallow water. Sprout ran up and down the boardwalk, stopping abruptly to look at whatever caught his eye.

The park, which the National Parks Service manages, is particularly well-suited to a short day trip. It has an extensive picnic area and a nice little visitors center with a store, interpretive exhibits, and bathrooms. They will even lend you binoculars if you forgot a pair!

Unlike most national parks, the gardens are completely free, a boon to the surrounding neighborhood and city at large. Soon, it will be readily accessible by bike, with the connection to the rest of the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail opening in this fall.

For the most part, the park is very family friendly. The main trail we went on was fine with a sturdy stroller; Little Bird actually slept through much of the trip. The only disappointing thing was that bizarrely, the bathrooms didn’t have any changing tables. (Although this isn’t the first time we’ve encountered this problem with the National Parks Service – the C&O Canal visitors’ center bathrooms don’t have them either for reasons unknown.)

Whether for bird watching or just a walk by some lily pads, Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens is a lovely destination for a chill afternoon.

For some other great natural places to visit near Washington D.C., check out my posts on Rock Creek Regional Park and Constitution Gardens Park

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