Still, the Aquatic Gardens are open to the public every day, with flowers providing an explosion of pink, white and yellow across more than 40 ponds, bursting above giant green leaves and alien-like seedpods, while dragonflies and butterflies flit from plant to plant.
The Lotus and Waterlily Festival is Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens’ time to shine, providing a spotlight — and brief but dramatic boost in attendance — to a treasured place that often feels overlooked, compared to other federally owned parks in the city.
Civil War veteran Walter Shaw purchased this land in 1879, and began growing water lilies in a former ice pond. What started as a hobby became a thriving business and a tourist attraction. The number of ponds expanded to make it one of the largest aquatic nurseries in the country, and the grounds became a popular place for visitors. The government bought the land in 1938, preserving the neighboring marsh from dredging work in the Anacostia River, and the gardens became part of the National Park Service the following year. It remains the only national park that specializes in aquatic plants.
Dennis Chestnut, a lifelong resident of the nearby Hillbrook neighborhood, began visiting the gardens when he was in elementary school, even sneaking in with friends when the gardens were closed. “One of our favorite activities was sliding on the ponds in the winter when the ponds would freeze over,” he says. “Ice skating without skates!” Chestnut, a former volunteer at the Aquatic Gardens, now sits on the board of the nonprofit Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens; his wife Zandra is a former president. Dennis Chestnut refers to the aquatic gardens as a “hidden gem,” because of its location: “Sitting on the far northeast edge of the city, on the east side of the Anacostia River, and behind a public housing development, kept it hidden from many of the residents from other parts of the city,” he says, referring to the Anacostia as “the forgotten river.”
That has been changing, as visitors realize there’s more to the Aquatic Gardens than the summer blaze of beautiful flowers. Tina O’Connell, the executive director of the Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, remembers her first visit around 10 years ago: “We had a wonderful spring morning looking at turtles and frogs, just exploring the different plants and wildlife and birds that were present in the park,” she says — no lotuses in sight.
Julie Kutruff, the National Park Service’s Special Events Manager, enjoys how the garden evolves. “People ask all the time, ‘What’s your favorite thing?’ Every day my favorite thing changes.” At the moment, she’s particularly enamored with the American Lotus, which grows in the southwest corner of the gardens. “We only have one pond of them, and they’re blooming right now.” In contrast to the Asian lotus, which range from whiteish pink to fuchsia, the lotus from North America has a beautiful pale yellow flower. “They start blooming just a smidge later than the Asian lotus and they’re so unique,” Kutruff says. “I’ve been gravitating there more and more lately.”
If the festival is the reason for an annual trip to Kenilworth, or you’ve never experienced the gardens in person, these tips can help make the most of your visit.
Come early, if you can.
The grounds open at 8 a.m. Lotus petals open in the morning, and close in the afternoon. To see them in all their glory, arrive as early as possible, though on a recent weekend, some lotus flowers were still open after 2 p.m. Just look for the crowds of photographers surrounding them.
Be prepared for sun and mud.
Two things every visitor should have on hand: a water bottle and a hat or umbrella. Sunscreen is also strongly suggested. Lotus flowers thrive in direct sunlight, so the ponds are arrayed in a large, wide-open area with very little shade. On a hot day, the sun feels even more unrelenting. If you’re spending time wandering and looking at the lotuses, especially after noon, it’s better to take precautions: If the heat gets to be too much, take a break in the shaded picnic area. There’s a water bottle refill station by the restrooms, next to the (closed) visitors’ center.
Watch out for mud and puddles. The dikes that form the paths around the ponds are dirt and grass, not paved, which means a summer thunderstorm can turn them into quagmires. What looks like a wet patch of grass might hide a mudhole or puddle deeper than your shoe. Don’t wear sandals that you can’t easily clean.
Have a question? Ask a ranger.
Are the flowers at peak bloom yet? What’s the difference between a lotus and a water lily? These are some of the most common questions from visitors, according to Kutruff, and park rangers are on hand to help. While the visitors center is closed, the Park Service sets up a temporary ranger station at the front of the park, especially on weekends and during Friday night hours. Some people bring photos they’ve taken of flowers or other plants and ask for help identifying them, Kutruff says, while others are just curious about what to look for in the ponds. On weekends, rangers are also roving around the park, and happy to stop and talk.
Take a stroll on the boardwalk.
Beyond the man-made ponds, the park is home to Kenilworth Marsh, more than 32 acres of tidal wetlands that were restored in the 1990s to improve the quality of the Anacostia River and provide a habitat for wildlife. A boardwalk over the marsh leads to two viewing platforms, with benches along the way offering stunning vistas of cattails and aquatic plants, looking much as they might have centuries ago. Zerline Hughes Spruill, the community engagement manager for Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, appreciates how the path “takes you to a panoramic view of swamp land, the mouth of the Anacostia River, kayakers and the most beautiful birds. It is as if you are taking in a giant water color painting.” In the morning, when it’s least crowded, she likes to practice yoga there.
The shaded entrance to the boardwalk, located at the southwestern tip of the pond area, often offers a refreshing breeze coming off the water, in contrast to the muggy air around the lotus ponds. “It’s just a very beautiful oasis that really feels quite removed from the city,” O’Connell says. “And in that walk out there, you usually see some different animals along the way, which is good for me, because I’m usually with my family and little kids, and getting to see the frogs, the turtles and the salamanders is a huge win.”
Poke around and take a break.
Touring acres of ponds and a boardwalk will take up most of your visit, but not all of it. Don’t forget to wander slightly off the path or you might miss the tropical water lilies found in the display pools behind the visitors’ center. It’s “a good place to see lilies that aren’t native to Washington, D.C.,” Kutruff says. “They come in a variety of different colors: yellows and purples and orange-ish pinks. They’re different from what you’re going to see out in the main pools in the bigger part of the garden.”
There’s plenty of seating near the shaded picnic area, including some adirondack chairs at the edge of the pools overlooking the water.
Chestnut recommends looking for the bench dedicated to ranger Walter McDowney, a Kenilworth resident who became one of the first Black park rangers, and led Kenilworth’s Junior Rangers. “He has a great story and is responsible for engaging the youth from the community in meaningful experiences in the park,” Chestnut says. “To me, he is in the legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers,” who served as some of the first park rangers.
Get out of the gardens.
A section of the Anacostia River Trail, which runs from Bladensburg to Nationals Park, skirts the north edge of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. This is convenient for visitors arriving by bike, but it’s also a boon for those who want to see something besides the flowers. From the trailhead, which is close to the parking lot, it’s about a quarter-mile to the River Trail itself.
Once on the trail, head downstream for about a half-mile, toward the inlet where the Kenilworth Marsh meets the Anacostia. The trail runs between the marsh and the river, meaning there are water views on both sides, and some shady respites with wooden benches facing the marsh. Be on the lookout for herons, egrets and other wildlife, and remember that pedestrians share the trail with cyclists.
Make this a Friday night date spot.
Weekends are still the busiest times, since the park’s operating hours — 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. — clash with typical office hours. But through Aug. 6, the park will stay open until 8 p.m. on Fridays, allowing the opportunity to visit when it should be cooler and perhaps less crowded than a Saturday morning, and, Kutruff says, a rare chance to see night-blooming lilies, which open after 4 or 5 p.m. Also, wildlife is more active in the evenings than in the midday heat. On the first Friday of July, many people reported seeing beavers. “It’s just a different experience,” Kutruff says. Most Fridays will feature a food truck, and picnics are welcome. If you want to extend the evening, it’s a short drive to Ivy City’s restaurants and breweries (via New York Avenue) or the H Street corridor (via Benning Road).
Experience festival events at home as well as in the park.
While the gardens are open, many festival programs will take place online this year. These include an “iPhoneography” class to learn how to take the best photos of the blooms with a smartphone (July 24); meditative yoga sessions (July 25); and the weekly Samba Saturdays, which celebrate the Victoria amazonica — giant lilies native to the Amazon River basin with leaves that can grow over eight feet in diameter — with Brazilian music and dancing.
However, there are some in-person events, including crafting for families (July 28) and a scavenger hunt (July 31). A hunt over the first weekend of the festival was a leave-no-trace event, with groups racing to take smartphone photos of plants and wildlife across the Gardens.
Explore beyond the festival.
The gardens offer an array of views throughout the year. As the lotuses fade, the marsh becomes an important stop for migratory birds, and the early morning flower lovers are replaced by birders. The Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens puts on “Wellderness” events throughout the year, including outdoor yoga and tai chi sessions, forest bathing and art lessons and therapy. (A full schedule and sign-up information can be found on kenaqgardens.org/wellderness.) Priority is given to neighbors who reside in Wards 7 and 8, but O’Connell is hopeful that the programming will be expanded next year.
Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, 1550 Anacostia Ave. NE. Open daily from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Fridays 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., through Aug. 6. Free.