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Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens: 2024 Guide to Lotus Flowers, Marshland, and More

The lotus flowers at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is one of the highlights of my year, and I go every year. The park itself is a hidden gem nestled within Washington, DC and one of my favorite spots. This unique destination offers a tranquil escape for nature enthusiasts and flower lovers alike, making you forget you are in the middle of a major city.

Best known for its collection of lotus flowers and water lilies, the gardens showcase the beauty and diversity of aquatic plants. I think the lotus flowers are more beautiful than the cherry blossoms, and I recommend them as DC’s best peak bloom. The Lotus and Water Lily Festival, held each year in mid-July, is a celebration of the beauty of and culture around these beautiful flowers. This year, it will be from Friday July 19 through Sunday, July 21, 2024.

In this comprehensive guide, I will provide you with all the information you need to fully enjoy your visit to Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, from the best time to see the lotus blooms to insider tips for exploring the last remaining natural tidal marshland in Washington, DC.

History of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens were founded by Walter Shaw, a disabled Civil War veteran originally from Maine. Born in Vinalhaven, Maine in 1838, he was drafted into the 19th Maine Infantry in 1863 to fight in the country’s Civil War. During the Wilderness Campaign near Spotsylvania, Virginia, he was hit with a hollow-point bullet and required a partial amputation of his lower right arm. Despite this physical limitation, he built one of the premier flower businesses in the country.

Development of the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

Walter Shaw settled in Washington, DC after the Civil War, and began working as a clerk at the Treasury Department. In 1870, he married Lucy Miller, the daughter of a dairyman and gardner and whose family settled in Washington, DC when she was a child. On May 26, 1879, the Shaws purchased 33 acres of land along the eastern bank of the Anacostia River.

Walter had grown up in coastal Maine, and was inspired by the water lilies from his childhood. He planted 12 white waterlilies from Maine in a pond in 1888, which spread quickly and took over the pond. Happy with the success, he started digging out additional ponds to plant more.

Shaw’s gardens were a labor of love; he dug every pond by hand and tended to each plant with a dedication that set the standard for future care and development of the gardens. Soon, he was growing so many flower that his friends encouraged him to start selling the lily flowers.

Commercial Cultivation of Water Lilies and Lotus Flowers

Within a year, in 1889, he was making a profit. Shaw’s initial cultivation efforts were focused on growing water lilies. He imported different varieties, experimenting to see which thrived best in the local climate. His hard work paid off, and soon, the ponds he created were blooming with vibrant lilies and other aquatic plants such as lotus flowers. His business continued to grow to the point where he left his job at the Treasury to focus on his booming flower business full time in 1902.

At the age of 74, in 1911, he decided to step back from the business, and his daughter Helen Shaw Fowler took over. Under her leadership, the W.B. Shaw Lily Ponds became the country’s largest exporter of cut water flowers. Of the 63 different varieties that they sold, many varieties were only available from W.B. Shaw Lily Ponds due to the hybridization and propagation techniques developed here as well as the unique ecology of the land.

Vintage sepia-toned photograph of seven individuals standing beside a pond with lily pads, reflecting a time of early 20th century attire with hats and suspenders.
Courtesy of National Park Service

Public Access to Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

After her father’s death in 1921, Helen allowed the public to view the lilies during the water lilies peak bloom at the gardens. At the height, an estimated 5,000-6,000 people per day visited to admire the lilies. By 1924, Helen was open to the idea of the ponds being sold to the government for public enjoyment. Calvin Coolidge’s wife, Grace, was the first lady at this time and an influential supporter of the plan.

Eventually, in 1938, Helen Shaw Fowler came to an agreement with the government and sold the gardens for $15,000, and the gardens were set to become a part of Anacostia Park. They were named the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens after the adjacent subdivision.

Things to Do and See

When visiting DC’s Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, you’re entering a world of natural beauty and serene landscapes. While the lotus peak bloom season is undoubtedly a sight worth travelling for, the gardens also offer its visitors beautiful views and experiences throughout the year.

The activities at the gardens vary with the season. As the lotus flowers fade and the weather gets cooler, migratory birds flock to the marsh, as do birdwatchers. The Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens organize a variety of events throughout the year, including outdoor yoga sessions, art lessons, and forest bathing. The National Park Service park rangers also lead ranger tours of the gardens and marsh on a variety of topics.

Lotus and Waterlily Festival

Vibrant pink lotus flower rising above green lily pads in a pond, with a soft-focus background that includes a person in a pink shirt blurred in the distance.

While peak bloom varies from year to year, the best time to see the lotus blossoms and water lilies is in mid-July. The annual Lotus & Water Lily Festival is the most popular event at the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, and will be held July 19-21, 2024 this year to coincide with the expected lotus flower peak bloom.

This weekend-long celebration of the flowers brings together cultural performances, ranger talks, live animal presentations, yoga classes, and much more. The festival offers a unique opportunity to learn about the significance of lotus and water lilies in various cultures while enjoying the atmosphere of the gardens. While it celebrates both types of flowers, the lotus flowers are definitely the focus and main attraction.

Festival Highlights

The Lotus & Water Lily Festival features a wide range of activities and events that cater to all interests. While the 2024 events are still being confirmed, there are some key types of events that they have each year. Here are some highlights you can look forward to:

  1. Cultural Performances: Dance performances, music showcases, and spoken word poetry highlights the traditions of different cultures.
  2. Ranger Talks: Knowledgeable park rangers explain the history, ecology, and preservation efforts at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. Many are built around themes, like veterans in honor of Shaw’s military experience.
  3. Wellness Classes: Find your inner peace amidst the beauty of the lotus ponds with yoga, breathwork, and fitness classes tailored for all ages and skill levels.
  4. Live Animal Presentations: Get up close and personal with various animals that call the gardens and wetlands their home. Learn about their habitats, their behaviors, and the importance of conservation efforts to protect this unique ecosystem.

Festival Logistics and Tips

Close-up of a white water lily in bloom with a yellow center, floating amidst green lily pads on a tranquil pond surface with duckweed and a hint of grass at the edge.

To make the most of your visit to the Lotus & Water Lily Festival, keep the following logistics and tips in mind:

  1. Festival Dates: The festival will last 3 days, from Friday, July 19 to Sunday, July 21, 2024.
  2. Parking Options: The park offers free parking in its designated lot, as well as nearby parking lots at Kenilworth Park. However, these fill up quickly during the festival, and you should expect to be parking on the neighborhood streets. You’ll want to arrive early to secure a parking spot close by.
  3. Food and Refreshments: Food trucks are often present just outside the park during the festival, offering a variety of delicious treats and refreshing beverages.
  4. Festival Schedule: The schedule is still being finalized. Each day has a different schedule, and not all activities happen each day. Make note of the performances, classes, and ranger talks that pique your interest.
  5. Capture and Share: Don’t forget to bring your camera or smartphone to capture the short-lived beauty of the lotus blooms and other aquatic plants. The lotuses are ethereal and something you’ll want to remember with lots of pictures.

Cultivated Aquatic Gardens and Protected Marshland

While the lotus and water lily flowers are undoubtedly the star attraction, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens offers much more to explore. The display pools behind the visitors’ center offer tropical water lilies in a variety of colors, and you’ll also find lotuses grown from 1,000 year old seeds here!

Beyond the cultivated ponds and showy flowers, Kenilworth Marsh has a really peaceful boardwalk that takes you through the marshland. This marsh is the last remaining tidal marsh of the Anacostia River in Washington, DC. It offers a unique look at what the Anacostia used to be like before it was dredged, with meandering channels, natural beauty, and wildlife. This is similar to what the Baltimore Harbor would have looked like before industrialization, and what the National Aquarium is working hard to try to replicate.

View of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens marshland from the boardwalk
View of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens marshland from the boardwalk

As you stroll along the boardwalk, take in the peaceful views of the marsh, with cattails swaying in the breeze and a wide variety of aquatic plants and flowers adding pops of color. This serene setting is perfect for birdwatching, so keep your eyes peeled for herons and other wildlife that call this marshland home.

While the lotus flowers at Kenilworth are beautiful, the happiest and most peaceful moments I have had here have been sitting on a bench over the marshland and enjoying the peace, quiet, and beauty. White DC has many quiet spots throughout the city, this is my favorite.

Wildlife and Bird Watching

A Great Blue Heron stands still among green lily pads on the surface of a tranquil pond, reflecting its gray-blue plumage and focused gaze.
Photo by National Park Service

Kenilworth Marsh is a haven for bird watchers and wildlife enthusiasts. The park’s unique ecosystem, with its marshes, ponds, and wooded areas, creates an ideal habitat for over 250 different bird species. Bird enthusiasts can spot local and migratory birds throughout the year. The site is particularly famous for its waterfowl and wading birds. Birds such as the Great Blue Heron, American Black Duck, and more are often seen here. I see a heron nearly every time I visit!

While bird watching can be enjoyed year-round, some seasons are better than others for seeing your favorite birds. Spring (May) and fall migrations bring a variety of migratory birds to the gardens. During these times, bird watchers can see the arrival of different birds such as Bobolink, Eastern Meadowlarks, and a variety of sparrows. Visitors should bring their binoculars to observe these magnificent creatures in their natural setting, especially during the early morning or late afternoon when bird activity is at its peak.

The park rangers also regularly hold bird walks, typically in the mornings. On Tuesday mornings from 8:30-10:00 AM, you can join park rangers for their weekly bird walks. Bird walks are also scheduled on the first Saturday and first Sunday of each month from 8:30-10:00 AM. The bird walks may be rescheduled due to holidays or weather, so check out their events calendar for the most up to date information.

In addition to birds, the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens are home to a diverse array of wildlife. Visitors might catch a glimpse of turtles basking in the sun, frogs and toads along the water’s edges, mussels in the muddy banks, and maybe even beavers or otters in the waterways. Deer also can be found snacking on the grass. The gardens’ rich biodiversity makes every visit a unique experience.

Wellness Events with the WELLderness Programs

In addition to the programs put on by the park rangers, the Friends of the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens partners with the National Park Service to offer programming to the public.

Their WELLderness series happens May through October, and features events such as yoga, tai chi, forest bathing, painting, bird watching, photography, dog pack walks, and live music. For 2024, the series kicked off on May 4 with a weekend full of yoga, forest bathing, and a breathwork-focused HIIT class.

Educational Programs and Tours

A park ranger wearing a uniform and a sun hat explains features of a lily pond to an onlooker, gesturing towards the aquatic plants while standing amidst lush greenery.
Photo by National Park Service

For families, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens participates in the Junior Ranger program. At the visitor’s center, you can pick up a Junior Ranger booklet that has activities for kids about the park, such as crossword puzzles and scavenger hunts. Complete the tasks and turn it back in at the visitor’s center to earn a Junior Park Ranger badge! Sadly, they do not offer a BARK Ranger badge at this time.

Throughout the park, educational signage at the main points can be found to help you do a self-guided tour. You are encouraged to wander through the park and take in the scenery and beauty. Ranger-led programs vary, and you should check at the Visitor’s center for tour information.

Planning Your Visit

A pink-tipped white lotus flower in the foreground with a crowd of visitors in the background, exploring a pond teeming with lotus blooms and green foliage.

Visiting Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Washington, DC requires some planning to ensure a smooth and enjoyable experience. This section provides all the necessary information to help you organize your trip to the gardens so you can make the most of your time and fully enjoy the natural beauty and tranquility it offers. I cover the best times to visit, admission details, how to get there, and other essential tips to make your visit as effortless as possible.

Best Times to Visit

The best time to visit Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is during the summer months, especially from late June to early August. This period marks the peak blooming season for the lotus and water lilies, which is the highlight of the year.

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens are open from 8:00 AM until 4:00 PM daily, but the hours will often be extended during the peak bloom. During peak bloom, go in the mornings to avoid the crowds and the heat (the park is largely unshaded). A lot of the blooms will close in the midday heat, so it’s best to go in the morning or on cool days. With peak bloom, it starts to get crowded early, and I recommend getting there right when it opens.

While the lotus blooms are beautiful, I personally love seeing the seed pods. You’ll see more of those in August and September. If you go in the first half of July, you’re unlikely to see many of the dried seed pods.

For bird watchers, spring and fall migrations offer a unique opportunity to observe a variety of bird species. Early mornings are generally the best time for a quieter, more personal experience with nature.

Admission and Hours

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is open year-round and offers free admission to all visitors. The gardens are typically open from 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM daily, but it’s always a good idea to check the official website or call ahead for any changes in hours, especially around federal holidays or in response to weather conditions. As I mentioned, during peak bloom they will often have extended hours.

Dogs at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

Yes, dogs are allowed at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, but they must be leashed on a 6′ leash at all times. Dogs are not allowed off trail, so that means they are not allowed in the flower beds, ponds, or in the marshland.

Unfortunately, there is no BARK Ranger program at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. You’ll need to go to Great Falls Park if you want to become a BARK Ranger!

Vivid pink lotus flowers at various stages of bloom, interspersed among large green lily pads in a tranquil pond, with a dense array of flowers in the distance

How to Get There

Located at 1550 Anacostia Ave NE, Washington, DC, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is accessible by car and public transportation. It is located off of 295. For directions to Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens,

By Car: Parking

For those driving, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens parking lot offers free parking on-site, although space can be limited during peak visiting hours. During the last peak bloom when I visited, the lot was full by 8:30 AM. There are additional free lots at Kenilworth Park, and there is also free street parking in the neighborhood. Watch out for signs and make sure you’re allowed to park where you pull in.

By Public Transportation

Public transportation options include the Metro and bus services; the Deanwood Metro station on the Orange Line is the closest, about a 10-15 minute walk to the gardens.

By Foot or Bike: Connecting Parks and Trails

The Anacostia River Trail runs alongside the calm waters of the river, with a view of a multi-level concrete bridge stretching overhead, supporting both city traffic and trains, against a partly cloudy sky
Photo by NPS / Claire Hassler.

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is not only a destination in itself but also a key point of interest within a network of parks and trails through Washington, DC. For those who enjoy biking or hiking, accessing the gardens via the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail can give you even more views of the river.

The Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, a prominent and scenic route, offers a direct pathway to the gardens. This trail connects various parks along the Anacostia River and is great for both cyclists and pedestrians. Additionally, the Bladensburg Waterfront Park, located north of the gardens, provides another access point with its own set of trails that merge with the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail. These trails not only offer a green and active way to reach Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens but also provide a chance to explore the broader natural and recreational landscape of the area.

The one thing that is missing is a trail connecting the National Arboretum across the river to the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. While they are across the Anacostia River from each other, it would take you one and a half to two hours in order to walk from one to the other along busy roads, so don’t plan on walking from one to the other

Facilities and Accessibility

The gardens are equipped with basic facilities, including restrooms and a visitor center where you can learn more about the site’s history and wildlife.

There is a wide pathway that forms a loop around the edge of the ponds. However, it is gravel and not paved, and can be muddy depending on the weather. The paths through the ponds are dirt and grass, and not wheelchair accessible. The National Park Service recommends that those in a wheelchair do not explore the grounds alone and bring a friend. There is a wheelchair accessible picnic table with a view of the lotus ponds near the entrance to the boardwalk.

Places to Eat Near Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

The Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens are located in a residential neighborhood with not many restaurants nearby. During the Lotus and Water Lily Festival, food trucks will frequently be parked in the street near the park, but they are not always available.

If you’re in the mood for sandwiches or a picnic during the week, Deli City offers affordable, “kosher style” sandwiches. It’s more of an old school deli that serves up large sandwiches and breakfast options. They have an indoor seating area, but I like to get it to go and eat in the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens or the National Arboretum. They are cash only, so be sure to have some on you.

Some of the best Chinese food in DC is served off the lobby of the Days Inn on New York Avenue. Panda Gourmet serves both American Chinese food and Chinese food. They feature food from Sichuan and Shaanxi in northwestern China, and they have a menu of Shaanxi street snacks like rouga ma (Chinese burger) and yang rou chuan (lamb skewers). Shaanxi’s capital, Xi’an, was the starting point of the historic Silk Road, and the Middle Eastern and Muslim influence on its food can be seen with more foods using wheat and more lamb (and less pork). Panda Gourmet is also BYOB with a reasonable corkage fee.

Conclusion

Visiting the lotus flowers at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is a truly unique thing to do in DC that shouldn’t be missed. By following these tips and making the most of your visit, you’ll be able to fully appreciate the beauty and tranquility of this slice of nature in Washington, DC. So, grab your camera, put on your walking shoes, and soak in the beauty and serenity that will leave you with a deep appreciation for nature’s wonders.

A close-up of a lotus seed pod, showing its unique structure with seeds embedded, set against a backdrop of green lily pads in a lush wetland area.

Have any questions about visiting Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens? Leave a comment and I’ll reply back quickly!

Valerie Moore

Having lived in Washington, DC for the past 16 years, Valerie has a lot of thoughts about the best things to do, eat, and know around the city. She loves doing deep dives into the interesting things she finds, and sharing with the world. You'll often find her dog, Lil Mikey, along for the ride.

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