Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens
1550 Anacostia Ave NE, Washington DC 20019
Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens is a twin National Park Service site in Washington, DC, located along the east bank of the Anacostia River. Technically, Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens are part of Anacostia Park, and account for about 700 of Anacostia’s 1,200 acres. Kenilworth boasts possibly the most reliable year-round birding in the District of Columbia. It includes tidal marsh, mudflats, open fields, swampy woods, and river habitats. The Park and the Aquatic Gardens are separate but adjacent (one mile walk along the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail or a quick drive along Anacostia Avenue NE), but quite distinct in both birdlife and history.
Kenilworth Park, which abuts the Anacostia, was originally tidal marshland. In the 1900s, marshland was generally viewed as “malarial flats,” good only for breeding mosquitoes. So when the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the silted-up river, they killed two birds with one stone (metaphorically: in reality the bird casualties were presumably much higher) and filled in the marshland with the dredged material. Soon after, the site was chosen to be DC’s new solid waste dump, known as the Kenilworth Open Burning Landfill. Eventually the noxious site was shut down and covered with more dredged material, and was then made into a series of ball fields. Proper cleanup and remediation are still being planned. Despite its sordid history, Kenilworth Park is now a very large grassy field that provides a home or needed migration rest stop for a surprising variety of birds that are scarce in other parts of the city.
The adjoining Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, just to the northeast of the Park’s ballfields, has a different story. Since the late 1800s, the Aquatic Gardens have fostered the production and preservation of native and exotic water lilies and lotuses. Originally a water-gardening hobby and commercial venture, by 1938 it became a National Park to protect it from the same destruction that befell the Kenilworth Park area. Today it consists of a series of ponds cultivated with lilies and lotuses of all kinds, a boardwalk that stretches out into the last remaining tidal inlet in DC, and access to the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, and a network of other woodland trails around the marshes and along the river. It also hosts an annual midsummer festival when the lotuses are at peak bloom, attracting throngs of nature lovers, students of Japanese history, and photographers.
After parking at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, take the path into the Gardens, passing the Visitor Center on the right. Check the trees along the path between the parking lot and the first pond: they are often hopping with frugivores or insectivores. Once inside the Gardens, wander straight ahead along the right edge of the pond, looking for flycatchers, sparrows, warblers, and waders. As the path turns sharply left, you can usually see the Anacostia River mudflats to your right; at low tide, check for shorebirds, waders, and swallows.
Follow the path around the bend and you’ll eventually come to the boardwalk. Check both forks of the boardwalk. The left fork leads to a marsh viewpoint where Marsh Wrens, rails, and Willow Flycatchers have been found. The right fork leads out into the tidal mudflats. At low tide, you will see giant snapping turtles wallowing in the mud. Keep an eye out for snipe, shorebirds, ducks, orioles, swallows, and swifts.
Return to the ponds and wander among them for a while, then head back to the Visitor Center. Past the Visitor Center is the River Trail, which passes through swampy woods. Depending on season, this is a good area for cuckoos, Red- and White-eyed Vireos, Rusty Blackbirds, Fox Sparrows, kinglets, gnatcatchers, and warblers. After ¼ mile, the path comes to a T intersection at the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail. To the right is a trestle bridge; check the bridge for Cliff and other swallows. The border with Prince George’s County, Maryland is just past the bridge. Turning around to go south here, the trail will follow the river for about a mile down into Kenilworth Park, or you might choose to retrace your steps through the Gardens and head back to your car to drive over to Kenilworth Park.
If you walk into Kenilworth Park along the Anacostia River Trail from the Gardens, you can continue to follow the paved trail, which eventually veers away from the river. Continue to walk the path, with a thin strip of woods in front of the marsh on your left; the ballfields will be on the right. Along this section of the path, various patches of mugwort and other plants often shelter sparrows, and the thin edge of trees can have all sorts of feeding finches, warblers, buntings, grosbeaks, etc. Just off this path there are frequently several pools of standing water; in migration, check for shorebirds and snipe. Loop around the field, and check along the edges of the woods and the stands of trees for falcons and hawks. In the grass you might find Killdeer, Meadowlarks, Pipits. Also look up, and especially over the river: gulls, geese, ducks, hawks, blackbirds, Osprey, and Bald Eagles fly by regularly. Other spots to check include areas of standing water down the dirt path that splits off from the paved one, and pools in the field farther south near the last soccer field/parking lot.
About 240 different species of birds have been reported on eBird from Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, second in DC only to Hains Point (whose list is buoyed by vigilant birders hunting for vagrants migrating up or down river). Just one hotspot covers both park areas.
In winter, Kenilworth Park is a good place for sparrows and raptors. Kestrels and bluebirds can be commonly seen perched on the goalposts of the sports fields. Meadowlarks are sometimes in the grassy center or in the mugwort along the path. American Pipits can occasionally be heard overhead, or less commonly, seen in the grass. The path from the Park to the Aquatic Gardens parallels the river, which often hosts mergansers and other ducks. The Gardens are a good place to find Rusty Blackbirds, as well as kinglets, kingfishers, wintering phoebes, and sparrows.
In summer, the Aquatic Gardens’ lily ponds are in magnificent bloom. Go early, before the heat and humans drive the birds away. Herons, flycatchers, and swallows abound, including breeding Willow, Great Crested, and Acadian Flycatchers. Along the path to the river, you might find Yellow-billed Cuckoos. A train bridge over the Anacostia is frequently used by nesting Cliff and Barn Swallows. Kenilworth Park’s fields often host breeding Blue Grosbeak and both orioles. Rain-fed puddles in the grass can attract early migrant shorebirds and Marsh Wrens. Once it gets hot, enjoy the Aquatic Garden ponds’ amazing diversity of butterflies, dragonflies, damselflies, and turtles.
In migration, the fields of Kenilworth Park are especially good for Bobolink, Eastern Meadowlarks, and sparrows. Vesper, Grasshopper, White-crowned, and Lincoln’s Sparrows are annual in spring or fall, and Savannahs are virtually guaranteed in fall, often in quantity. Many warblers can be found along the edges of the paved trail in Kenilworth Park and throughout the Aquatic Gardens. Both waterthrushes are frequently heard along the Aquatic Gardens boardwalk or along Watts Branch, a creek that runs along the southern border of the Park. When the river is at high tide, shorebirds can often be found in the standing water that pools in the grassy fields, including Wilson’s Snipe, both yellowlegs, Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers, and occasionally Least Sandpiper or other rarer shorebirds. Every year, an American Bittern or two may be spotted somewhere among the Garden ponds, as well as other hard-to-find, but easier-to-see, waders.
Worth special mention is the annual early spring (late February-early March) display of the American Woodcock: walk or drive all the way up Deane Avenue NE to the soccer field/parking lot. Walk ¼ mile past the Jersey barrier to a small clearing. At dusk, this is one of the most reliable spots in the District to see and hear the woodcocks and their bizarre, fluttering, peeeennnt-ing breeding displays.
Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens has a free paved parking lot, which is often, but not always, open earlier than the posted opening times. Kenilworth Park also has free parking in multiple dirt lots along Deane Ave NE, though it has a gate which is sometimes closed during off-hours. If the lots are inaccessible, on-street parking is convenient at 40th St NE and Anacostia Ave NE.
Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens has designated handicapped parking available, and the Visitor Center is wheelchair-accessible. However, navigating around the ponds may be difficult in a wheelchair, as the paths are sometimes muddy or uneven. Kenilworth Park has a paved path that can accommodate a wheelchair. ◾ The Visitor Center at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is located along the main path from the entrance. Here you will find park brochures, maps, interpretive guides, and a bookstore. ◾ Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens holds special events throughout the year; check their calendar for details. ◾ The Park and Aquatic Gardens also offer a number of ranger-led programs; see https://www.nps.gov/keaq/planyourvisit/park-programs.htm. ◾ The annual Lotus and Water Lily Festival, held at the Aquatic Gardens in mid-July, features performances from cultures around the world, family fun games, arts and crafts and the amazingly beautiful lotuses and water lilies in full bloom. ◾ Both Kenilworth Park and the Aquatic Gardens provide access to the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, which extends from DC into Maryland as the Anacostia River Trail. See a map of the trail network at the Trail Map link at left. ◾ The Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS) is a grassroots community organization that is working to restore the health of the Anacostia River and to connect the people who live in the area to the river. AWS offers a full schedule of activities on and near the river, along with environmental education programs for all ages. ◾ There are no MOS chapters in DC, but Montgomery Bird Club & Patuxent Bird Club are in the neighboring suburbs. Two organizations, the Audubon Naturalist Society and the Audubon Society of DC, hold field trips to birding spots in the District and the Greater Metropolitan DC region.
- From points north of DC, take US Route 295 southbound, and take the Eastern Avenue Exit. Go straight up the ramp to the second street on the right, Douglas Street. Make a right onto Douglas Street. At the end of Douglas Street, make another right onto Anacostia Avenue to get to Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. Or, go left to get to Kenilworth Recreation Park.
- From points east of DC, take US Route 50 west toward DC, and exit onto US Route 295 southbound. Take the next exit, for Eastern Avenue. Go straight up the ramp to the second street on the right, Douglas Street. Make a right onto Douglas Street. At the end of Douglas Street, make another right onto Anacostia Avenue to get to Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. Or, go left to get to Kenilworth Recreation Park.
- If you are coming from points south of Route 50, take Route 295 northbound to the Burroughs Street Exit. At the bottom of the ramp go left. Go straight to Kenilworth Recreation Park. To get to Aquatic Gardens, go to the right of the athletic field entrance to follow Lee Street to 40th around a curve to Anacostia Avenue. Pass a hand ball court and wooded area to the gardens. An alternate to the Aquatic Gardens is to continue north on Route 295 to the Eastern Avenue Exit. Make a U turn to the left at the light at the top of the ramp and go down two streets to Douglas Street. Make a right on Douglas. At the end of Douglas make a right on Anacostia and continue a block and a half to the park on the left.
By Metro: For the Aquatic Gardens, take the Orange Line to Deanwood and exit the station via the lower Polk Street Exit. Take the pedestrian overpass across Kenilworth Avenue and go left on Douglas Street. Go right on Anacostia Avenue and enter through any open gate on your left. For Kenilworth Park, take the Orange Line to Minnesota Avenue, and after exiting the station go left on Minnesota Avenue to Nannie Helen Burroughs and then left to the athletic fields.
By water: Coming by canoe or kayak is not advisable because the marsh loses 90% of its water at low tide, resulting in stranding in the mud.
By bike: There are a growing number of bike trails near the park. For more information and a map go to http://bikewashington.org/trails/.
Washington, DC: Anacostia Park ◾ Constitution Gardens ◾ East Potomac Park (Hains Point) and the Tidal Basin ◾ Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens ◾ Rock Creek Park
Prince George’s County: Bladensburg Waterfront Park ◾ Colmar Manor Community Park & Anacostia River Trail ◾ Fort Foote Park, Fort Washington (National) Park ◾ Greenbelt (National) Park ◾ Greenbelt Lake Municipal Park (Buddy Attick Lake Park) ◾ Lake Artemesia Natural Area ◾ Oxon Cove Park & Oxon Hill Farm ◾ Piscataway MOS Sanctuary ◾ Piscataway (National) Park: National Colonial Farm, Boardwalk, Wharf Road/Farmington Landing & Marshall Hall ◾ Rosaryville State Park ◾ Schoolhouse Pond
Montgomery County: Lois Y. Green Conservation Park ◾ Rock Creek Regional Park – Lake Needwood ◾ Rock Creek Regional Park – Meadowside Nature Center & Lake Frank, Wheaton Regional Park – Brookside Gardens, Brookside Nature Center ◾ Pine Lake Area
Bottomland Deciduous Garden or ArboretumLawn, Ballfields, Golf CourseUrban or Small Town Landscape Hay Meadows, Pasture, Grass Field Forested SwampFreshwater Marsh or FloodplainFreshwater Pond, Lake, or ReservoirMud Flats (Tidal or Non-Tidal)Rivers & Streams
Ball Fields or Other SportsBeginnersBicycle Trails (Bikes may be prohibited on some trails)BoardwalkFree - No Entry FeeGift Shop or BookstoreHiking/Walking TrailsNative Plant Garden or Meadow/Pollinator PlantsParkingPets AllowedPicnic AreaRestroomsVisitor Center, Interpretive Displays, ExhibitsWater ViewWheelchair Accessible FeaturesYoung People / Families
Gardens & ArboretaHiker-Biker Trails (Paved)National Parks & MonumentsPonds, Lakes, and ReservoirsThe Rivers of the Western ShoreWater Trails