DC gardens, nature centers, and easy walks

A lily flower blooms in Green Spring Garden

National Zoo | Meadowlark | Brookside | Kenilworth | Oatlands | Hillwood | Green Spring

The Long Branch Nature Center in Arlington has far more wilderness than you would expect.  On a recent hike, we ran across a herd of eight deer.
The Long Branch Nature Center in Arlington has far more wilderness than you would expect. On a recent hike, we ran across a herd of eight deer.

The many DC gardens and nature centers in and around the city provide an easy escape from the daily grind. Here are a few of our favorites:

The National Zoo

The National Zoo is nearly abandoned in the morning and parking is ample.

The best time to see the National Zoo is when it opens at 8am. The best parking lot (Lot A, close to the Panda House) is never full that early, and you’ll have the zoo all to yourself.

Early morning (before 9a) is the best time to get up close to the animals at the National Zoo.

Parking is $24 for the day, though you can sometimes find free parking early on Sundays along Connecticut. Alternatively, take the Metro Red Line to Woodley Park / Zoo. The Zoo entrance is about a half-mile up Connecticut from the Metro escalator.

The Carousel at the National Zoo starts running at 10a.

Meadowlark Botanical Gardens

Among DC gardens, Meadowlark is the most expansive and visually interesting.
Among DC gardens, Meadowlark is the most expansive and visually interesting.

Meadowlark is my favorite garden in the area, and it’s a treat year-round. In Winter, the park is decked out in holiday lights. In Spring, Summer and Fall, the natural colors take over.

Brookside Gardens

Brookside is the Meadowlark of Maryland. The Japanese tea house is a charming place to rest and take in the scenery, and Brookside also features a seasonal, popup butterfly sanctuary.

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

A painter at a popular DC garden, Kenilworth
The Gardens at Kenilworth resemble an impressionist painting. On a rainy day, they are almost surreal.

If you’ve never toured a traditional Asian lotus garden, you are in for an other-worldly experience. The best time to go to Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is in mid to late Spring, when the lilies are in bloom.

A boy and a girl pose in front of a blooming lily at Kenilworth Gardens National Park.
If you’ve never seen a lily garden (and they are rare in the states), don’t pass up Kenilworth on your next trip to DC

Green Spring Garden

It is amazing how much variety has been built into just 30 acres at Green Spring Garden. This horticultural wonder is located between Annandale and Alexandria and has a historic house that serves both tea and a botanical education.

A girl stands by the bridge at Green Spring Gardens
Julia stands by the bridge at Green Spring Gardens

The original house was owned by Michael Straight the scion of a wealthy family that owned The New Republic, which he eventually led as publisher. Straight had an interesting past. On the one hand, he was a connected DC socialite who wrote speeches for Franklin D. Roosevelt and eventually served as deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. On the other hand, he was a communist sympathizer and KGB operative.

A lily flower blooms in Green Spring Garden
A lily flower blooms in Green Spring Garden

Among the more interesting features of the property is a small lily garden, which is in bloom from mid to late summer. While it is not nearly as extensive and varied as the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, it excels in at least one important way: there are no crowds here.

Lilies bloom in Green Spring Garden
Lilies bloom in Green Spring Garden

Also of interest are the ponds down the hill from the mansion, which feature a large, shady gazebo and attract suburban wildlife, such as tame ducks and migratory birds.

A girl sits in the gazebo at Green Spring Garden
Julia sits in the gazebo at Green Spring Garden

Oatlands Plantation

A girl shades her eyes as she looks out over the gardens in front of a plantation house at Oatlands Plantation in rural Virginia
The gardens at Oatlands enjoys an unobstructed view of Loudoun County.

From March 30th – December 30th, Oatlands Plantation, a quintessential Hunt Country house and gardens, is open to the public. The lush gardens feature a number of rare botanicals, and it’s no wonder, this is the site of the first greenhouse in America.

Hillwood Estate

A boy and his father walk across a water feature in a popular DC garden next on the Hillwood Estate.
The stone steps across the waterfall at Hillwood

My children never tire of Hillwood, though at $18 a pop it’s too expensive to visit everyday. It’s closeness and meticulously landscaped grounds make our annual springtime visit a special treat.

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