Our River: The Anacostia

Art Display on Poplar Point

This is a particularly interesting year to welcome the spring.   The winter was mild so nature is coming out early. And the corona virus is making us get out and away from others.  So where along the Anacostia are those special places to find your way to?  Do you want gardens, nature recovering, projects underway, history or places to take the kids?  Starting near the Nationals’ Baseball Stadium and heading upstream, here are eight places I recommend.

Note: this piece was compiled before the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency was declared. Obey all local regulations and practice social distancing as you enjoy the river. Note that Kenilworth Aquatic Park and the National Arboretum have both been closed in accordance with local guidance.  Before visiting, please check with individual parks regarding changes to park operations. 

The site of the Frederick Douglass Bridge
The construction site of the new Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, taking South Capitol Street over the Anacostia, is a great place to take the kids and something no adult should miss, as the existing bridge is replaced by a towering set of arches and roadways.  You can safely walk the entire site by taking the sidewalk along the south side of the existing bridge, looking up at the cranes and arches hundreds of feet above you and the trucks and machinery way down below.  The sidewalk is well-protected from the traffic alongside and the construction is all in clear view downstream from where you stand and look out.  Don’t miss it!

Art and Calm Along Poplar Point
Starting at the Douglass Bridge on the Anacostia side and walking under the 11th Street Bridge and up to Pennsylvania Avenue take a quiet stroll along the River, There is little traffic and you are surrounded by natural vegetation emerging from the winter.  There are a few art billboards along the way, attractive composite creations capturing nature and river history by Eastern and Ballou High School art students under the direction of artist Tendani Mpulubusi El.

Alone in the City along Pope Branch
One of the quietest and most remote-feeling spots in the City is in the midst of Anacostia. Pope Branch Park attaches to Fort Davis and Fort Dupont Parks, and the beautifully restored stream flows down to the Anacostia through deep woods and a series of pools and riffles.  The only sounds are of running water and wildlife all the way to Minnesota Avenue at M Place NE, where it tunnels below and emerges in a restored Park for a block until dipping below the freeway and entering the River.  Last time I entered, I was greeted by a buck and his doe friends, plus an owl luring me upstream with his calls to me.  Best to park, enter and head upstream right above Minnesota Avenue.  The restoration work was inspired by Dolly Davis and carried out by the same firm that did Springhouse Run in the National Arboretum.

Finding Nature on Heritage Island
Heritage is a small island in the shadow of Kingman Island.  Walking in from the parking area north of RFK Stadium, most of which has been converted to soccer fields for local use, Heritage begins after crossing the first pedestrian bridge.  It is much smaller than Kingman, but much more in its natural state, surrounded by tall grass beds emerging from the River and filled with natural seeps and ponds.  At the far end is the only sign of humanity, a small area recently planted with evergreens and other trees that will fast seem native to the Island.  Plenty of places to poke around in nature’s gardens.

The Riches of the National Arboretum
The Arboretum (accessible from either New York Avenue or Bladensburg Road via R St. NE) is filled with displays that attract many folks in spring, such as the collection of many different colors and bloom times for cherries and other fruit trees (compared to one shade and a few days along the Tidal Basin). But the Arboretum’s 450 acres provide numerous opportunities to find peace and quiet.  Among my favorites are the view of the City and the Capitol from the top of Mount Hamilton, accessible by paths through the azalea collection or a parking area on the other side; the wilderness woods on the other side of the road from the azalea collection, which feel as though you’re the first to plow through in a very long time; Fern Valley; the restored Springhouse Run and the trail alongside from New York Avenue to Hickey Run; and the random orchards of flowering trees of all sizes, colors and bloom times.  For those who can take on the crowds for some real rewards, the annual Garden Fair is April 25-26 this year; Saturday morning purchases in the tent of the Friends of the National Arboretum are limited to Friends (you can join on the spot), and Saturday afternoon and Sunday for anyone.  Incredible offerings and prices!

The Kenilworth Aquatic Garden
This is the ultimate peaceful place. These gardens are enormous and spread out among many acres of ponds, inlets and marshes.  They are late-bloomers, but there is always something to please the visitor.  Access is from the Anacostia Freeway near the Maryland line, the Deanwood Redline Metro Station or the Anacostia River Trail.  There are seldom many visitors, and the paths around the flower ponds and wooden walks out over the marshes are a delight.

Deep in the Woods
There is one special place where you can be surrounded by forested hillsides and the only sounds are the birds and the rushing stream alongside.  This is on the Northwest Branch, starting at the Adelphia Mill Historic Site on Riggs Road and continuing along the stream to the Beltway. It is about a five mile round trip, with only one road crossing high above your head.  To bike it you can start at the West Hyattsville Station of the Green Line Metro and head north for about a 15-mile round trip.

Where It All Begins
The most distant origin of the Anacostia is Sandy Spring, located outside the town of the same name in Montgomery County.  Look for signs to the Quaker Meeting House and turn south on Meeting House Road.  Follow the road past the Meeting House (which was part of the Underground Railroad to help guide escaped slaves to freedom) until it curves left and stops at a gate.  Walk through the gate into a series of beautiful open fields, county lands used to raise grains, proceeding for about a half mile where the path turns right and a small fenced area on the left contains the spring.  The spring seeps out and drains into the woods, creating the first waters of Our River.  Worth the experience!

Bill Matuszeski is a member of the Mayor’s Leadership Council for a Cleaner Anacostia River, and the retired Director of the Chesapeake Bay Program.