Celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in Washington, DC

If your kids are like mine, they likely came home this week telling you that in the days leading up to MLK Jr. Day on January 16 they’ll be learning about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As a parent, I’m thrilled that my first-grade daughter will be learning about Dr. King in school. As a teacher, I’m looking for more opportunities to help her make a connection with Dr. King and the historical events he was pivotal in achieving.

As an English teacher (one semester away from finishing my Masters in Education), I have this theory that all English teachers have one particular area of literature they love more than others. For me, that is African American literature. In honor of Black History Month coming up in February, I’m going to be posting an experiential learning guide I have created that honors the voices of some of my favorite African American writers and then offers suggestions of places to visit in the DC/Northern Virginia region that directly tie to those authors. This project was initially done for a course in my Masters program but the work was so interesting and fulfilling to me that I’m going to build upon it and publish it here to share it with as many people as possible.

That being said, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of my favorite writers featured in this publication, and as the only one who has his own national holiday, he earns a bump-out feature of his own. I’d like to share with you some ways to get your kids involved in actively learning about and celebrating the life of this great man on January 16. We are particularly lucky living in this area to have access to so many places that directly relate to Dr. King and can really bring his voice to life for ourselves and our kids. I plan to do this with my own kids as I attempt to introduce them to one of our greatest American figures.

Featured writings:

Everyone knows King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech- or, at least, they know of the snippet in which he declares he has a dream. Try reading the piece in full with your kids, out loud, and then watch a video of King himself delivering this speech at the March on Washington. When I teach my students rhetorical analysis, I love including audio/visual clips when at all possible. So much is conveyed in tone, facial expression, and mannerisms that doesn’t always carry through in writing (or gets distorted or lost during read-alouds because of the different mannerisms or speech patterns of whoever is reading). There is something very powerful about hearing a writer read their own writing as they intended it to be heard and received. King in particular is a gifted orator whose words on the page are powerful but become epic when heard in his own voice.

Although “I Have a Dream” is perhaps King’s best-known piece of writing, he is the author of others that (if I’m being honest) I actually prefer. One of my favorite pieces of writing of all time is King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” which was written when he was jailed in Birmingham following the 1963 Birmingham protests. In Bearing the Cross, a Pulitzer-Prize winning account of King’s Civil Rights career, it’s revealed how personally stressful King found his stints in jail. Being jailed was a not-uncommon occurrence for King in the mid-60s as protests cropped up across the South in which he would either lead or take part. As often as he was jailed, King found each instance emotionally fraught and mentally taxing. During his five-day stint in Birmingham, he released  nervous energy by penning “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” To read his moving words and measured and rational rhetoric, one would never know the great duress he was under at the time. It bears one of the most elegant and haunting closing paragraphs of all time:

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

-Martin Luther King, Jr.; Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963

It is no secret that we are currently living in a world and society which is troubled and bears the silent rumblings of discord and misunderstanding across groups. I read King’s words from time to time to remind myself of his optimism and vision. I ask my students to consider our present day circumstances and to ruminate on whether we have yet reached the “not too distant tomorrow” in which King envisioned love and brotherhood. Their responses are often surprising in their depth and intellect and sensitivity. I love to hear what they think. Ask your kids the same question. (Ask yourself the same question.)

The final piece of King literature I’d like you to read is King’s haunting and eerily prescient “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, delivered the night before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. One again, King’s delivery of this speech is mandatory viewing, as his emotional state really comes through via spoken word. If you don’t have 43 minutes to spare, please do at least spend two minutes to watch the final words of his speech, when he really ramps up and appears to be on the verge of tears.

It really doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop, and I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land.

I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

He would be shot dead the following day at his Memphis hotel. I promise you, it is impossible to watch him deliver these words and not feel the impact. What thoughts lie behind them? What fears were he nurturing?

Where to visit:

Once you’ve acquainted yourself with the man and his words, you have the option of visiting many places in this area to deepen the connection. Here are my suggestions:

Starting with the most obvious, a stop at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Monument is a must. As it’s part of the National Park Service system, it’s free and open to the public 24 hours a day, year-round. Kids can get a Junior Ranger Booklet to complete for a badge (I’ve written here about the wonderful Junior Ranger program and highly recommend it for kids).

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From there, visit the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech as part of the March on Washington, a coordinated protest aimed at pressuring government to pursue legislation that would ensure equality in the workforce for African Americans, creating more/better job opportunities for them and securing the right to equal pay.

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Of note is exactly why the march culminated with King’s speech being delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The March on Washington took place in 1963- the centennial of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The location was a specific rebuke against the fact that much of what the Emancipation Proclamation and the Declaration of Independence promised had not been delivered to African Americans- or as King put it, “it is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.””

And just where did King write this era-defining speech? Right here in Washington, DC at The Willard Intercontinental, where he was staying as a guest. In the lobby of The Willard, King and his advisers made the final revisions and edits to this speech just before he delivered it at the March. Pop into the hotel and show your kids where history was made.

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The Civil Rights display at Library of Congress

Before entering the room where Thomas Jefferson’s book collection is housed and displayed, the Library of Congress has erected a wonderfully informative walk-through presentation about the Civil Rights movement and its pinnacle in 1964 of achieving the passing of the Civil Rights Act, which guaranteed equal treatment of African Americans under the law and prohibited discrimination, voter suppression, and other forms of injustice faced by African Americans through the period following the Emancipation Proclamation and Jim Crow.

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The display shows the work of many of King’s contemporaries in the movement and the work that led to getting the legislation signed and passed by President Johnson. King’s speech is featured as well as a picture of he and other Civil Right leaders with President Kennedy at the White House following the March on Washington. For anyone who’d like a deeper look into the movement and the Civil Rights Act, this display is a must-see.

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note: the Library of Congress website says this exhibition was only on display until January 2, 2016- however, I was just there in mid December, when I took these pictures, and it was up.

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Access to this new museum is still mostly limited to highly coveted timed passes (which will go up soon for April) but there are a limited number of same-day passes available each morning at the museum. If you’re able to grab those, do! If you can’t manage a visit in time for MLK, Jr. day, try your best to get in at a later date and make the visit nonetheless. I was lucky enough to get timed passes last September just weeks after the opening date and it was one of my favorite experiences of the year. I consider this museum to be a work of genius- never has the design of any building so informed the experience within.

Starting in the bottom floor of the museum, one begins in the dark days of slavery. Appropriately, this part of the museum is dark, light-less and feels stifling and hot. Moving up through the second and third floors you pass through the Civil War, Emancipation, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights era, and finally you burst into the light-filled center atrium feeling as though you’re gasping for air. The fourth, fifth and sixth floors (the above ground corona) are paeans to achievement in culture. Reaching the top, one feels the heights that have been reached, made all the more poignant when considering the depths in which progress began. The museum’s tagline is “A People’s Journey.” Never has a journey felt so personally rewarding.

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In this far back corner of the top-most floor of the NMAAHC I looked out through the bronze lattice-work that ensconces the building and stood face to face with the Capitol building. How I wished all those who had gone before could stand in that same spot to see the view. Martin Luther King, Jr. declared that he had been to the mountaintop. He undoubtedly had. But I wish he had been there for this mountaintop as well.

Other events and activities:

Washington, DC

Dr. King preschool storytime at the MLK branch of the DC Library.
King mural discussion at the MLK branch of the DC Library
Martin Luther King, Jr. parade, Anacostia (January 16, 2017, 11 am)

Northern Virginia

25th Annual Martin Luther King March and Celebration– beginning with prayer at 10:15 at the Leesburg Courthouse, the march honoring King will then proceed to the former Douglass School.
Loudoun Chorale presents “Lift Every Voice” a festival of choirs and inspirational speakers in honor of Dr. King. Leesburg Community Church (January 15, 2017, 4-6 pm)

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High Rock

Where: Pen Mar High Rock Rd., Cascade, MD (For GPS purposes, try plugging in 14600 Pen Mar High Rock Rd. This is Pen Mar Park and High Rock is NOT in Pen Mar Park, but this gets you on the right road and you simply continue up past Pen Mar Park until you come to High Rock)
When: Well, it’s rocks so it’s there whenever.

I need to begin this post by telling you that High Rock is incredible but I demand to know who was in charge of naming it. Could you really do no better? It is a rock outcropping, and it’s quite high, but surely there was some other quality, some spirit of imagination that could have been looped in to the name instead of just… High Rock?

Look at this high rock.
Yeah, wow. What should we call it? Devil’s Peak? Widow’s Nest? God’s Pillow? Stairway to Heaven?
Let’s call it High Rock.
Ok!

I have, strangely enough, the Vans Warped Tour to thank for introducing me to High Rock. In the strange way that Instagram algorithms work, a picture of some members of some band on the Vans Warped Tour doing community service on High Rock got propagated into my feed. What I noticed first was the great graffiti covering the rock they were standing on. Then I read the caption which said something like, “Vans Warped Tour doing community service cleaning graffiti off High Rock today” and I thought WHAT NO, YOU CAN’T CLEAN OFF THE GRAFFITI, THE GRAFFITI IS GREAT! It’s not often that graffiti enhances a natural landscape but from time to time, something just clicks and I have to say, in the case of High Rock, the graffiti somehow just makes the whole thing better. Don’t hate me, nature purists, I’m kind of a magpie and colorful things appeal to me.

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High Rock lies on South Mountain in Northern Maryland (hee!) right along the Mason Dixon Line. It’s situated on the Appalachian Trail and is a popular lookout spot and hang gliding platform. People also somewhat frequently fall off and tumble to their death. Not trying to scare you or anything, just think you ought to be warned! This really is a rock you want to be respectful of. There’s no fencing or railing surrounding the rock, and the dropoff isn’t one of those fake-out ones where it looks like a sharp drop with dirt 2 feet below. It’s, you know, A DROP. So if you take kids, just keep a close eye on them. Especially with the wet weather we had, the combined effect of rain on spray paint is a quite slippery walking surface. Be safe, my dudes.

Despite the hard work of the Vans Warped Tour, High Rock, I’m pleased to say, is still covered in all manner of graffiti. We got up early on a Saturday morning and headed out since it was a good 60 mile drive from our house, and when we got there I was happy to see that the Vans Warped Tour had not eradicated all the graffiti I had been hoping to see. Rainshowers were moving in and out of the area quickly, and shortly after we arrived, a cloud moved over us and obstructed the view of everything beyond High Rock, lending it a surreal quality wherein you could not quite tell where the end of the rock was and the dropoff began or just how high up you were (1800 feet up, FYI). We were all alone up there and it felt like we really just perched up in the clouds.

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The rain did begin driving a bit more steadily so we retreated to the car and waited a bit and eventually when the rain dissipated we made our way back up to the rock and were rewarded with a brief but stunning view of what lies beyond High Rock when it isn’t obscured by clouds:

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As the sun broke weakly through the clouds, a few more cars pulled up and several of us stood and watched the valley below us open up for just long enough to get a view before the clouds started rolling back in.

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Even this little friend enjoyed the rock (and is a good reminder to please leash any pets you bring along):

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High Rock is accessible via hiking on the Appalachian Trail, but it’s also ridiculously easy to access by car. As in, you just drive up Pen Mar High Rock Rd until you see the small pull-out lot on your right with the rocks right next to it. Definitely wear workout gear and good shoes so that everyone who sees pictures thinks you hiked up a really tall mountain to get there, but your secret is safe with me. I found a hiking log of the trek up to High Rock and it mentions lots of switchbacks and a steep climb so just say that and nobody will ever know.

The best part of the trip to High Rock for me was when I posted pictures of it to Facebook and my dad posted a picture of himself there… in 1982. The rock was pure and free of graffiti and my dad was in stonewashed jeans, a crop top, and had bangs and a mullet. Time moves on, my dad definitely does not wear crop tops now, and the youth have covered the rock in paint, but through a fun wormhole in time known as the Internet, my dad at 19 and I at 31 were in the same place.

 

High Rock made me happy. My kids loved it, my husband loved it, the view were stunning, and even in the rain it was well worth the trip. I can only imagine it’s even better in the fall with all the foliage down below, so we’ll be making a return trek back then. Add this one to your hiking list for sure, definitely at least before the next Vans Warped Tour comes through and tries to de-graffiti it.

Junior Ranger Program at Wolf Trap

Where: 1551 Trap Rd., Vienna, VA
When: Open daily from 7 am-dusk, admission is free

As the parent of an early-elementary kid (she’s a rising first grader), somewhere in between pool trips and ice cream cones and hanging out with friends, it occasionally occurs to me that we should do something to prevent summer slide. During summer, she is required to keep a journal and for every 7 journal entries, she earns a small prize. This is great, but now that she’s nearly 7, I have been casting around for other ways to keep her reading and writing skills up during summer break. I decided we would dip a toe into the waters of the National Park Service’s Junior Ranger program, which is a wonderful program designed to help kids enjoy National Parks, dig a bit deeper into the history and background of parks they visit, and make education fun and rewarding. We already have a National Parks passport which we get stamped at each park visit, but the Junior Ranger program is another way to enjoy parks with kids.

For our first Junior Ranger outing we settled on Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Vienna. Locally known and loved as a venue for amazing concerts and Children’s Theatre in the Woods program, Wolf Trap is also a National Park, the only one in the country devoted to the performing arts. Although most people probably associate Wolf Trap with the Filene Center, the park is full of walking trails – the Wolf Trap trail, which is a 2.5 mile hike around the perimeter of the park, and the kid-friendly Wolf Trap TRACK trail, which is a 1.5 mile loop paired with a variety of activity booklets created by the Kids in Parks initiative, which works to get kids and parents outdoors and enjoying state and national parks together. By creating an account for your kids at Kids in Parks, you can track various hikes and activities using an online “journal” and access different activity pamphlets for a variety of parks.

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Once you’ve parked and entered Wolf Trap, a short walk down to the Ranger Stand will get you all squared away. Simply find the park ranger, ask for an activity book, and get started! The Junior Ranger program is designed to appeal to kids roughly between the ages of 5 and 12, and the booklet we got was double-sided, with easier activities for the early-elementary set and harder ones for the late-elementary set. For my kids, the early-elementary side of the booklet was perfect, with short questions that could be answered by reading park information plaques (“Are there still wolves at Wolf Trap?”) and a scavenger hunt which encouraged a long walk through the woods in the hopes that they would find everything on the list (18 out out of 25, not too shabby).

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Once we’d finished our activity booklet we returned to the ranger station where the park ranger checked to make sure everything had been completed, then signed saying the girls were “honorary park rangers.” Each park has its own Junior Ranger badge, but at Wolf Trap, kids who complete the Junior Ranger booklet have the option of choosing between the standard badge and a patch. My oldest daughter, who is also a Girl Scout Daisy, chose the patch to go along with all the other patches she’s earned that are in a Ziploc baggie because I haven’t managed to attach them to her Daisy smock yet, whoops.

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Currently, over 200 National Parks around the country have a Junior Ranger program. For many of the parks, the booklets are available online and can be completed and mailed in for a badge or picked up and turned in at that park’s ranger station. The Kids in Parks program runs in both National Parks and several state parks, but the Junior Ranger program itself is only available in National Parks. Fueled by the satisfaction of success, my kids are now eager and excited to do more Junior Ranger booklets, so we’ll be squeezing in quite a few more during the last month of summer (we are lucky to be within driving distance of many Virginia, Maryland, DC, and even Pennsylvania parks). For kids around age 5, the booklet should be doable with some help from mom or dad, and older kids will be able to complete most or all of the activities on their own. I would say many kids who are rising kindergartners would be capable of doing the activities in the booklet with help, and the challenge is well worth the fun and reward that comes with completing a booklet and earning the badge.

Hidden DC: Kenilworth, Brookland + Palisades

Let us take a moment to reflect upon two incontrovertible truths:

  1. The monuments and museums in Washington, D.C. are unsurpassed and are a must-visit for all locals and visitors.

2. There is SO MUCH MORE to Washington, D.C. than the museums and monuments.

My family loves the museums in D.C. but we tend to let the tourists have them in the summer and save them for the winter days when we have exhausted the options for fun in our house and need to get out before we go stir crazy. The same goes for the monuments- they are absolute treasures, but they only necessitate a visit every so often. Those too are better saved for when guests are in town, because visiting them with someone who is experiencing them for the first time is really the best way to see them. Don’t get the wrong idea- I’m not above the tourist stuff; I’ve spent hours sweating my butt off on the Mall on the 4th of July, and I still feel a swell of pride when the Capitol Dome comes into view. I have read the Gettysburg Address in the Lincoln Memorial with my heart in my throat and think there’s nothing prettier than cherry blossoms in bloom around the Tidal Basin. The landmarks are landmarks for a reason- they stir something emotional within you and make you feel connected to your fellow Americans. You look around and feel a sense of camaraderie with everyone around you who owns this shared history. Even the people you just elbowed and cut your eyes at on the Metro.

But looking past the landmarks, DC is a city full of diverse and fascinating neighborhoods. It is The Nation’s Capital, but it also has an identity as a complex and intricate city in its own right. So much goodness lies off Constitution and Pennsylvania Avenues. Looking past the monuments you can see the small things that make Washington DC uniquely Washington DC.

Inspired by Thrillist’s list of 13 DC Secrets You Had No Idea Existed, my girls and I spent a few hours in the city the other day, burrowing into the small corners that house some of DC’s best kept secrets. We hit three DC neighborhoods: Kenilworth, Brookland, and Palisades. I want to stop right here and say something real quick: don’t be intimidated by going into the city alone with your kids. (DC residents please don’t roll your eyes too hard.) I know the idea of loading your kids onto the Metro and navigating the city while keeping an eye on them and toting all your paraphernalia can be daunting. So too can the idea of driving around, trying to find an unfamiliar location, unsure exactly of where you’re going, with your kids screeching in the backseat. I’m here to tell you, you can do it. 

I remember moving here four years ago and being incredibly intimidated by the idea of driving anywhere in DC. Could not do it. Could not imagine doing it. I feared what would happen if I got mixed up about where I was supposed to be going and worried people would get mad at me and honk. I worried they’d see my Virginia plates and think “There’s another idiot Virginian who can’t drive in DC.” Little by little, I grew more sure of myself (and developed more aggressive driving tactics) and realized, hey. I can do this. It’s just a city. What’s so impossible about driving in a city? Even one with lots of traffic and one-way streets. Even with my kids in tow. Even if people honk. Does this reveal me as a rube? That’s okay. We all have to start somewhere. If you think you might be a rube, I’ll be a rube with you.

If you don’t live in DC, you can’t just walk out your door and set off on foot exploring new areas. And riding the Metro might not be second-nature to you and so you avoid it. And driving in the city is initially confusing and makes you anxious so you avoid that as well. Have faith in yourself. Load up your kids and give it a shot. Watch out for the tourists standing in the middle of M Street taking pictures in front of Georgetown Cupcake, but other than that, you’re good to go. You don’t need a friend to go with you, you don’t need your spouse. Just you and your kids. I promise you, you’ve got this. 

The great thing about the three places I’m going to share with you today: they are all easy to drive to and all have onsite parking. Since we’re going full confession mode here, I’ll share another one with you: I can’t parallel park to save my life. There was never a need to do it where I grew up or went to college or when I moved to Texas for my first job so I just… never bothered to get good at it. So anywhere I need to go that doesn’t necessitate parallel parking is a plus for me.

Okay, enough with the pep talk. Let’s get on with ourselves.

Our first stop of the day was in the Kenilworth neighborhood in NE DC at Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens.  These are, as the name might suggest, water gardens which house flowering plants that grow in water. Have you ever stood in a veritable forest of lotus blossoms? Let alone in a residential neighborhood in Northeast DC?

At Kenilworth Gardens, you can do that!

The gardens are located in the natural wetlands along the Anacostia River and go back to the late 1800s when Civil War veteran Walter B. Shaw purchased the land and planted water lilies he had transported from his home in Maine. He maintained the ponds on his land, cultivating a wide variety of water lilies, with the help of his daughter, Helen Shaw, who eventually convinced Congress to purchase the land in the 1930s in order to preserve it. The result is the garden you can visit today, teeming with ponds that are overflowing with all manner of water lilies, lily pads, lotus blossoms, and various birds.

Inside the gardens the steady humming of insects surrounds you and you would never guess, if you didn’t know, the you’re just minutes from the interstate and the nonstop movement within the city. It is as calm and bucolic an environment you are likely to find in the middle of an urban sprawl.

In addition to the lily ponds, a boardwalk extends into the marshland all the way out to the Anacostia River. All through the marshland are various birds- while walking on the boardwalk we saw egrets, Canadian geese, and blue heron.

The NPS website maintains a detailed history of the gardens and an inventory of the lilies that were originally grown and cultivated by Walter Shaw- his notes on the flowers are contained within this document and several varieties are named by him for people important to his life (one species of lily is named N. Odorata Luciana for his wife, Luciana; another variety is N. Helen Fowler for his daughter).

The gardens are absolutely stunning and a must-see. They are located at 1550 Anacostia Ave NE, Washington, DC and are open daily from 8 am – 4 pm. Because Kenilworth Gardens are a National Park (the only National Park dedicated to the cultivation of water plants!), parking and admission is completely free.

Moving eastward through the city, our next stop was the Mount Saint Sepulchre Franciscan Monastery located in Brookland at 1400 Quincy St NE. Brookland is somewhat of an enclave for Catholic institutions in the city; in addition to the monastery, The Catholic University of America, Trinity University, and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception are all located in Brookland.

The Monastery was built in 1898 and is still a fully functioning church and self-sustaining community. The grounds and gardens are open to the public daily from 9 am- 4:45 pm; guided tours are available on the hour from 10 am- 3 pm.

Surrounding the church and monastery is the Rosary Portico, decorated with Christian symbols and 15 chapels depicting scenes from the lives of Jesus and Mary.

Behind the walls of the portico is a staircase that leads down to the gardens, which hold their own against the beauty of the monastery.

Walking around the garden you see markers depicting the Stations of the Cross, a shrine to St. Anne, the mother of Mary and patron saint of grandmothers, and a tomb that is modeled after the Tomb of the Virgin Mary in Jerusalem, inside which candles are lit in eternal prayer for Mary.

If you aren’t Catholic, don’t let that deter you from visiting the Franciscan Monastery. I am not Catholic either but that didn’t prevent me from taking in and enjoying the hushed reverence of the grounds and gardens and appreciating the imagery and detail embedded in every aspect of the design. My 6 year old loved viewing the tableaux in the Rosary Portico and naming stories from the Bible that she recognized (by which I mean, she saw the scene of the Nativity and got pumped remembering Christmas is coming in JUST FOUR MONTHS!). I did help her out by explaining some of the ones that weren’t obvious to her.

Parking at the Franciscan Monastery is located in a small lot across the street, and is free. Feel free to sign up for a guided tour in the visitors center office, or simply wander the grounds at your own leisure.

Driving east through the city on our way back to Virginia, we made our final stop at Palisades Recreation Center in NW DC (5200 Sherier Pl. NW). I once again made the error of going to the DPR site to check the address of the rec center and accidentally put the DPR main office address into my GPS instead of the rec center address, which means we got a pleasant though slightly unnecessary detour down the entirety of Rhode Island Avenue. Don’t be like me. Double check your addresses properly before inputting them into your GPS.

Our main reason for visiting Palisades Rec Center was an art installation in the woods known as the Glass Forest. Before I could entice my kids to tramp through some backyards and into the trees with me, I let them have some runaround time on the fantastic Palisades Playground. This place was like the Platonic ideal of a playground. Soft squishy running surface, a small splashpad, a percussion instrument station, climbing equipment shaped like a fort. In my humble opinion, it’s worth making the drive out to Palisades just to let your kids take in this well-designed playground.

After my kids had gotten their fill of play, we headed back toward the parking lot but made a detour into the woods to see the Glass Forest. It took some cajoling for my 6 year old to be convinced to go see what I described to her as “very cool art” in the woods, which is weird because she definitely hasn’t seen The Blair Witch Project. I promised her to just trust me and she would enjoy it and she went along suspiciously, until we found the Glass Forest at which point she thought we had discovered some sort of fairy garden. You must must must come find the Glass Forest- a small section of the woods set back off the trail filled with sculptures made from scrap and found objects. The Prince of Petworth first wrote about the Glass Forest back in 2012, so it’s been around for at least a few years, but it seems to frequently change and might not be the same any two times you visit. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before- all at once ethereal, ever so slightly spooky, and somewhat otherworldly.

Our favorite installation in the Glass Forest (and presumably the reason why it is called the Glass Forest) was the “mobile” hanging from a tree in the back made up of broken glass shards, mirrors, and glittery objects strung up from branches. It spun in the wind and caught the light, constantly throwing out prisms and light flares, while also reflecting the trees behind us, making it seem as if we were caught in one all-encompassing light consumed forest all around us. Does this make any sense? No? Just go.It’s very Alice in Wonderland; I can’t properly describe or show the entire experience.

At the end of our planned stops, we had logged over five hours in the city, and had spent a grand total of just $10 on lunch while we were out and about. None of these places cost any money to visit, and were open for us to take in and enjoy at our own pace. There still remain 10 more “secret” places on the list and we have every intention of tracking them all down.

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On the Kenilworth Gardens website is a phrase that has settled within me for several days after first reading it – it described the gardens as “places within places.” This can be extrapolated to the city of DC itself- it’s a city of places within places. Look beyond the big and flashy and find the small and contained. The monuments and museums have their place, but to truly feel like you’ve “seen” DC, and taken in some vital part of the spirit of the city, take a trek into one (or three) of its 90 neighborhoods and submerge yourself in the culture of that neighborhood. The most wonderful things await you there.