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City celebrates new dawn for a hidden gem of the West End

If you’ve never heard of or been to Winkler Botanical Preserve, you’re not alone.

In a 2021 poll, over 55% of ALXnow readers had never heard of the Winkler Botanical Preserve and nearly 20% had heard of it but never gone there. A little over 5% said they go to the park frequently.

But that could be changing as NOVA Parks works to make the park more accessible and involved in local partnerships.

A little over a year after NOVA Parks took ownership of the Winkler Botanical Preserve, NOVA Parks and city leaders met to commemorate the changes over the last year, unveil a new sign by the central pond, and look ahead to what’s coming for the park.

Sean Kumar, NOVA Parks Board vice chair, said that over the last year over 600 Alexandria City Public Schools students have gone to the park and 56 students were involved in the summer camp at the park.

“I’m so excited by what NOVA Parks has been able to do in such a short time,” said Mayor Justin Wilson. “This is a great community resource. In an area without a lot of community green space, we have the best community green space. I appreciate the incredible act of charity and vision that led to this park.”

“This is truly a hands-on experience for children to engage with,” Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt said to Kumar. “On behalf of students and staff, thank you.”

The park is described on the NOVA Parks website as a 44-acre oasis in the middle of Alexandria’s Mark Center. Those 44 acres contain two herds of deer, foxes, herons and more.

While the park is a beautiful resource, NOVA Parks Executive Director Paul Gilbert said parking remains a challenge for making the park truly accessible to the community.

“The weak link in the preserve is a significant lack of parking,” Gilbert said. “We can’t even have tree identification hikes because we only have eight parking spots.”

Gilbert said NOVA Parks is working on plans to expand the parking, and he hopes to start the permitting process by this upcoming spring.

“The ideal would be enough space to bring in a school bus to come in and turn around,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert said he hopes more parking would get people out to what he described as a spectacular park and a learning opportunity.

“It’s a botanical preserve, too; it’s more than an opportunistic forest,” Gilbert said. “The Winklers cultivated and grew native plants. There’s an impressive collection of native plant life and a low level of invasive species.”

Gilbert said his dream for the Winkler Botanical Preserve would be for every ACPS student to visit at least once.

“Wouldn’t it be great if every child in Alexandria came here at least once and experienced a forest in this city?” Gilbert asked.

Park Manager Rachel Doody said one of her favorite parts about working at the park is seeing the reaction of local students.

“I love what we’ve seen with summer camps,” Doody said. “The look in their eyes when they see the waterfall and the pond. One girl right behind me said ‘That’s a waterfall! Where are we?'”

Winkler Botanical Preserve is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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