The Enchanted Woods at Winterthur

Years ago I’d visited Winterthur, a former home of the du Pont family (of DuPont chemical fame) in Delaware, and enjoyed its top-notch collection of American decorative arts. I finally returned to Winterthur recently to attend an annual family-friendly event called Enchanted Summer Day (because, really, who could resist something called that?).

The event celebrates the beginning of summer with crafts, games, a strolling magician, a storyteller, Celtic musicians, face painting, and an ice cream truck selling frozen treats from local favorite Woodside Farm Creamery. Best of all, the event took place in a wonderful children’s garden called the Enchanted Woods, part of Winterthur’s 60-acre estate.

To get to the Enchanted Woods, we took the free shuttle tram from the Visitors Center but you can also walk there. It’s a 15-minute stroll up hill. Shuttles are able to accommodate strollers.

The tram driver doubled as tour guide and pointed out sights along the way, like the 175-room Du Pont mansion and a tree she called the “dinosaur tree” because it was so old. She geared her talk to the kids and I was happy to see even my three-year-old son paying attention and responding to her interactive talk.

The driver dropped us off at the entrance to the Enchanted Woods; from there, the kids could pick whether to take the path to the left or the one to the right. Either way looked enticing. With all its nooks and branching paths and towering oaks, the Enchanted Woods seemed bigger than it actually turned out to be (at least from an adult’s perspective).

The first thing we came across was the Forbidden Fairy Ring. A rustic sign read: “Never ever step inside a fairy ring.” As fairy lore goes, if you do step inside a fairy ring, you might get whisked off into fairy land. My three-year-old wouldn’t go inside the ring of misting, wooden, stool-sized mushrooms at first – but by the end of the afternoon he was dancing around inside the circle along with the other kids. The misting is refreshing on a hot day. In fact, with all the mature trees providing cover, the entire garden is a cool respite when it’s hot out.

A wooden ramp bordered by hydrangeas led to a giant bird’s nest made of interlacing branches – and tucked inside were two large eggs that the kids could sit on. The kids imagined themselves birds lofted in a tree top.

Across from the nest was the cutest, most well-made fairy cottage I’ve ever seen. It was built of stone and had a real thatched roof. Inside were a fireplace, chairs, arched windows – all mini sized. We wanted to move in.

I really liked how there was an element of serendipity about the garden’s design: My seven-year-old daughter spied through some bushes a giant’s face on the ground and she excitedly led me to her discovery. We had to duck through a space in the azaleas to get to it. “I found it,” she said proprietarily.

It was clear she felt as if she was the only one who knew about this. (Though the map we picked up at the Visitors Center and hadn’t studied pointed out that this was called the Green Man’s Lair.) Also don’t miss the Upside-Down Tree, which has carved into it a little mysterious door to open and a tiny window to peek into.

I also liked the garden’s literary bent. A labyrinth walking (or running) path had 20 of its paving stones etched with images of flowers and plants as well as the words of a walking song from the Navajo people. Nearby, the Story Stones were a collection of differently shaped stones, including some from houses and mills.

Some were also etched with song lyrics and one large block had a fitting Shakespearean verse: “Tongues in trees/books in running brooks/sermons in stones/and good in everything.” During the Enchanted Summer Day event, a storyteller held court in the Story Stones.

Other areas of the garden kept kids more active. In the Gathering Green stood a May Pole, which had my kids running in circles as they wove the colorful ribbons around and around the pole. In Frog Hollow, the kids could try their hand at a water pump, which gushed water into a trough and then a little pond.

Long-handled nets were available to scoop up petals or other woody debris from the water. My three-year-old loved this area, and it was hard to drag him away.

On the other end of the Enchanted Woods, we emerged into a lush grassy meadow, perfect for picnics or throwing a ball around. During the Enchanted Summer Day event, this was where kids could learn about old-fashioned games like Game of Graces and chasing a hoop.

Beyond the Enchanted Woods lay the rest of the Winterthur gardens, which were designed by H.F. du Pont, a master gardener who was inspired by European gardens. We ran out of time on this visit, but I resolved to come back to explore what other horticultural treasures awaited at Winterthur – as well as the museum itself.

What To Know

  • Winterthur is about a two-hour drive from the DC area. The Museum and Garden are open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and closed on Monday.
  • Tickets cost $18 (adults), $16 (seniors), $5 (children 2-11), free for children under 2. Tickets are honored for two consecutive days. Buy them online ahead of time or at the Visitor’s Center, where there are clean restrooms with a baby changing table, a cafeteria, and a gift shop.
  • There is ample free parking at the Visitor’s Center. From there you can either walk or take the free shuttles to the Enchanted Woods, other parts of the garden, or the mansion museum. Some parts of the estate are hilly. Pick up a Garden Map, which shows which paths are stroller-friendly.
  • Before your visit you might want to log on to the Winterthur website and check out their charming interactive map and other resources that tell the legend of the Enchanted Woods.
  • There are restrooms right across the lane from the Enchanted Woods.
  • There are two cafes at Winterthur (one in the Visitor’s Center and one at the Museum) but you can also bring a picnic.
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