A secret cherry blossom spot in D.C. that’s less touristy

Mar 6, 2020

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If you’ve visited Washington, D.C.’s Tidal Basin when the cherry blossoms are at peak bloom (around April 4), you know the crowds can reach Disney-level attendance. Navigating among thousands of camera-toting tourists can be a distraction from the annual floral display, unless you arrive at dawn. But there are more tranquil cherry blossom spots in the city where tourists do not tread — or tread lightly.

The cherry blossom season in D.C. can start as early as March 15 and run through the second or third week of April. So, you have time to plan a fun trip to Washington to see nature at its best!

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(Photo by Alberto Buzzola/LightRocket via Getty Images)
(Photo by Alberto Buzzola/LightRocket/Getty Images)

As a D.C. native, one of my favorite secret spots is far away from the typical tourist trail: the U.S. National Arboretum.

The National Arboretum is largely unknown, even to most locals. Located on the eastern edge of D.C., the arboretum is not Metro-friendly and it’s not near anything else. You have to make an effort to get there (the drive is about 20-30 minutes from downtown) but your effort will be rewarded with stunning blooms and little competition to see them.

Related: 5 tips for planning the perfect cherry blossom trip to Washington, D.C.

Crowd-free blossoms

The arboretum is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. except on Christmas, and admission is free. Last year, I visited the National Arboretum at 10 a.m. on a Tidal Basin peak-bloom Sunday and still had entire portions of the arboretum to myself. Here, you’ll find 9.5 miles of paths snaking over more than 400 acres and the 1,000-plus trees are much more spread out than those at the Tidal Basin. People with mobility limitations can drive between various groves, but I found the three-mile walk on paved roads easy and stroller-friendly.

There are more than 30 varieties of cherry trees in the National Arboretum, and they bloom over a much longer period of time than those at the Tidal Basin. The trees at the arboretum begin blooming at least two weeks earlier, and you can still see flowers well into May. The extended blooming season means you can visit in two separate months and experience peak bloom. It also means the National Arboretum is a great Plan B if you’ve booked a trip to Washington, D.C. to see the cherry blossoms but the blooms on the Tidal Basin refused to cooperate.

Related: Planning a trip to the Washington, D.C. cherry blossoms based on averages and guessing

cherry blossoms at the National Arboretum
(Credit: @DCGardens on Flikr)

Viewing tips

The Arboretum is chock full of blossoms, and different sections of the park bloom at different times. I’ve visited March through May the past couple of years and there have always been blossoms.

Start at one of the groves — whichever one is in bloom at the time. The grove located where Valley Road crosses Meadow Road (a mix of magnolias, azaleas and cherry blossoms), is a truly scenic spot, and one that’s easy to find as it’s near the entrance to the overflow-parking lot at New York Avenue. Park there and head left. If the cherry blossoms are in bloom, you’ll see what I mean. If you catch a breeze, you might be lucky enough to get caught in a bloom shower.

Related: Capturing the peak bloom of the Washington, D.C. cherry blossoms

The earlier you arrive, the better. The park opens at 8 a.m. but crowds don’t generally arrive until 10 a.m. or so on weekends. If you can’t make it early, go late. The park closes at 5 p.m. but crowds start thinning out around 3 p.m. Weekdays are better than weekends; Sundays are better than Saturdays. Even at peak time, you can usually find a solitary spot. Take a good look at the Arboretum website close to the date when you plan to visit and this should tell you what will be in bloom. D.C. Gardener also has an updated resource.

national arboretum
(Credit: @DCGardens on Flikr)

Capitol Columns

There’s a little piece of history parked right in the center of the arboretum: The original Corinthian columns that were installed at the Capitol in 1828 now stand high on a hill, keeping watch over the Ellipse Meadow below. The National Capitol Columns were moved from the U.S. Capitol dome to the arboretum in the 1980s. The columns are less than 200 years old and remind me of Greek ruins more than anything in Washington, D.C. They look straight out of a movie set and are absolutely Insta-perfect.

Naitonal Capitol Columns National Arboretum
(Credit: @DCGardens on Flikr)

Beyond cherry trees

The National Arboretum is home to way more than just the scene-stealing cherry trees. My favorite is the National Bonsai Museum, which features Japanese and Chinese pavilions along with sculpted miniature specimen trees. Pack a picnic lunch. There are tables and benches scattered across the grounds. There’s a small gift shop where you can buy cold drinks and snacks if you decide on impulse to extend your visit.

Getting to the National Arboretum

The one downside to the National Arboretum for tourists is that it’s hard to get to on public transit. If you want to use the Metro, go the Stadium-Armory Station (blue and orange lines) and then take the B-2 bus toward Mount Rainier. You then depart the bus at R Street and walk two blocks to the entrance.

I recommend a ride-hailing service like Uber or Lyft if you don’t have a car. If you take Uber or Lyft, you will want to leave via the same R Street entrance where you access public transit because it will be easiest for a driver to pick you up at that location.

Capital Bikeshare is also an option as there’s a drop-off location right outside the R Street entrance. I don’t recommend it for most people. The neighborhoods you traverse on the ride are spotty where safety is concerned.

If you drive, parking is free. The New York Avenue entrance is the easiest to access via car. During the season, there’s an overflow-parking lot right at the New York Avenue entrance. Off-peak, you’ll find parking at the Visitor Center (2400 R Street NE) and scattered throughout the park.

Feature photo by Yoshiyuki Kaneko/EyeEm/Getty Images.

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