Best place to see cherry blossoms in DC? The National Arboretum.

Best place to see cherry blossoms in DC?  The National Arboretum.
Best place to see cherry blossoms in DC?  The National Arboretum.

Every year, the cherry trees around the Tidal Basin bloom brilliantly, creating an unforgettable scene and attracting huge numbers of people who clog the paths around the monuments.

If you feel anxious about groups walking five abreast, having to stop every 10 steps to take another photo, or about dodging the stream of scooters and strollers and bike-share bikes, take comfort in one simple fact: The best place to soak in the beauty of D.C.’s cherry blossom trees isn’t the narrow, overly popular, sometimes flooded sidewalks around the Tidal Basin. This is the US National Arboretum, about four miles northeast of the Jefferson Memorial.

The benefits of spending an afternoon at the arboretum are obvious: Wide open roads! Few cars! The ability to wander off the sidewalk and touch the grass between the trees and even spread out picnic blankets with views of cherry blossoms and a pond in the distance! All this before we even get to the colors themselves.

More than 70 varieties of cherry trees grow on the arboretum’s 446 acres, including three hybrids that were actually developed there. While searching for hundreds of cherry blossoms among all the other flowering plants, majestic trees, and manicured gardens can sound daunting, it’s made much easier with the free guided tour available as a printed brochure in the Arboretum’s Visitor Center located at smartphone app.

The latest iteration of the tour has grown from 27 stops to 40, allowing the arboretum to showcase trees along Azalea Road in the southwest corner of the grounds. They were featured on tours more than a decade ago, says arboretum interpretive specialist Julia da Silva, until the arboretum’s resident bald eagles nested nearby and the area was closed to visitors. «In 2023, eagles built a nest elsewhere in the arboretum for the first time,» says da Silva. “When it became clear that they weren’t going to return to their old nest, we decided it was time to bring those trees along Azalea Road back into the loop. Some of these trees are among the rarest in our collection, so it’s a pleasure to be able to share them with the public again.”

These include the green-flowered Gyoiko, a rare tree first collected in Japan in 1915 by Department of Agriculture «plant researcher» Frank Meyer, found in only one or two arboretums in the United States, and the fragrant Wase- miyako, which the arboretum says is «probably» the only one in the country.

Unlike the flowers in the Tidal Basin, which tend to explode in a forest of pinks at the same time, the peak bloom for the arboretum’s tree varieties goes from «early» (mid-late March) to «late bloom» (mid- the end of April). On a recent visit, the deep pink flowers of the First Lady—one of the hybrids created here—were putting on a show in multiple fields, while other trees were just beginning to bud or still showing bare branches.

Each stop is indicated by a large pink poster. Look for this number in the brochure or in the app to find a photo of the blossoms (helpful if the trees haven’t bloomed) and a biography of the plant: Interesting to learn that Yoshino at Stop 29 is a clone of one of the trees that First Lady Helen Taft originally planted in the Tidal Basin in 1912. On the other side of the Arboretum, near the administration building, there is an Arboretum-developed variety named after Taft, developed from a clone of an original Yoshino.

The trees are mostly clustered in a few places, but the tour also leads to some unexpected places, such as the Research Fields, a beautiful, sun-drenched grove containing trees grown from seeds collected in Japan, experimental hybrids, and plants used for breeding and conservation. Consider them a work in progress, says Margaret Pooler, research manager of the arboretum’s Floral and Nursery Plant Research Division: «They are part of our ongoing hybridization program and are not part of the arboretum’s permanent collections,» so they have no identifying labels.

Pulling in to smell the blossoms and take pictures brings stark reminders that we’re not the only living creatures rejoicing in the return of spring: Approaching the cherry blossoms and Japanese apricot trees in the fields along Hickey Hill Road, the buzz gets louder -loud with every step, thanks to the bees that buzz and fly between the fragrant flowers covering every branch.

This connection to nature is what makes the cherry tree encounter at the Arboretum different from Tidal Basin or Hains Point. It’s worth exploring: Da Silva, the interpretive specialist, hopes visitors will veer off the marked trail to spots like the corner of a collection of flowering trees on Crabtree and Hickey Hill roads, perfect for a picnic. «The land rises to the side of the intersection,» says da Silva. “Not a lot, but enough to make me think a lot of people don’t bother going there. It’s very peaceful, there are several places to sit and you have a view of the flowering trees and Beechwood Pond. It’s wonderful. People heading to stops 17 and 18 will find the place.”

Another tip: Don’t miss the weeping cherry trees outside the National Herb Garden, the oldest in the Arboretum’s collection, whose bulging branches are supported by traditional Japanese crutches.

The tour the total walking distance is about three miles, according to the arboretum, but this is not required: there are parking lots in various areas – the places near the research fields, stop 35, allow access to a number of trees within a short walking distance, as well as small lots near the collections from conifers and dogwood.

Before long, you’ll start to notice more cherry blossoms that aren’t highlighted on the tour — like the First Lady’s tree, located along Eagle Nest Road, facing the National Capitol Columns, offering a rather lovely photo opportunity through the Ellipse Meadow. And you’ll probably make plans to come back in a week or two when different trees may have bloomed.

The US National Arboretum is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Vehicular access is permitted through the gate at 2400 R St. NE until 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Cars must then enter through 3501 New York Ave. NO. Free of charge.

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