Visiting the U.S. National Arboretum

Blue bells at the National Arboretum

We visited the U.S. National Arboretum in northeast DC last weekend on a gloriously sunny day. It had been at least eight years or so since we’d been there, and it was refreshing to see it again. Living in the suburbs sometimes makes me feel as though everything in the city is light years away. Every time we’re in DC, though, I remember that it’s not, which makes me inclined to head in on a whim more often.

The Arboretum is a good place for whims. First, it’s free. Then, if you walk in any direction once you’re there, you’ll find a great view, regardless of whether it’s the blossoming tree just before you, or a vista spanning a section of the Anacostia River. I highly recommend it as a day trip for those in the DMV region, or as an add-on to any out-of-towner’s schedule during a visit. The Arboretum is hilly, so walking it serves as a decent workout as long as you don’t drive from one spot to the next (and if you don’t need to, you shouldn’t!). Although visitors could previously take a tram tour, the website indicates that they have been suspended for the 2018 season.


We meandered somewhat aimlessly (par for the course, with a toddler in tow), although I definitely wanted to make it to Asian collections, and we did. As it turned out, Fern Valley, which we’d walked through previously but didn’t get to this time, may have been a better choice. Less than a week ago, the region still had frost warnings at night, and things didn’t really begin opening into full bloom until a few days ago. Nevertheless, the weather was pleasant, the walking was good, and some flowers and trees, including the dogwoods, had begun to bloom.

Bluebells blossoming at the Arboretum

Whims, while worthwhile, don’t always provide the best experience. I have to be honest: Until recently (after last weekend’s visit, in fact!), I hadn’t checked out the Arboretum’s main website. If I had, I may have made a point to stop in at the Bonsai and Penjing Museum, which we walked right by. I also would have been better informed about what was in bloom. The Arboretum’s website features a list of gardens and collections with useful planning details about what blooms when, as well as how long you might spend in each area. I will definitely reference this before we visit again.

View near the Asian collections at the Arboretum

Still, maybe “best” is overrated. We had a lovely day, and not every outing needs an itinerary. Bonus points for making it to the correct location! Okay, not really, but the main example I think of in terms of whims not working out on garden trips is when, on our honeymoon in Bermuda, we attempted to walk to the Botanical Gardens and ended up at the Arboretum instead. It was admittedly a letdown after a hot, hilly walk when we’d been expecting trimmed hedgerows. There were certainly some pretty things to look at, including the tree roots below, but it was a classic case of reality not meeting expectations. Alas, we got a story and these somewhat middling pictures out of it.

So, sometimes reading up on the details before heading out makes good sense. Other times, like last week, it’s enough to leave the phone behind, head out with an open mind, and enjoy whatever happens to be nearby.

Happy wandering, whether you research beforehand or not!

Crab apple at the Arboretum
Ornamental crab apple tree at the Arboretum

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