I have been determined lately to explore more of Washington D.C.’s countless sights, and to enjoy every possible second of this lingering warm weather. I am normally a bit of a Fall hater (summer fo’ life), but this year has been absolutely perfect.
The Fall foliage is in full effect here in the DC area, making it the perfect time to visit the U.S. National Arboretum, a 446-acre park and research program located on Northeast New York Avenue.
When we were abroad, exploring lesser-known corners of Brazil, Tom and I had several talks about how little of DC we had actually explored in our first three years living in the city. Truth be told, we missed our home base like crazy while we were gone. It’s not perfect, but it’s where we met and we love it. It’s a shame we haven’t explored all of its nooks and crannies yet.
So, we made a pact that when we got back, we’d visit all the places we’ve always talked about going to but have failed to actually make happen. This past Sunday, we got started with a DC bucket list item perfect for an unseasonably warm Fall day – the Arboretum.
After driving over and finding the parking lot, we made a quick stop at the Visitor’s Center where an extremely friendly Arboretum employee went over the map with us and pointed out the gardens that are currently in bloom.
If you’re a traveler or a local planning to visit the Arboretum this autumn, here is what you can expect.
National Bonsai & Penjing Museum
The Bonsai Museum is probably the most popular feature of the National Arboretum. There’s just something so captivating about those perfectly groomed little trees. This feature is available year round, but of course different trees will be flowering at different times.
This tree, a gift to the U.S. from Japan, dates back to 1625. Unbelievable, right?
I’ll be honest in that I didn’t know there were so many different kinds of bonsai trees. My limited experience with them includes Mr. Belding’s bonsai tree and one that Tom and I failed to keep alive very early on in our relationship (which may be why we waited so long to get a dog).
It was interesting to discover that there are tropical bonsai trees and even bright red ones.
The tropical bonsai are located inside the Chinese Pavilion, which is fittingly landscaped to perfection.
National Herb Garden
Right across from the bonsai museum is the herb garden, a colorful outdoor oasis.
The herb garden is currently in the process of renovation, and looked a little bit neglected while were there. We didn’t find much to look at other than lots of pretty flowers. If you enjoy still-life photography, I’m sure you could find many muses in this garden.
Two other exhibits are currently in bloom, the Asian Collections and the Conifer Collection, but we only had time to see one. We opted for the Asian collections, a short drive or bike ride (or long walk) from the bonsai museum and herb garden.
Full of exotic tree species in nature’s full color spectrum, the Asian Collections are a true respite from city life. A gravel trail with varying elevation grades takes you along a path with views of the Anacostia River, although it’s pretty obscured by all the beautiful trees and you really have to squint to find it.
As we walked along, I wished I had more tree knowledge and also that I had doubled up on allergy medicine that morning.
As I’m highly allergic to trees and grass, we had to cut our visit to this area of the Arboretum short so that I could continue breathing.
National Capitol Columns
Perhaps the most picturesque area of the U.S. National Arboretum are the old Capitol Columns, which are set alone on a grassy knoll a short walk from the herb garden.
These Corinthian columns, dating back to 1828, were part of the original Capitol building in DC.
They were removed from the Capitol after a new dome was completed in 1864, when they proved inadequate to support the growing structure.
Made from sandstone quarried in nearby Virginia, the columns were sadly put in storage for many years as progress forged on in DC.
In the mid 1980s, Arboretum benefactor Ethel Garrett made it her mission to find a new location for the columns, where they remain today.
For more information about the National Capitol Columns, click here.
Visiting the Arboretum – What You Need to Know
The U.S. National Arboretum is free and open to the public from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Some of the displays and museums keep shorter hours, so check with the visitor center when you arrive.
Parking is free and located throughout the park. Because it is so large, you will likely need a car or a bike to see all of the grounds.
Tram tours are offered on weekends and holidays. Private tram tours are available on request. For more information, click here.
Pets are allowed and welcome, but must be leashed at all times. They are not allowed in the bonsai museum. Be sure to clean up after them and keep them out of the flower beds and gardens.
There are paved and gravel paths located throughout most of the Arboretum, but terrain can at times be uneven. I recommend wearing comfortable, close-toed shoes and sunscreen.