First-time visitors to the nation’s capital in the spring are in for a treat. This season is synonymous with the National Cherry Blossom Festival, a nearly century-old tradition that celebrates the blooming of cherry trees all over town, with most blossoms concentrated around the Tidal Basin. It’s a time that’s steeped in history and rich in fanfare, with a number of events throughout D.C.
In 1912, Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki presented more than 3,000 cherry trees to Washington, D.C., inspiring the National Cherry Blossom Festival. From the original three-day event, the festival has expanded into a weeks-long extravaganza, drawing more than 1.5 million people.
There is no preparation for actually experiencing the capital in its springtime prime. During this hopeful season, pink petals burst onto the scene with gusto, before flitting from branches like confetti – departing almost as quickly as they arrived.
In early March, National Park Service horticulturists predict the blossoms’ “peak” bloom date, when about 70 percent of flowers are open. Their prediction is based on decades of experience plus a mix of historical data, weather observations and forecasts. Blooms have occurred as early as March 15 and as late as April 18, according to the NPS.
For 2017, the NPS predicts the trees will be at their peak March 19-22. To accommodate, the 2017 festival began on March 15 – five days earlier than previously planned – and continues as scheduled through April 16. Although the blossoms only remain in full bloom for a few days, the festival features four weekends of events plus daily programming to celebrate the arts, nature and community spirit.
So, how to enjoy the exquisite trees among throngs of fellow admirers? We’ve gathered some logistical info and insiders’ secrets to ensure a “blooming” good time.
The northeast side of the Tidal Basin near the paddle boats and Jefferson Memorial often gets especially clogged. So after snapping that iconic shot from the steps of the Jefferson, consider moving toward the FDR Memorial and beyond. While the Tidal Basin is a stunning and concentrated hub of majestic trees, remember that farther-flung spots around the city are idyllic for gazing, too. For example, picnic under the cherry branches of the National Arboretum, Hains Point and West Potomac Park.
Parking during the festival is nearly impossible, especially during peak bloom days. We recommend arriving on foot, by bike or via public transportation.
For those who do drive, parking is available in three lots along Ohio Drive SW, although the volume of traffic far exceeds the number of slots. Those with good parking karma consider a search along Ohio Drive SW between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials. Limited parking for disabled visitors exists near the memorials.
Online reservation services like Parking Panda and Parkmobile can help by tracking space availability – by date – at garages located near festival events. Ride-sharing services like Lyft and Uber can also help you get around.
Metro riders should head to Smithsonian (Orange/Blue lines) – which is the closest Metro station to the Tidal Basin at about half a mile away – although it gets particularly packed. If you’re up for a bit of a walk, we recommend getting off instead at L’Enfant Plaza, Federal Triangle or Foggy Bottom. Use the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority Trip Planner website to map your route and calculate fares.
Wear comfortable shoes, as a full day of blossom hunting can result in an impressively high number of steps (Fitbit wearers, rejoice!). The Tidal Basin measures 1.8 miles in circumference, the Hains Point loop is approximately four miles, and the distance between the Lincoln Memorial and U.S. Capitol Building is two miles.
Capital Bikeshare provides several bike stations at convenient locations, including Ohio Drive and the Jefferson Memorial. Refer to the company’s website to find rental locations and to see how many bikes are available at any given time. DC Circulator will be operating shuttles around Hains Point for $1 per person/per ride.
Consult visitor maps on downtown streets and those posted by the National Park Service around the Mall. Bus shelters often have maps, too, or consult a Where Visitor map.
In any case, bring along a large dose of patience because navigating paths near and around the Tidal Basin will be incredibly slow. Although arriving early or late – at sunrise or twilight – can help, prepare for crowds at most any time of day.
Fest-goers find helpful tools at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and at Visit Fairfax in Tysons Corner, Virginia. Refreshments and festival merchandise can also be found at the Tidal Basin Welcome Center, located in the Paddle Boat parking lot. For the most up-to-date details, visit the festival’s website, www.nationalcherryblossomfestival.org
For more travel inspiration, visit http://www.wheretraveler.com.