There’s no surer sign that spring is here than the cherry blossoms! In Japan, the practice of hanami, or the viewing of flowering trees (usually cherry), is a long-standing tradition with hundreds of years of history. And while the arrival of blossoms on flowering trees is always special, in recent years the Japanese enthusiasm for this natural phenomenon has been adopted in the West. The cherry trees that encircle the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC are famous for their fluffy pink blooms. The trees are so famous, in fact, that each year the National Cherry Blossom Festival celebrates the blossoms’ arrival. Everyone should see these beautiful cherry blossoms at least once. It’s too spectacular to miss!
With the short window of opportunity for cherry blossom viewing, you can expect huge crowds. But I’ve got a few tips for seeing the Washington, DC cherry blossoms while still avoiding the crowds!
History of Washington, DC’s Cherry Blossoms
There’s more in common with the Washington, DC cherry blossoms and the Japanese cherry blossoms than you might realize. In fact, Washington’s cherry trees are from Japan.
The original trees were a gift to Washington, DC in the spring of 1912 from the mayor of what we today know as Tokyo. (At the time, it was known as Tokyo City.) The first trees were planted on the northern side of the Tidal Basin by First Lady Helen Taft and Viscountess Chinda, the wife of the Japanese ambassador. Each year thereafter, more trees were planted until 1920. The very first Cherry Blossom Festival took place in 1934.
By then it was already clear that the cherry trees were quite beloved. Through the years, more trees have been planted around the National Mall. And what originally was a gift from Japan has been repaid, so to speak, as well. In the early 1980s, cuttings from DC’s cherry trees were taken back to Japan to replace trees that had been lost due to flooding.
When Do the Cherry Blossoms Bloom in DC?
Broadly speaking, each spring the cherry trees around the National Mall bloom. The million dollar question is when, exactly, they will reach peak bloom. Each year, the National Park Service closely monitor the trees at the Tidal Basin. They observe the Yoshino cherry trees and record as the buds emerge and go through a number of stages before reaching their ideal full bloom. The definition of “peak bloom” at the Tidal Basin is when 70% of the Yoshino blossoms are in bloom.
Many things affect when the trees reach peak bloom and how quickly they progress through each stage once the initial buds emerge. Generally, you can expect to see peak bloom in late March or early April. But a specific date for peak bloom can’t be forecast until about ten days beforehand. Peak bloom lasts for about three days. Again, this can vary based on the weather.
Avoiding the Crowds Viewing the Cherry Blossoms
Viewing the Washington, DC cherry blossoms during peak bloom will guarantee the largest crowds. Yes, the blooms are the most beautiful at peak bloom. But viewing just a few days before peak bloom is a great way to avoid the crowds and still enjoy the beautiful cherry blossoms.
For 2019, peak bloom is forecast for April 1st. I viewed the Washington, DC cherry blossoms on March 29th. As you can see from my photos, the majority of the trees clearly aren’t at peak bloom. But some are. It’s a really lovely mixture of the stages of bloom that allows you to take it all in.
Another surefire way to beat the crowds? Go early! The later in the day you view the blossoms, the more people that will be there. Part of this is due to the National Cherry Blossom Festival which includes different events and performances that attract visitors.
Where to See the Cherry Blossoms in DC?
For many, saying the Washington, DC cherry blossoms means the trees that ring the Tidal Basin. But you’ll find beautiful flowering trees across the entire city, including the National Mall. It’s worth exploring and seeing what you can find!
The Tidal Basin is “the” home of cherry trees in DC. Hundreds of trees line the narrow sidewalk that runs around the body of water. The majority of the trees are Yoshino cherry trees. You will find the Thomas Jefferson Memorial nestled amidst the cloud of pink and white blossoms. There are also rentals for paddle boats if you want to get a different perspective of the Tidal Basin.
There’s plenty of room just off the Tidal Basin for a picnic, a traditional part of hanami viewing, if you want to bring one. Or, you can just simply go for a stroll around the Tidal Basin and underneath the beautiful spring blooms.
In addition to the Tidal Basin, you’ll find cherry blooms across the National Mall. If you want to avoid the crowds, you don’t have to go far from the Tidal Basin. Just go a few blocks north towards the Washington Memorial and you’ll find more of the pink and white blooms. In most cases, you just have to look. If the trees at the Tidal Basin are in bloom, it’s likely there are others approaching peak bloom, too.
Although it isn’t quite the secret it once was, the National Arboretum is a fantastic spot for viewing the Washington, DC cherry blossoms! In reality, the National Arboretum is a fantastic spot anytime of year. But during cherry blossom season, nearly thirty different varieties of cherry trees put on their spring best. What makes these trees so special is the fact that you’ll see different colors, sizes, shapes, and types.
Using a pamphlet from the National Arboretum or their app, you can take a self-guided tour of the spot’s cherry blossoms. I highly recommend the app. Because of its large size, I find navigating the National Arboretum to be very difficult and confusing. Their app includes a mapping function which shows where you are within the gardens. You can use the mapping functionality with the cherry tree tour to guide you right to the trees you want to see!
Viewing the cherry blossoms at the National Arboretum is also great for those who are unable to walk or get around easily. It’s very easy to drive, at a slow speed, through the grounds of the arboretum and take everything in.
I visited the National Arboretum a few hours after my stop at the Tidal Basin. There were not many people. However, some of the trees didn’t have blooms at all. But it’s easy, using the tour, to identify the cherry trees and what variety each tree is.
Think Outside the Cherry Blossom Box
While it is cherry blossom season, there are other beautiful flowering trees around Washington, DC. In particular, the magnolia trees are really striking with their large shapely petals and bright colors. Much like the cherry trees, you’ll find flowering tree alternatives across the capital. At the National Arboretum, they have a section dedicated to magnolias where you’ll find a grouping of different types.
Dog-Friendly Washington, DC Cherry Blossom Viewing
From a dog’s point of view, can you think of a better day trip than one to see trees? It seems like the perfect way to spend a day! Dogs on leashes are welcome on the National Mall but there are certain points that are off-limits (such as within the memorials). Signs are posted so just pay attention to whether dogs are allowed where you are. Dogs are also welcome at the National Arboretum.
As always, be sure to clean up after your pup. Also, bring water for your dog and take breaks as necessary.
Washington, DC is a really dog-friendly city that’s easy to walk and with lots to do.
Parking For the Cherry Blossoms
Ordinarily, visitors can park right up along the Tidal Basin. However, during the National Cherry Blossom Festival, those parking spots are used for portable bathrooms, a snack stand, a performance stage, and more.
The best way to reach spots like the Tidal Basin, National Mall, and National Arboretum is to not rely on a car. I like to reserve a parking spot nearby using SpotHero and then walk. I used the parking garage at the nearby Wharf DC (which is worth a visit on its own!) and then walked over to the Tidal Basin. It was really convenient, even with having the dog with my husband and me.
If you’re visiting the National Arboretum, you’ll find free parking in lots throughout the gardens. It’s easy and convenient!
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All photos, as well as all opinions, are my own. This post contains affiliate links.