A Secret Escape in Washington, DC
A number of my friends recently moved to DC from New York, and all have the same comment: this place is very green. It's one of the reasons I love DC. With one fifth of the District’s land dedicated to parks, every Washingtonian has their favorite secret spot to escape to nature. My latest obsession is the National Arboretum. This off the beaten path spot is perfect for those looking to travel like a local, visit something free, and is great for solo travelers.
The biggest challenge of the Arboretum is getting there. If you have a metro card, you should be able to cobble together bus routes to deliver you from whatever quadrant of the city you’re in. There’s also a Capital bikeshare rack just outside the R Street gate for those interested in pedalling. An Uber or Lyft will also suffice, especially if you’re trying to save your legs. You’ll need them to power around the massive grounds.
Massive is not a hyperbole—I spent a whole morning at the National Arboretum and didn’t make it through half of the trails and gardens. It’s a must-see for any nature lover. Here are my highlights. First: stop in the visitor’s center for a map and ask what’s in bloom during your visit.
Next to the visitor’s center is the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum. It’s one of the few places restricted on site (no dogs, food, or bikes). The space is gorgeous, with carefully considered architecture and incredible examples of bonsai. I also had the good fortune to visit on World Bonsai Day, and the Potomac Bonsai Association was exhibiting some of their members’ bonsai.
As you walk away from the visitor’s center, you’ll be immediately struck by a set of columns in the distance. Hike over to them, your Instagram feed will thank you. Those are 22 of the original columns that supported the Capitol building.
Not far from the Capitol Columns is a place called the Fern Valley. It’s a trail that forms a half mile loop following a stream through a lush forest filled with plants native to the region. This little hike was a much needed detox for my city dweller’s soul, you could easily lose yourself in the moment and forget you're in the nation's capital.
Beyond that, there are many other gardens and sites to discover, but the path you choose should be largely dependent on what’s in bloom. The azalea trails are very popular during spring, and I arrived just days after their peak. I was just in time to see huge peonies, Instagram's favorite flower, flopping about in the perennial garden.
If you go. I wore my hiking boots as everything was quite damp after a recent rain, but the Arboretum is full of paved and manicured walking paths for any type of footwear. Washingtonians aren’t known for early rising on the weekends, so I had a lot of the paths to myself around 11am. By the time I made my way out in early afternoon, the park was busier but not overrun like the Mall. It also bears repeating, admission to the Arboretum and Bonsai/Penjing Museum is free. If you have an afternoon to kill with nice weather, I recommend adding the National Arboretum to your itinerary. You can learn more about their programming and how to get there on their website.