National Arboretum is A Quiet Retreat in the Nation’s Capital

The National Arboretum, a 446 acre park in the northeast corner of our nation’s capital is a quiet, spectacular retreat and a largely overlooked treasure. Established by an Act of Congress in 1927, the mission of the Arboretum is “to serve the public need for scientific research, education, and gardens that conserve and showcase plants to enhance the environment.”

Although the Arboretum attracts between 475,000 and 525,000 visitors a year, the vast space is rarely seen by Washington tourists.  Far from the mega attractions of downtown – the Smithsonian, FBI building, White House, Capitol, etc. – or a convenient Metro stop, a trip to the Arboretum takes a bit of planning – and a good map or GPS system.  But rest assured, your effort will be rewarded.

Nestled between New York Avenue and the Baltimore Washington Parkway, the Arboretum has only nine miles of road within the 446 acres.  A trolley ride, usually available only on weekends during the summer months, provides a good overview and is excellent for a trip with small children or older adults.

Three of the most popular exhibits – the Herb Garden, the Aquatic Garden and the Bonsai Garden are all an easy walk from the parking lot.  The larger and more far flung gardens require either good legs and a stout pair of walking shoes or a car.  Bikes are allowed in the park as are well behaved dogs.

Our most recent trip to the Arboretum, a joint birthday celebration, was on a Thursday.  Not surprisingly the park had very few visitors – but even on the weekends it feels like a retreat because of its sheer size.  Benches and gazebos are tucked all through the park and visitors are welcome to picnic or sit for hours undisturbed.

Virginia and I particularly enjoy Fern Valley and the Japanese Gardens and no matter how many times we visit we always find something new to catch our eye.  A recent broadcast on WAMU radio goes behind the scenes at the Arboretum to focus on the research and development that goes into many of the trees and shrubs so dear to local gardeners – like Crape Myrtles, Redbuds and hollies.

The Arboretum also has a wide range of educational programs including “full moon hikes” which book very early.

So whether you have out of town guests who have seen every ‘tourist’ attraction or you just want a quiet get way without leaving town, head your car towards the National Arboretum, you’ll be glad you did.