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Washington DC Outdoors - the National Arboretum, Our National Tree Museum

Updated on January 22, 2020
Dolores Monet profile image

From popular tourist attractions to lesser-known areas, Dolores shares destinations in Maryland as well as regional day trips.

Bonsai at the National Arboretum
Bonsai at the National Arboretum | Source

A Beautiful Park Like Setting in Washington DC

Washington DC is a city filled with museums and monuments dedicated to history and culture. While the sprawling complex of museums on the National Mall is well known to most DC visitors, the less well known tree collection at the US National Arboretum is by far my favorite destination in Washington DC.

Located in northwest Washington DC off Route 50 (New York Ave.), the National Arboretum is an educational research facility open free to the public daily from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM (except Christmas Day). Here, the US Department of Agriculture has developed and displayed landscape and floral plants in a 443 acre facility featuring scenic drives and walking paths since 1927.

When you visit, stop by the Administration Building that is open from March through October to pick up a map and informational pamphlets. Begin your tour by exiting the building to see the huge, formal pond filled with water lilies and beautiful koi.


A short walk to the east will bring you to the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum. Enter the Moon Gate and stroll the peaceful paths where you'll be transported into a world dedicated to the design traditions of the ancient art of Bonsai. the artistically trained trees and shrubs displayed there, up to 350 years old, delight the eye and calm the most restless spirit.

Bonsai means a tree planted in a dish and is a living art form that is never finished because it is a continuously growing and changing work of nature and art. Perfect little trees enchant the viewer as they strive to harmonize the relationship between man and nature.

The art of Bonsai originated in China when Buddhist monks gave the art an almost religious significance. Cultivation of Bonsai is the attempt to understand the concept of creation and to participate in the control and design of nature at an every day level producing these small, yet, magnificent specimens of trees and shrubs. An ancient, ganarled juniper tree that is barely 3 feet tall is capable of halting a visitor and drawing you into meditation.

Close-up of an old bonsai, a Japanese black pine
Close-up of an old bonsai, a Japanese black pine | Source


Cross Meadow Road to see the formal gardens filled with shrubs and perennials. Divided sections display historical and species roses, perennials and herbs. Plants are labeled and informative signage provides an educational stroll through the area, a great place for ideas and inspiration for your own garden.

The herb gardens feature information on the historical and culturally diverse use of 800 herbs, practical and attractive additions to any home garden.

Capitol Columns at the National Arboretum
Capitol Columns at the National Arboretum | Source

National Capitol Columns

From the southern edge of the perennial garden, gaze across the meadow to see the National Capitol columns carved from Virginia sandstone that rise atop the hill. Removed from the US Capitol in 1958 during renovations, these lovely columns seem to support the sky itself.

At the top of the hill, within the framework of columns, a fountain tumbles down the fill iin a formal waterfall. Park officials are often on hand to explain the history of these graceful columns that date from the Federal Period and to thwart children so easily tempted to play in the burbling waters. Tiny boats made of twigs and leaves and set to ride the current, while seemingly a great idea, are not appreciated by Arboretum staff.

Azalea walk at the Arboretum in DC
Azalea walk at the Arboretum in DC | Source

Azalea Walk

West of the meadow is the Azalea walk, composed of several paths through a forest whose undergrowth is compromised of early to late blooming azaleas. In Spring, thousands of azaleas burst into color. Here, you may run into crowds during the height of azalea season, where families from all over the world pause to photograph on another amidst the delicate blossoms.

You can easily lose hours on the azalea walk, lost in the beauty of its informal, natural setting beneath the canopy of mature trees. At the southernmost point of your walk, at the top of Mt. Hamilton (not really a mountain, of course, this is DC, remember) thrill to the picturesque view of the Washington Monument framed by the foliage of trees. It is a breathtaking view that an inspire tears.

Along the azalea walk are some interesting trees, places to pause for rest and quiet contemplation.

Washington Monument view from the Arboretum in DC
Washington Monument view from the Arboretum in DC | Source

Other Attractions

The US National Arboretum is a huge system of themed gardens. It is impossible to do a complete tour in one day. The sprawling complex and idyllic setting necessitate long periods of time standing in one place in an attempt to absorb the full beauty of the place.

You may also want to visit the Dwarf and Slow Growing Conifer Collection, a 5 acre landscaped hillside of artistically grouped spruces, firs, and dwarf pines. Watch out if you suffer allergies. One spring I watched as dense clouds of pollen wafted in greenish yellow clouds with every breath of breeze.

The National Grove of State Trees is a 30 acre living monument dedicated to America's trees and forests.

Dawn Redwood at the US National Arboretum
Dawn Redwood at the US National Arboretum | Source

Special Events and Exhibits

Throughout the year, the National Arboretum features special exhibits, workshops, lectures, demonstrations and full moon hikes. Some events are free, some incur some cost. Some events require a reservation.

Several times a year, Bonsai enthusiasts and admirers provide educational programs on the art of Bonsai. You can visit a show or attend a hands-on workshop where you can learn the art of Bonsai and create your own rendition of this fine art.

On the last weekend in April, the National Arboretum hosts a garden Fair and Plant Sale.

Moon Gate at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum
Moon Gate at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum | Source

Upcoming Attractions

The National Arboretum's newest planned exhibit will be a Classical Chinese Garden that promises to be the best in the country. A joint project between the US and China and inspired by the Chinese garden cities of Zhangzhou, Shuzhou, and Hangzhou, the Chinese Classical Garden will cover 8 acres dedicated to Chinese landscape and architectural design, history, flora, and garden development. Featuring harmonious placement of plants, rocks, paths, and water features, the garden will include ponds, traditional buildings in the Ming and Ching styles. there will also be a 1.3 acre lake with a boathouse, a walled garden, exhibit hall, tea-house, and Fragrance Pavilion promises a thrill for gardening lovers

Lovely tour of the bonsai garden at the National Arboretum

Azaleas in Bloom at the US National Arboretum

national arboretum:
National Arboretum, 3501 New York Ave NE, Washington, DC 20002-1958, USA

get directions


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    • poetryman6969 profile image


      6 years ago

      I need to check this place out the next time I am in the area.

    • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

      Dolores Monet 

      11 years ago from East Coast, United States

      christian - it's a great place any season! thanks!

    • christianesk profile image


      11 years ago from The Global Hamlet

      I'm cool with trees, big stylie, so whenever I get to DC, I'm gonna remember this hub, and use it as a guide. Nice job, Dolores.

    • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

      Dolores Monet 

      11 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Haunty, it must be wonderful to have some ancient trees in your Hungary. Of course we have the 2,000 year old redwoods and 4,000 year old bristlecone pines on the west coast. The east coast where I live was pretty much stripped of trees in colonial and federal times, so we don't do ancient.

      Thank you so much for the lovely comment. And yes, DC is great to get around in.

      I grew up next to a woods, so played in trees as a child. How can anyone not love trees?

    • Haunty profile image


      11 years ago from Hungary

      Wonderful hub, Dolores! But not just this, all of your hubs. I browsed them to pick which one I should read first and stuck with the National Arboretum, because I love trees. We have pretty ancient trees here in Hungary, but I'm interested in all kinds of trees. Your pictures are amazing! They compliment your hubs well. Funny I find myself reading about Washington DC. I've just read a hub by k@ri about DC's public transport system, her first experience and now that I read this hub too, I wanna move. :) Btw, how have you come to be interested in trees?

    • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

      Dolores Monet 

      11 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Thank you , Peggy. I'm making the trip next week for the plant show and sale and hope the axaleas are in bloom though it seems a bit early. The Cherry Blossom festival is wonderful, thought I've never been to the fair, the sight of all those blossoms is really indescribable, it's like a magical fairy land.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      11 years ago from Houston, Texas

      This is a wonderful article, Dolores. You are correct.......most people just hear about all the other museums in Washington. Except for Cherry Blossom Time, this is the first that I have been introduced to the wonderful outdoor National Arboretum. You can be sure that if we visit Washington, this will be HIGH on our list of places to see. Love the outdoors and nature. A big thumbs up!


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