Parks and Nature
Washington is more than marble and limestone buildings. The city is blessed with numerous parks and outdoor attractions that provide a break from the museums and government facilities. Rock Creek Park extends through much of the city, with entrances to the park near many hotels. Other outdoor spaces, such as the National Mall, Potomac Park, and Constitution Gardens, offer a chance to see nature, combined with the beauty of nearby waterways and the majesty of the city's beloved monuments.
Constitution Gardens. Many ideas were proposed to develop this 50-acre site near the Reflecting Pool and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It once held "temporary" buildings erected by the Navy before World War I and not removed until after World War II. President Nixon is said to have favored something resembling Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens. The final design was plainer, with paths winding through groves of trees and, on the lake, a tiny island paying tribute to the signers of the Declaration of Independence, their signatures carved into a low stone wall. In 1986 President Reagan proclaimed the gardens a living legacy to the Constitution. In that spirit, naturalization ceremonies for new citizens take place. Constitution Ave., between 17th and 23rd Sts. NW, White House area, Washington, DC, 20024. www.nps.gov/coga. Farragut W or Foggy Bottom.
Dumbarton Oaks. One of the loveliest places for a stroll in Washington is Dumbarton Oaks, the acres of enchanting gardens adjoining Dumbarton House in Georgetown. Planned by noted landscape architect Beatrix Farrand, the gardens incorporate elements of traditional English, Italian, and French styles and include a formal rose garden, an English country garden, and an orangery (circa 1810). A full-time crew of a dozen gardeners toils to maintain the stunning collection of terraces, geometric gardens, tree-shaded brick walks, fountains, arbors, and pools. Plenty of well-positioned benches make this a good place for resting weary feet, too. Public garden tours are at 2:10 pm Tuesday–Thursday and Saturday. In May, the peonies and azeleas in full bloom are spectacular. 31st and R sts, Georgetown, Washington, DC, 20007. 202/339–6401 or 202/339–6400. www.doaks.org. $8 mid-Mar.–Oct.; free Nov.–mid-Mar. Tues.–Sun. 2–5 (to 6 mid-Mar.–Oct.).
Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens. Cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post purchased the 25-acre Hillwood Estate in 1955, and devoted as much attention to her gardens as she did to the 40-room Georgian mansion. You can wander through 13 acres of them, including a Japanese rock and waterfall garden, a manicured formal French garden, a rose garden, Mediterranean fountains, and a greenhouse full of orchids. The "Lunar Lawn," where she threw garden parties that were the most coveted invitation in Washington society, is planted with dogwood, magnolia, cherry, and plum trees, as well as azaleas, camellias, lilacs, tulips, and pansies. Tours are offered on a first come, first served basis in spring and fall. The estate is best reached by taxi or car (parking is available on the grounds); it's a 20- to 30-minute walk from the Metro and there's no bus from the station. 4155 Linnean Ave. NW, Upper Northwest, Washington, DC, 20008. 202/686–5807 or 202/686–8500. www.hillwoodmuseum.org. House and grounds $15 (suggested donation). Tues.–Sat. 10–5 and two Sun. per month 1–5 (except annual closure around late Jan.; call for details). Tours: Apr.–late June and early Sept.–mid-Nov, Tues.–Sat. 10:30 and 12:30, Sun. 2:30. Van Ness/UDC.
Kahlil Gibran Memorial Garden. In a town known for it's political combat, this tiny urban park is a wonderful place to find some peace. The shady park combines Western and Arab symbols and is perfect for contemplation. From the Massachusetts Avenue entrance, a stone walk bridges a grassy swale. Farther on are limestone benches, engraved with sayings from Gibran, that curve around a fountain and a bust of the Lebanese-born poet. The garden is near the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory. 3100 block of Massachusetts Ave. NW, Upper Northwest, Washington, DC, 20008. Woodley Park or Dupont Circle.
Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens. Exotic water lilies, lotuses, hyacinths, and other water-loving plants thrive in this 14-acre sanctuary of quiet ponds, protected wetlands, and marshy flats. The gardens' wetland animals include turtles, frogs, beavers, spring azure butterflies, and some 40 species of birds. In May the water lilies and lotus are at their peak. In July nearly everything blossoms; early morning is the best time to visit, when day bloomers are just opening and night bloomers have yet to close. There's a tiny child-friendly museum in the Visitors Center. The nearest Metro stop is a 15-minute walk away, but there is ample free parking. Exit gates are locked promptly at 4. 1550 Anacostia Ave. at Douglas St. NE, Anacostia, Washington, DC, 20019. 202/426–6905. www.nps.gov/keaq. Free. Gardens and visitor center, daily 8–4. Tours daily at 9, 10, and 11. Deanwood.
Tudor Place. A little more than a block from Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown is this neighborhood gem, the former home of Martha Washington's granddaughter. The house has 5½ acres of grounds that offer impressive replications of Federal-period gardens and include 19th-century specimen trees and boxwoods from Mount Vernon. The self-guiding tour comes with a map and/or an audio tour. Make time for a one-hour docent-led tour of the house itself, which features many rare possessions of George and Martha Washington. 1644 31st Pl. NW, Georgetown, Washington, DC, 20007. 202/965–0400. www.tudorplace.org. $10 house and garden; $3 garden only. Self-guided garden tours: Feb.–Dec., Mon.–Sat. 10–4, Sun. noon–4. House tours: Feb.–Dec., Tues.–Sat. on the hr 10–3; Sun. on the hr noon–4. Woodley Park or Dupont Circle.
United States Botanic Garden. Established by Congress in 1820, this is the oldest botanic garden in North America. The garden conservatory sits at the foot of Capitol Hill, in the shadow of the Capitol building and offers an escape from the stone and marble federal office buildings that surround it; inside are exotic rain-forest species, desert flora, and trees from all parts of the world. A special treat is the extensive collection of rare and unusual orchids. Walkways suspended 24 feet above the ground provide a fascinating view of the plants. A relatively new addition is the National Garden, opened in 2006, which emphasizes educational exhibits. The garden features the Rose Garden, Butterfly Garden, Lawn Terrace, First Ladies' Water Garden, and Regional Garden. Step outside the building to see the Bartholdi Park, where theme gardens surround a historic fountain. Ask for a Junior Botanist kid's backpack of exploration for kids nine and above. 1st St. at 100 Maryland Ave. SW, Capitol Hill, Washington, DC, 20024. 202/225–8333. www.usbg.gov. Free. Daily 10–5. Federal Center SW.
United States National Arboretum. During azalea season (mid-April through May) this 446-acre oasis is a blaze of color. In early summer, clematis, peonies, rhododendrons, and roses bloom. At any time of year the 22 original Corinthian columns from the U.S. Capitol, re-erected here in 1990, are striking. All 50 states are represented by a state tree or flower. The arboretum has guided hikes throughout the year, including a Full Moon Hike at night. Check the website for schedules and to register. For a soothing, relaxing outing, visit the Cryptomeria Walk and Japanese Stroll Garden, which are part of the Bonsai and Penjing Museum. Admission to the grounds and the Visitors Center is free. On weekends a tram tours the arboretum's curving roadways at 11:30, 1, 2, 3, and 4. It's a difficult walk from the Metro so driving or biking in is best. The National Herb Garden and the National Bonsai Collection are also here. 3501 New York Ave. NE, Northeast, Washington, DC, 20002. 202/245–2726. www.usna.usda.gov. Free. Fri.–Mon. 8–5 (Bonsai and Penjing Museum 10–4). Weekends only: Union Station, then X6 bus (runs every 40 mins); weekdays: Stadium/Armory, then B2 bus to Bladensburg Rd. and R St.
George Washington was one of the first to advance the idea of a canal linking the Potomac with the Ohio River across the Appalachians. Work started on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal in 1828, and when it opened in 1850 its 74 locks linked Georgetown with Cumberland, Maryland, 185 miles to the northwest (still short of its intended destination). Lumber, coal, iron, wheat, and flour moved up and down the canal, but it was never as successful as its planners had hoped it would be. Many of the bridges spanning the canal in Georgetown were too low to allow anything other than fully loaded barges to pass underneath, and competition from the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad eventually spelled an end to profitability. Today the canal is part of the National Park System; walkers and cyclists follow the towpath once used by mules, while canoeists paddle the canal's calm waters. You could walk or pedal to the end of the canal, nearly 200 miles away in Cumberland, Maryland, but most cyclists stop at Great Falls, Maryland, 13 miles from where the canal starts.
This 328-acre finger of land extends south of the Jefferson Memorial from the Tidal Basin between the Washington Channel to the east and the Potomac River to the west. There are playgrounds, picnic tables, tennis courts, swimming pools, a driving range, one 18-hole and two 9-hole golf courses, miniature golf, and a pool. Double-blossoming cherry trees line Ohio Drive and bloom about two weeks after the single-blossoming variety that attracts throngs to the Tidal Basin each spring.
At 429 feet above sea level, this highest point in Washington has been used in different eras as a Civil War fort, the site of telegraph and radio towers, and a reservoir. In 1864 Abraham Lincoln watched nearby as outnumbered Union troops defended the capital from a formidable Confederate advance led by General Early, in the only battle to take place in the capital. Today, the park is enjoyed by soccer players, dog-park regulars, and picnickers. Most of the Civil War–era earthworks are gone, and two curious faux-medieval towers, built in 1929, mark the reservoir site, which is not accessible to the public. Nonetheless, the park has an appealing city view and plenty of room to run around. Free outdoor concerts take place each week in summer.
Groves of beeches, elms, and oaks flourish at this 183-acre park, part of the Rock Creek system, which begins just west of Georgetown and ends, 3½ miles later, near Van Ness Street. Along the way you'll experience a stream valley with ancient trees, possible bird sightings, and perhaps even a celebrity or two.
A quiet, sunken garden and fountain honors General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing, the first to hold the title General of the Armies, a rank Congress created in 1919 to recognize his military achievements. Engravings on the stone walls recount pivotal campaigns from World War I, when Pershing commanded the American expeditionary force and conducted other military exploits.
Rock Creek Park. The 1,800 acres surrounding Rock Creek have provided a cool oasis for visitors and D.C. residents ever since Congress set them aside for recreational use in 1890. The bubbling, rocky stream draws nature lovers to the miles of paved walkways. Bicycle routes, jogging and hiking paths, and equestrian trails wind through the groves of dogwoods, beeches, oaks, and cedars, and 30 picnic areas are scattered about. About twice the size of NYC's Central Park, the park bifurcates the length of the city, making entrance and egress easy for short or long exercise excursions.An asphalt bike path running through the park has a few challenging hills but is mostly flat, and it's possible to bike several miles without having to stop for cars (the roadway is closed entirely to cars on weekends). Bikers can begin a ride at the Lincoln Memorial or Kennedy Center, pass the Washington Zoo, and eventually come to the District line, where the trail separates, with one part continuing to Bethesda and another to Silver Spring. The most popular run in Rock Creek Park is along a trail that follows the creek from Georgetown to the National Zoo, about 4 miles round-trip. In summer there's considerable shade, and there are water fountains and an exercise station along the way. Rangers at the Nature Center and Planetarium introduce visitors to the park and keep track of daily events; guided nature walks leave from the center on weekends at 2. The park is open only during daylight hours. 5200 Glover Rd. NW, Nature Center and Planetarium, Washington, DC, 20015. 202/895–6070. www.nps.gov/rocr. Nature Center: Wed.–Sun. 9–5; Planetarium shows: Wed. at 2, weekends at 1 and 4. Meridian Hill Park. Landscape architect Horace Peaslee created oft-overlooked Meridian Hill Park, a noncontiguous section of Rock Creek Park, after a 1917 study of the parks of Europe. As a result, the garden contains elements of gardens in France (a long, straight mall bordered with plants), Italy (terraces and wall fountains), and Switzerland (a lower-level reflecting pool based on one in Zurich). John Quincy Adams lived in a mansion here after his presidency in 1829, and the park later served as an encampment for Union soldiers during the Civil War. All 50 states are represented by a state tree or flower. Meridian Hill is also unofficially known as Malcolm X Park in honor of the civil rights leader. On weekends you will find a mix of pickup soccer games, joggers running the stairs, and a weekly (weather permitting) drum circle. A statue of Joan of Arc poised for battle on horseback stands above the terrace, and a statue of Dante is on a pedestal below. A ranger-led tour and cell-phone tours illuminate the history of the landmarks inside the park. Meridian Hill is open year-round during daylight hours. 16th and Euclid Sts., Adams-Morgan, 20009. www.nps.gov/mehi. U St./Cardozo or Columbia Heights.
This placid pond was part of the Potomac until 1882, when portions of the river were filled in to improve navigation and create additional parkland. The Tidal Basin is the setting for memorials to Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., and George Mason, and can be enjoyed by strolling along the banks or paddling across the tame waters.Two grotesque sculpted heads on the sides of the Inlet Bridge can be seen as you walk along the sidewalk that hugs the basin. The inside walls of the bridge also feature two other sculptures: bronze, human-headed fish that spout water from their mouths. The bridge was refurbished in the 1980s at the same time the chief of the park, Jack Fish, was retiring. Sculptor Constantine Sephralis played a little joke: these fish heads are actually Fish's head.Once you cross the bridge, continue along the Tidal Basin to the right. This route is especially scenic when the cherry trees are in bloom. The first batch of these trees arrived from Japan in 1909. The trees were infected with insects and fungus, however, and the Department of Agriculture ordered them destroyed. A diplomatic crisis was averted when the United States politely asked the Japanese for another batch, and in 1912 First Lady Helen Taft planted the first tree. The second was planted by the wife of the Japanese ambassador, Viscountess Chinda. About 200 of the original trees still grow near the Tidal Basin. (These cherry trees are the single-flowering Akebeno and Yoshino variety. Double-blossom Fugenzo and Kwanzan trees grow in East Potomac Park and flower about two weeks after their more famous cousins.)The trees are now the centerpiece of Washington's two-week Cherry Blossom Festival, held each spring since 1935. The festivities are kicked off by the lighting of a ceremonial Japanese lantern that rests on the north shore of the Tidal Basin, not far from where the first tree was planted. The once-simple celebration has grown over the years to include concerts, martial-arts demonstrations, a running race, and a parade. Park Service experts try their best to predict exactly when the buds will pop. The trees are usually in bloom for about 12 days in late March or early April. When winter will not release its grip, parade and festival take place without the presence of blossoms, no matter how inclement the weather. When the weather complies and the blossoms peak at the time of the festivities, Washington rejoices.
Between the Potomac and the Tidal Basin, this park is known for its flowering cherry trees, which bloom for two weeks in late March or early April, and for the World War II Memorial, as well as the memorials for Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jefferson, George Mason, and the Korean and Vietnam War Veterans. A nice place to picnic and play ball, families can relax and admire the views of the water.