Magnolias at the National Arboretum

Magnolias at the National Arboretum

We know it is revered, but perhaps because of its unlikely location deep in northeast DC, amidst high speed streets and warehouses, the U.S. National Arboretum doesn’t attract nearly as many visitors as a place this lovely should. For this edition of Off the Beaten Turf, UrbanTurf visits one of the city’s best date spots, best places to greet Spring, and best places to get lost.

Inconspicuous entrance to the National Arboretum

Inconspicuous entrance to the National Arboretum

The best way to experience the Arboretum is to follow your nose. With magnolias, camellias, a dogwood forest and ferns cleaning the air of the 446-acre grounds, the Arboretum offers a brief respite from the congestion and pollution of city life. The grounds are so expansive that seeing everything in one day is nearly impossible. (It is bounded by New York Avenue NE, Blandensburg Avenue NE and the Anacostia River map.)

In addition to being a scenic destination, the Arboretum is run by the USDA’s Agricultural Research Center and acts as a living museum of U.S. plant life, with researchers, breeders and taxonomists who offer lectures and walks, like the upcoming Native Plant Symposium and the monthly Full Moon hikes.

One of many pathways

One of many pathways

If you’re in a car or on a bike within the park, you can make good time on the nine miles of roadways that connect the gardens to each other. If you want direction, the visitor’s center near the entrance provides maps.

Because of the peaks, valleys, narrow paths, tall trees, and the tempting stepping stone paths that lure you in unplanned directions, it’s easy to lose your companions, your way, or track of time. However, this place is made for getting lost, and the signage describing the local and transplanted flora keeps trips informative.

Japanese Forest

Japanese Forest

The Capitol columns of the Arboretum make the grandest impression. The massive stone columns, much taller than anything else around them, sit on a slight hill past an expanse of grass. The sight of these heavy columns, which were taken from the Capitol during a renovation, sitting alone, holding up nothing and looking slightly worn down evokes a crumbling empire, and is unlike anything else in staid DC.

In the Asian collection, which includes a Japanese Woodland, Asian Valley, China Valley and Korean Hillside, you can find a quiet bench from which to view the Anacostia River. Not far from there you’ll find the Holly and Magnolia collection, which has benches placed strategically under the Magnolia trees. There are many other gardens; a list can be found here.

Capitol columns

Capitol columns

On UrbanTurf’s visit, we saw some adventurous parents letting their children roam free along paths and climb trees, couples canoodling in supposed privacy, and photographers emerging from behind bushes. Everyone was very well distributed throughout the park, and despite all the activity, it was very quiet. Some of the paths are steep enough that I left feeling like I had exerted a satisfying amount of energy. The acreage makes it almost certain that you’ll be able to find a quiet, private, beautiful space for a picnic, making for a mighty romantic date spot. We also hear that the moonlight hikes are full of couples, although you’ll be with a guide, a group, and will cover four miles at a steady clip.