Natural, History: Green Washington, D.C.

Visitors flock to Washington, D.C., for its iconic monuments, expansive museums, and corridors of power, but that’s not all this capital city offers. Designed with European flair, it boasts hundreds of city parks, more than a dozen public gardens, and miles of bike lanes, paths and woodsy trails – not to mention, the famous cherry blossoms that burst around the Tidal Basin every spring. From vast Rock Creek Park to rose-filled neighborhood gardens, D.C. provides a bevy of natural, sweet-smelling escapes. Here are some of the best:

More than two million visitors a year enjoy the peaceful tranquility of Rock Creek Park © Courtesy of Destination DC

Rock Creek Park

This linear park may sprawl just four miles north of the White House, but its 1,754 acres are a world away. The namesake creek burbles through a scenic leafy canyon, crossed by bridges and edged by paved trails. From there, dirt trails popular among hikers, runners, and horseback riders snake beneath a refreshing canopy of oaks, maples, dogwoods, and tulip poplars. Weekend revelers fill picnic tables for birthday celebrations and work outings. At America’s oldest urban national park, you’ll find the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, 19th-century Peirce Mill, and the Rock Creek Park Planetarium. No wonder President Theodore Roosevelt brought his kids to this sublime green oasis for Sunday hikes – and today, more than two million visitors a year enjoy its peaceful tranquility.

Insider tip: Portions of narrow, twisting Beach Drive are closed to cars, offering a glorious stretch of road for cyclists and hikers.

The United States National Arboretum was established by an act of Congress in 1927 © Courtesy of Destination DC

United States National Arboretum

Over in Northeast D.C., you’ll find 451 stunning acres of trees, plants, and flowers. Established by an act of Congress in 1927 for the purpose of botanical research, the Arboretum is divided into different collections, including Japanese Woodland, trail-laced Fern Valley, and the National Grove of State Trees. Come mid-April through May for azaleas, while early summer brings clematis, peonies, rhododendrons, and roses. Any time of year, the Capitol Columns – 22 original Corinthian columns brought here from the U.S. Capitol in 1990 – are photogenic draws. But that’s not all. The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum is renowned for its collection of impossibly miniature plants that have been pinched, pruned, and wired in the ancient Chinese way to create realistic depictions of nature. You can drive (or bike) 9.5 miles of quiet roads; several short pathways allow you to get closer to dwarf pines, sunny prairie, and flowering dogwoods, overlooking the Anacostia River.

Insider tip: Check the website for special events including forest bathing.

More than 4,000 seasonal, tropical, and subtropical plants, fill 10 garden rooms and two courtyards at the U.S. Botanic Garden © Courtesy of Destination DC

U.S. Botanic Garden

Step inside this iron-and-glass conservatory on the U.S. Capitol grounds and you’re transported into a verdant world of more than 4,000 seasonal, tropical, and subtropical plants, all within 10 garden rooms and two courtyards. You’ll find orchids, coffee trees, and carnivorous plants, but the most striking space is the vaulted tropical atrium, where palms, ferns, and bougainvillea provide a steamy jungle vibe. The annual holiday display, showcasing festive lights, thousands of poinsettias, and D.C. landmarks made of plants, is always crowd pleasing. Congress established the Botanic Garden in 1820 to catalog plants from various global missions. It also includes a gated outdoor garden and the two-acre Bartholdi Fountains and Gardens across Independence Avenue, with native plants, locally sourced furniture, and 10 rain gardens (designed to capture and filter storm water).

Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens is renowned for its stunning water lilies and lotus flowers © Courtesy of Destination DC

Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens

Water lilies may be the last thing you’d expect to find in Washington, D.C., but when Civil War veteran Walter Shaw bought a parcel of land here in 1879, he missed the wild water lilies from his native Maine – so he planted some. What started as a hobby by 1912 had become the W.B. Shaw Lily Ponds, a popular local attraction. Today, waterlilies and lotuses thrive at this natural space overseen by the National Park Service in Northeast D.C. The flowers typically start to bloom in early July, with the most vibrant blossoms showing up the last two weeks of July. A week-long festival during this time includes ranger talks, cultural dance performances, and yoga classes. That said, there’s more than ephemeral flowers here, including migrating birds, beaver dams, and a boardwalk over cattail-fringed tidal wetlands offering stunning views of what the land might have looked centuries ago.

East Potomac Park features sports facilities, golf courses, and the iconic “The Awakening” statue depicting a giant emerging from the earth © Siri Stafford / Getty Images

East Potomac Park

With lots of open, grassy space, tree-shaded enclaves, and picnic tables – and a cool breeze coming off the river – East Potomac Park is a respite from the city. Washingtonians come to this 329-acre artificial island to run, bike, and walk the 3.2-mile loop road. Here, too, you’ll find a golf course, public swimming pool, tennis courts, and the nation’s oldest continually operating putt-putt course. In spring, the city’s famous Yoshino cherry trees (the same variety as the ones at the Tidal Basin) put on a spectacular display, lining the water’s edge. Other varieties, including Kwanzans, bloom here a little later in the season.

Picuresque Dumbarton Oaks Park is known for its tranquil woodland trails and beautifully landscaped grounds © Courtesy of Destination DC

Dumbarton Oaks Park

In the heart of Georgetown, paths wander through a wild, woodsy setting that’s a lot more historic than first meets the eye. The 27 tree-shaded, stream-laced acres once belonged to Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, prominent patrons of the arts. In 1921 they hired Beatrix Farrand to plan their gardens. The illustrious landscape architect fashioned two parts to her design: a former garden area close to the couple’s mansion, and this more bucolic counterpart. Here, amid the trees, she planted a thick underbrush of azaleas, mountain laurel, and rhododendrons, and added man-made touches such as a stone bridge and rustic arbor. The Blisses donated the park to the National Park Service in 1940, and ever since has been a joyful place for Washingtonians to stroll, picnic, and escape into nature.

Insider tip: The more formal gardens at Dumbarton House remain one of D.C.’s most stunning gardens.

The Franciscan Monastery encompasses peaceful gardens with replicas of famous Christian shrines and architectural elements, offering visitors a serene and spiritual oasis © Courtesy of Destination DC

Franciscan Monastery

One of D.C.’s best-kept secrets, this serene oasis resides on a wooded hillside in the Brookland neighborhood of Northeast D.C. Amid a parklike, tree-shaded setting below the towering Church of the Holy Sepulchre, you’ll find replicas of Holy Land sites, including the Grotto of Gethsemane, Tomb of Christ, and Stations of the Cross. But the greatest allure are the quiet pathways wandering through woods sprinkled with dogwoods, redbuds, tulips, and cherry trees. Here, too, a formal rose garden blooms inside the Rosary Portico, with benches placed for contemplation. The site was the dream of Rev. Charles A. Vassani at the turn of the 20th century to bring the Holy Land to Americans who couldn’t travel abroad.

Theodore Roosevelt Island features hiking trails, wildlife, and a statue of the former ‘conservation president’ © Courtesy of Destination DC

Theodore Roosevelt Island

This 88.5-acre woodsy isle in the middle of the Potomac River lies a stone’s throw from D.C.’s busy streets – yet you’d never know it. A pedestrian bridge sweeps across the water, dropping you amid oak and maple woodlands. Dirt paths and boardwalks loop around and across, offering vistas of Georgetown’s spires and the Kennedy Center. Here, too, you’ll find a striking stone statue of Theodore Roosevelt himself, the “conservation president” who fought vigorously to prevent wildlands from development. The island, once the site of a plantation where enslaved people were exploited for their labor, was transformed in the 1930s into a living natural memorial honoring the 26th president.

Insider tip: You can only approach the island by car from the northbound George Washington Memorial Parkway. Or take the Metro to Rosslyn and walk 15 minutes to the island.

The Enid Haupt Garden is a meticulously designed formal garden located in the heart of the Smithsonian complex  © Courtesy of Destination DC

National Mall

There’s a reason the National Mall is called America’s front yard. Its shaded, grass-covered expanse is ideal for picnics, bench sitting, and taking a breather in between visiting its vast museums and monuments. But it also has a handful of pocket gardens providing a blissful escape, including Constitution Gardens near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. This peaceful, 56-acre park features an island-dotted pond where a memorial honors the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. Outside the Smithsonian Castle, brick pathways lace through the four-acre Enid A. Haupt Garden, a changing palette of blooms. And at the Floral Library near the Tidal Basin, 10,000 tulip bulbs flown from Holland every year are planted by hand in 93 beds. They’re replaced with annuals throughout the summer and fall.

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