Although we have been seeing closures around the city this month, nature waits for no one. Our famed Cherry Blossom trees are ahead of schedule and expected to reach their Peak Bloom by the 21st of March! All across America, people turn to the groundhog to learn when spring will arrive. Regardless of what the groundhog or calendar says, it doesn’t feel like springtime in the nation’s capital until the Cherry Blossom Festival.
Every March and April, the skyline and streets of DC are dressed in pink and white. Perhaps you too observe the coming of spring by following the flowers. If so, join the pink party that is the cherry blossom bloom tours!
Below is a guide to this year’s fun but be sure to check back as events and schedules are subject to change.
The presence of cherry blossoms in the nation’s capital dates back more than one hundred years. No, the pretty pink petals are not native to our swamp. A majority of the cherry blossoms that dot Washington’s waterfront originated oceans away in Japan, where they were first spotted by Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore during a trip in 1885.
An influential 19th-century photographer and writer, as well as the first woman to join the National Geographic Society, Scidmore spent the next 24 years imploring the government to purchase cherry blossoms and plant them along the Tidal Basin.
First Lady Helen Taft began summoning a federal budget for the blossoms in 1909, but after hearing about the interest in his country’s national flower, Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo organized a shipment of more than 2,000 cherry blossom trees for free.
Just as France famously presented New York City with the Statue of Liberty in 1886, Japan saw this gift as an everlasting symbol of the blossoming friendship between them and the United States. The gift came full circle in 1981 when the United States returned several trees to Japan after a typhoon caused severe flooding and destroyed thousands of native trees.
Disaster actually struck the District’s first cherry blossom trees, too. The Department of Agriculture discovered an infestation of insects in the original 1910 gift of cherry blossoms. So, President Taft ordered all the trees burned and Japan replaced these with a larger gift of 3,020 trees two years later.
The First Lady and Viscountess Chinda, the Japanese ambassador’s wife, planted the first cherry blossom together on March 26, 1912. A group of DC students recreated the initial planting on its 15th anniversary in 1927. Eight years after that, local civics group leaders expanded the tradition into the first-ever National Cherry Blossom Festival.
Initially a one-week festival, organizers expanded the National Cherry Blossom Festival to four weeks in 1995. This expansion proved fruitful for attendees because increasingly volatile weather patterns have made predicting peak bloom difficult. The National Park Service defines peak bloom as the period during which 70% of the Yoshino flowers are open. Obviously, this is the best time for photo opportunities.
Within a period as short as four days or as long as two weeks, flowers will lose their pink and white petals giving way to green leaves. With a longer festival, there exists a greater chance of seeing the cherry blossoms in all their pink glory.
What date peak bloom is reached and how long it lasts depends on weather conditions. Early spring weather can cause the pink petals to pop open prematurely, while extended winter weather will wane the wonders of the flowers. The flowers peeked out as early as March 15 in 1990 and kept watchers at bay until April 18 in 1958. Once the flowers bloom, calm and cool temperatures are preferable for a prolonged visit. Frost or rain and wind can bring floral fun to a quick end. This year, the National Park Service predicts a peak bloom around March 21 – March 24.
The National Cherry Blossom Festival will kick off this year on April 1st and will run through April 12th. Packed in between those dates are more than 150 official and unofficial events. Below are some crowd favorites.
Parade & Festival | Sat. Apr 4 | Pennsylvania Ave
Catch the fabulous floral floats, while enjoying traditional drinks and food from the nearby street festival.
Petalpalooza | Sat. April 11 | The Yards
A day-long, all-age celebration featuring art installations, a beer garden, and themed crafts.
Credit Union Ten Mile Run & 5K Run-Walk | Sun. Apr 5 | Washington Monument
16,000 runners will compete for an $80,000 cash prize in the annual “Runner’s Rite of Spring.”
Blossoms & Baseball With Washington Nationals | Mon. Apr 6 | Nats Park
Join our 2019 World Series champions as they face off against the Miami Marlins amidst family-friendly cherry blossom activities.
All of the events listed above are free. For a list of events visit the festival website. Once in DC, those attending the National Cherry Blossom Festival can get information by visiting several tourist centers throughout the city. The festival headquarters are located in Union Station, while there is a DC Visitor Info Center inside the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in the downtown area. Good to have handy is the festival hotline number: 877-44-BLOOM
On average, 1.5 million people travel to the Tidal Basin from near and far each year. In terms of foot traffic, the month-long festival reached a peak bloom in 2014 with 1.6 million visitors. Giant crowds can make getting the best pictures or views hard. So, here are some tips for when and where to view the cherry blossoms:
1. Visiting the cherry blossoms is like visiting a shop with a two-for-one deal. The Tidal Basin is home to DC favorites like the FDR Memorial, MLK Jr Memorial, and Jefferson Memorial. You can squeeze the trees, a memorial, and your group into one picture. Just north, there are great photo opportunities with the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument.
2. The Tidal Basin is least crowded on weekdays during the early morning and evening. In true DC fashion, you could stop by the Tidal Basin late at night on our popular DC at Dusk Tour! The monuments are stunning while bathed in white light and glow against the black sky.
3. The District cherry blossoms don’t only call the Tidal Basin home. Clusters of pink trees can be found at Anacostia Park, the National Arboretum, and the Dumbarton Oaks estate in Georgetown. A trip to any of these locations will be well worth your time!
All the foot traffic generated by visitors to the festival places great strain on the roots of the cherry blossoms. The trees are further impacted by Tidal Basin flooding, which typically occurs twice a day during high tide. Throughout the National Cherry Blossom Festival, attendees can expect flooding around 9 am and 9 pm. Some walkways may be inaccessible during these times. To ensure the cherry blossoms bloom for years to come, it is recommended that visitors do not climb trees, pick flowers, or walk directly on roots. Picking flowers is against the law and may land you a small fine.
The pink and white blossoms have become an evergreen tradition in the nation’s capital, in large part due to the careful care of the Tree Crew. Though the National Cherry Blossom Festival is only four weeks long, the National Park Service arborists work year-round to ensure the health of the trees.
On average, a cherry blossom lives and grows for 25 years. However, the arborists of the Tree Crew have developed the care and conditions necessary to help several cherry blossoms reach twice that age. A handful of cherry blossoms are even originals from the 1912 gift, meaning they are more than a century old.
Luckily for visitors, a majority of the capital’s main tourist attractions are located near the National Cherry Blossom Festival. The Capitol Building, the White House, the National Mall monuments and several Smithsonian museums are located within 2-miles from the Tidal Basin.
If you are coming down to the District for the cherry blossoms but want to stay for the history and other magnificent sites, take a tour with USA Guided Tours! Our Cherry Blossoms Galore Tour offers the backstory and fun facts to the monuments and shows you the cherry blossoms and beauty of DC.
The half-day tour includes walking and photo op time, so you can perfectly capture the pretty pink petals that burst through the blue and red of DC every spring.
Jeffrey Guzmán | USA Guided Tours Blog Contributor