For practical purposes, visiting Washington’s Tidal Basin at cherry blossom time can be something like visiting the Grand Canyon. These two national park areas are best seen on foot, and least satisfying when viewed from the inside of a car.
I made the parks comparison during my online chat Monday as travelers asked for advice about visiting the Tidal Basin by auto. Many travelers will understand what I mean about the Arizona canyon: There’s the South Rim road, crowded at many times, and with limited views. Sometimes, the only view drivers get is of the bumper of the car ahead.
For the real experience, walk to the rim and below.
But what does a canyon have in common with the capital? It’s difficult to accept physical limitations on visits within a metropolis. And it’s so flat.
Q. When’s the best time of day and day this week in your opinion to travel to DC (from Fairfax) to drive around the Tidal Basin etc to view the blossoms by car?
I said that if I was doing this, I’d do it just after the morning rush, but that I wouldn’t do it. In all four seasons, Washingtonians get their fill of driving in traffic. But it’s especially frustrating to take what you think is going to be a scenic drive and wind up with a view of tail lights.
Parking anywhere near the Tidal Basin also is very difficult. There’s the lot at Hains Point, south of the Tidal Basin. From Saturday March 24 through April 15, people can take a shuttle from there to the basin, the National Park Service says. The shuttle costs $1 per person. (The parking at Hains Point is free, and many people know that, so it fills up early.)
Parking for people with disabilities is particularly difficult. There is some limited parking around the monuments in the Tidal Basin area. That works out all right during much of the year, but isn’t something to count on during blossom time.
There’s street parking, lots and garages downtown, but then people need to use another mode of transportation, whether it’s a bus, a bike or their feet, to reach the Tidal Basin.
The Tourmobile is gone, but there is a new bus service originating on the bus level at Union Station and making stops near the Tidal Basin on the way to Arlington Cemetery. The service, operated by ANC Tours, costs $5 per person per boarding. The hours are 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Smithsonian is the closest Metrorail station, but it’s still a bit of a hike, and it’s mobbed at blossom time. Try Foggy Bottom, on the Blue and Orange lines, and walk south.
A less obvious walking approach, because it’s across the Potomac River, is the Blue Line’s Arlington Cemetery station. You get to walk across Memorial Bridge looking straight toward the Lincoln Memorial on your way to the Tidal Basin. Just mind the traffic leaving the station and crossing the George Washington Parkway.
Some drivers would preface their questions by saying they don’t have access to a Metro station, or Metro isn’t an option in their case.
I urge them to reconsider that for trips to D.C. during the next couple of weeks. When they see the traffic and the parking problems around the Tidal Basin, Metro is going to look more and more accessible.
For suburbanites, I don’t recommend driving into the city, parking and then taking transit to get closer to the Tidal Basin. What’s the point? Park at a suburban rail station.
And don’t forget about Capital Bikeshare. The bike rental program has just opened two stations on the Mall, at Ohio Drive and West Basin Drive SW, near the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, and on Jefferson Drive between 14th and 15th streets SW, near the Washington Monument.
But there also are many bike stations throughout downtown that can be useful for visiting festival sites. See a map of Capital Bikeshare stations in D.C. and Arlington.
The National Park Service is making additional bike parking available between 15th and 14th Streets SW near the Washington Monument, and at the Jefferson Memorial. Bring a bike lock.
Once you get there: The path around the Tidal Basin is really, really crowded while the blossoms are out. Dawn and dusk are the best times. If you can’t make it then, be patient, and be careful. There’s no railing between the path and the basin.