Throngs come to D.C. for cherry blossoms, festival parade

Thousands of tourists from all over the world descended on the National Mall to view cherry trees in peak bloom this year. (Reuters)

For Antonio Sacchetti, the journey to witness D.C.’s famed cherry blossoms began Friday before dawn. At 6 a.m., he and his wife joined 100 other tourists from Montreal and embarked on a 12-hour bus trip to the District.

On Saturday morning, they got their first glimpses of the blossoms while they cruised in a yacht along the Potomac River, taking in the backdrops of the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial. Up next? A trip to see the monuments, the White House and the Tidal Basin, where he would probably battle through throngs of blossom peepers.

“No pain, no gain,” Sacchetti said.

That mantra played out Saturday across the District as thousands descended on the D.C. area to see the cherry blossoms in full bloom, taking in the splendor of the day along with the frustrations of epic crowds. This year’s peak was somewhat unusual, as it coincided with the culmination of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, which featured its signature parade Saturday along Constitution Avenue.

“You’re going to see some gridlock,” said Fred Rapaport, the owner of DC Cruises, who said his yacht tours had sold out for the day. Aboard the Harbour Belle, Rapaport blasted the Pharrell Williams tune “Happy” as he encouraged the Montreal tourists to tap their feet.

Indeed, it seemed as if everyone in D.C. had the same idea Saturday: Let’s head down to the Tidal Basin. A key factor was the beauty of the afternoon, with blue, sunny skies and highs in the upper 70s. Cherry blossom veterans pointed out that extra hype surrounded this year’s blossoms because of a long, dreary winter that dragged well into March.

Along the Kutz Bridge, both car and foot traffic were at a standstill just past 1 p.m. Pedestrians made their way across the bridge in single file, with frequent stroller jams and picture-takers bringing the line to a halt.

About 100 feet along the path, a young mother realized that her double stroller was not a good idea, but it was too late to turn back.

Most took the inconveniences in stride. While exiting the Smithsonian Metro stop, a young woman patted her male companion on the back after he saw the jammed lines and let out a sigh.

“Get excited, babe,” she said. “Lots of people, lots of crowds. Just what you like.”

By 3 p.m., Metro officials warned that the Smithsonian stop was experiencing significant crowds and encouraged riders to use the L’Enfant Plaza stop.

“This is what happens during cherry blossom season,” said Dan Stessel, Metro spokesman. “The stations around the Tidal Basin bear the brunt of ridership.”

Along the Tidal Basin, revelers spread out blankets for picnics. A proposal drew impromptu applause from an encouraging crowd. Dog walkers and joggers dodged the so-called speed bumps of the Tidal Basin path — the picture takers.

One veteran tour guide joked that a “duck and weave” strategy is a necessity to keep moving.

“Why is everyone stopped here?” one man said. His companion pointed to the Jefferson Memorial, which was perfectly framed in the background.

“Well, when in Rome,” the man said, taking out his camera and stopping for a photo.

Brad Berger, a park ranger for the National Park Service, repeatedly encouraged his tour group to forge ahead. A 12-year veteran, Berger arrived hours earlier, at 7 a.m., to prepare for the day’s challenges. It’s a big honor, and quite a challenge, for a ranger to work at the Jefferson Memorial during cherry blossom season, he said. He estimated he would walk about six miles Saturday.

“It’s going to get a little dicey here,” he said, just before guiding his tour group to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. “We’ll get back together again, and we’ll push on.”

The battle through the crowds was even tougher for Steve and Lynda Meshkov, who traveled by Amtrak from Philadelphia for the weekend. The couple rented bikes for the day, but they soon regretted that decision, laughing as they walked their bikes along the paths swamped by pedestrians.

“It was a big mistake,” Lynda Meshkov said. “We can’t navigate with them.”

At the end of the tour, Berger took off his ranger hat, and beads of sweat dripped to the ground.

“I must take off my hat for you,” he said to the group. “I thank you for sticking this out with me.”

He turned around and made the trek back to the Jefferson Memorial, where he would start the tour again.

Amy Brittain is part of The Post's investigative team.
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