The National Arboretum is a place full of contradictions. It was established by Congress in 1927 as part of the U.S. Agriculture Department “for purposes of research and education concerning tree and plant life.” Ninety-four years later, scientists still work in its greenhouses and open fields, while generations of Washingtonians have adopted it as a government-owned city park, a place to sit under trees with friends or take kids to ride bikes.

At 446 acres, it’s one of Washington’s largest green spaces, but it’s cut off from the city by multilane commuter routes on two sides, and the Anacostia River on another. It regularly turns up on listicles for “D.C. hidden gems,” but the National Capitol Columns, which featured on the East Portico of the Capitol from 1828 to 1958 and were placed in the arboretum in 1990, are included in just about every “Most Instagrammable places in D.C.roundup online.

And yes, the columns are a wondrous thing: Evocative of the ruins of an ancient temple, placed in the wild Ellipse Meadow, they make such a stunning backdrop that the arboretum requires professional photographers to apply for permits, in the hopes of managing the endless engagement/graduation/fashion photo shoots. But there’s so much more to see at the arboretum than old sandstone.

With warm weather bringing the blooming of magnolias, dogwoods, cherries and azaleas, it seemed like a good time to go back to the great outdoors, and take a closer look at the arboretum. The facility itself remains affected by the coronavirus — the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum and the Washington Youth Garden remain closed, as does the bucolic Fern Valley, where the pathways are too narrow for social distancing — but we spoke to horticulturists, birders and the Friends of the National Arboretum to find out where we should be exploring right now, and in weeks ahead.

It turns out we were just in time: Visitor numbers have been booming in recent weeks, and if they keep climbing to the point where social distancing is difficult, the arboretum may begin to restrict the number of people allowed on the grounds, as it did last summer. Visiting before or after work, rather than on a weekend, remains the best advice, but there’s really no bad time to take advantage of this amazing resource.

The Asian Collections

Occupying the easternmost edge of the arboretum, the Asian Collections fill a scenic landscape that slopes down toward the Anacostia River. Gravel paths and stone steps wind past valleys of shrubs and evergreens, leading to terraces with peaceful benches where you can pause and admire the views of flower-covered hillsides as well as the river. It’s one of the more romantic sections of the arboretum.

Different sections are named for the plants’ countries of origin — Japanese Woodland, Korean Hillside, China Valley — stitched together harmoniously as you navigate the trails, which can be twisting and steep. A highlight is a Chinese-style pagoda, which looks out over the Chinese and Asian valleys, and can also be busy with groups taking photos.

At the end of the trail closest to the parking lot is a glen of brightly colored camellias. Their beauty is a tribute to the arboretum’s scientific mission. Harsh winters in the 1970s killed 941 of the arboretum’s 956 camellia plants. A National Arboretum scientist named William Ackerman began breeding the hardy survivors with other camellias, seeking to find one that could survive this region’s cold temperatures, and ultimately created more than 50 new hybrids, including a number that still bloom here.

Cherry blossoms

Peak bloom for the Tidal Basin’s cherry blossoms arrived earlier this week, and with any luck, they might stick around for seven to 10 days after that, depending on conditions. But at the arboretum, home to more than 70 varieties of cherry tree, some ornamental cherries flowered more than a week before the blossoms downtown, and others have yet to reach their peak.

Cherry blossoms are planted in multiple areas throughout the arboretum, sometimes alongside other flowering Japanese fruit trees. Beyond keeping an eye out for white, coral or rose-colored petals as you stroll through the grounds, take a look at the self-guided cherry blossom tour on the arboretum app (see below). The research fields on Valley Road, near the parking lot, are home to a sun-dappled grove of trees collected in Japan, experimental hybrids, and trees used for breeding and preservation purposes.

Crape myrtle nursery and ­Research Nursery 6

If there’s an area that demonstrates how easy it is to miss some amazing plants at the arboretum, it might be these adjacent research fields, located between Meadow Road and Valley Road. “It’s a very, very beautiful spot,” says botanist Kevin Conrad, the curator of the arboretum’s Woody Plant Landscape Germplasm Repository. “To sit underneath some of those incredibly old and stunningly beautiful crape myrtles is really a horticultural experience. It’s a plant that is exquisite from many perspectives.”

You might think you’ve seen a few crape myrtles in your neighborhood. They’re not like this example of Lagerstroemia fauriei, which the arboretum has given the accession number 10536-P. “This tree is an original from the John Creech expedition in Japan to the ’50s, where he collected this tree and brought it back,” and used it in the creation of numerous hybrids resistant to powdery mildew, such as Natchez and Arapaho. It’s not labeled, Conrad says, but it’s hard to miss: “The tree is 30 feet tall by 30 feet wide, with a trunk that’s got to be two feet in diameter. The bark is dark, with brown and blackish mottling throughout. It’s incredible.”

Nearby, close to Meadow Road, there’s another outstanding specimen that was growing here before the establishment of the arboretum: a willow oak “that, they’re saying, is almost 150 years old, with a five-foot-diameter trunk. To sit under it is amazing — or to give it a hug,” he says. This tree is in the Arboretum’s collection as 79411-H. To find their locations, plug their accession numbers into the arboretum’s interactive map, at usna.usda.gov/abe.

The dawn redwoods

Across from the entrance to the Gotelli Conifer Collection, clustered on a triangle-shaped island between two roads, is a stand of tall, skinny trees with flared bases and knobby roots. They exude age and nobility. You have to crane your neck to see the crowns.

These are dawn redwoods, which fossil records tell us grew across Europe and North America millions of years ago. But then they became extinct — or so biologists once thought. In the 1940s, a researcher in Central China’s Hubei province began examining some unusual old trees, and in 1946, Chinese botanists announced that the genus Metasequoia had been rediscovered.

Seeds made their way around the world, including to the arboretum, which acquired its seeds in May 1948. “Just stand there and enjoy the moment, because you’re in a grove of trees that were thought to be extinct,” says Conrad. “The grandeur of them, the buttressed trunks, the fact that they’re in a grove really makes it a magical place.”

The Dogwood Collections

Cathy Kerkam, the director of fundraising and communications for the nonprofit Friends of the National Arboretum, knows what to do when she needs to take a break: She heads for the Dogwood Collections, perched in the upper northeast corner of the grounds, far from the popular areas. “When the dogwoods come out and they’re in full bloom, there’s every color you can imagine,” she says. “It’s just a fairy tale back there.”

But now, before the dogwoods blossom, might be the best time of all. “There is a little secret pavilion in the woods, called the Anacostia Overlook,” Kerkam says. “You can sit in that little pavilion and you’re up on a precipice looking down over the Anacostia River. And sometimes you can see the eagles hunting.” It’s not that you should ignore the flowering trees, and the long, grassy allee that leads from the entrance down to an ornamental fountain. But this tranquil perch, overlooking a bend in the river, is worth seeking out.

Gotelli Conifer Collection

On the occasions when you think about conifers, Christmas trees are probably the first things that come to mind, or possibly a scenic pine forest with a needle-strewn floor. The Gotelli Conifer Collection is proof of just how much more is out there: Shortly after wandering into the conifer area, you’re staring at a stunning seafoam-green atlas cedar that resembles a spiky mop of a weeping willow, a dwarf blue spruce the size and shape of a small boulder, and trees whose needles are icy blue, sunset gold or electric lime green. The contrasts in shape, texture and color are most striking when you can take a step back to compare, so take a moment to pause in an attractive hillside pagoda or at one of the wooden benches along the grassy paths.

William Gotelli, a private collector who assembled 1,500 conifers for his New Jersey home, donated his treasures to the arboretum in 1962. What makes this section so enjoyable to browse is the layout, with the conifers arrayed in gravel or rock-lined beds, along with a mix of ground cover, flowers and smaller shrubs. Row after row of evergreens might blur together. This arrangement gives plants space to breathe, and lets the trees and shrubs shine, in all their hues.

The Morrison Garden

Azaleas have flowered on the slopes of Mount Hamilton, the highest point on the arboretum grounds, since the late 1940s, thanks to Benjamin Y. Morrison, the first director of the arboretum. Morrison was devoted to the idea of breeding large, colorful hybrid azaleas that could survive Mid-Atlantic winters. The wide variations in colors and shapes, far different from the azaleas on display in most suburban yards, draw crowds of azalea lovers to the trails of Mount Hamilton during the blooming season, which begins in late April and early May.

But year-round, there’s a calm to be found in the Morrison Garden, a brick-walled formal garden at the base of the mountain. Rows of Morrison’s hybrid Glenn Dale azaleas, named for the Maryland town where Morrison did much of his research at a USDA facility, feature vivid colors and unusual stripes, providing a startling contrast to boxwood hedges and a shaded brick path leading to a large, ornate pottery planter. A solitary bench under a trellis provides a view up the mountain, which rises to 240 feet above sea level, and pops of color from the floral plantings there. On the way out, take notice of the Chinese lace-bark pine tree, whose exquisite bark is mottled with abstract silver, white and gray blotches as engaging as an impressionist painting.

Springhouse Run

For a glimpse of the arboretum’s past, and how land can be transformed, there’s no better area than the stretch of water called Springhouse Run. Beginning in the early 20th century, this section of the grounds, stretching south from Route 50 and the arboretum gates, was home to bottled water operation — two conical brick “springhouses” that give the creek its name are still visible — and a brick manufacturing facility, which closed in the 1970s but left the round kilns that can be seen from New York Avenue NE.

Over the years, the stream — which flows into the larger Hickey Run, and then the Anacostia — was diverted from its path into a concrete channel, and became polluted and choked with invasive species. An extensive restoration created a more natural route for the water, flowing through pools and over small waterfalls, creating a habitat for native plants and wildlife, including birds.

“For me, and many birders I know who go [to the arboretum], the current go-to spot is the stream restoration area,” says Paul Pisano, who leads bird walks at the arboretum for the Audubon Naturalist Society. The revamped landscape “has really paid off for the birds. Lots of food and cover, plus a steady source of water.”

A rare lark sparrow was seen here in the winter of 2017-2018, just after the restoration, but Pisano says the area has been a good place to see finches, a house wren and Lincoln’s sparrow. For the best results, wander north from the fields near Meadow Road and Valley Road, toward the pond near Hickey Lane. Pisano also notes that birding is best in the early morning, so he suggests birders arrive as close as possible to the arboretum’s 8 a.m. opening.

Self-guided tours

Before you head to the arboretum, download the free U.S. National Arboretum app to your smartphone.

The whole premise sounds contradictory: You’re going to the arboretum to enjoy natural beauty and be present in nature. You’re not there to spend even more time staring at a screen, trying to ignore email and Slack notifications. But using the arboretum app guarantees a deeper appreciation and more enjoyable experience.

Zoom in on an interactive topographic map of the grounds to learn the name of the curious-looking tree or flowering plant next to you, and where and when it was collected. The Here/Now tab provides news about what species are flowering this season — camellias! daffodils! — and where to find them. Some of the information is outdated because of the pandemic. (For instance, it refers to the bonsai museum and Visitor Center as open.)

Self-guided tours, though, are the reason to keep firing up the app, offering more insight beyond the interpretive signs around the arboretum or the free visitors guide brochure available throughout the grounds. First-time visitors can start with the Arboretum Overview, which visits most corners of the park; for a more narrow focus, there are tours looking at the lavender or chile pepper plants within the National Herb Garden. A popular one this time of year stops at more than two dozen varieties of cherry blossom trees along a 3.2 mile path, showing off a clone of a Yoshino tree planted at the Tidal Basin by first lady Helen Taft in 1912, or inviting visitors to see experimental trees in the Research Fields. The format allows you to explore at your own pace: If you don’t have time to see everything, you can pick your own highlights, or save some for the next visit.

Of course, the tours don’t have to be educational: Those who want to take advantage of the fresh air can fire up running and walking courses that pass by arboretum highlights along loops ranging from 1 to almost 5 miles.

The essentials

Update: On April 5, 2021, the National Arboretum announced that was limiting the number of cars allowed on the grounds, and that the R Street NE gate would close to cars.

The National Arboretum is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except Christmas. Admission is free. Car access is now restricted to the gate at 3501 New York Avenue NE, a gate that is reached from an eastbound service road near the intersection with Bladensburg Road NE. Pedestrians and cyclists can still access the grounds through the gate at 2400 R Street NE.

The parking lots near the gate fill quickly on weekends. The Friends of the National Arboretum recommend using the parking lot near the Grove of State Trees and picnic area, on the south side of the grounds. From there, it’s an easy walk to the Capitol Columns and other collections mentioned above. Also, while there are smaller parking lots near some collections, such as the Asian Collections or the conifers, these lots usually have room for only 10 to 12 cars. At peak times, it’s easier to park and walk than to drive from site to site.

Because of federal regulations, visitors must wear masks and maintain social distance at all times.

Restrooms and soda and water vending machines are located in Arbor House, near the R Street Gate and parking lot. Additional restrooms can be found near the National Grove of State Trees and at the parking lot between the Asian and Dogwood collections.

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