The National Arboretum

A wonderful retreat from the hectic pace of the city, the National Arboretum is one of the few remaining open green spaces in D.C.

Nancy Luria, education and visitors services unit leader, calls the 446-acre campus “a hidden treasure and a special spot for many people.”

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The arboretum has had visits from former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. 

“For the most part, anyone who has a title like that, they like coming here because they can do it anonymously as a private citizen,” Luria said. “We’ve had surprise visits from embassy cars and frequently have persons from Capitol Hill as well as senators and congressmen that bring their families.”

Other than spring, fall is the busiest season for the arboretum. A half-million people visit the grounds each year and a couple of thousand every spring.

“There’s an orchid show and sale that marks the beginning of the fall season,” Luria said. The orchid society works with the staff of the arboretum’s famed bonsai museum and stages the show on Columbus Day weekend.

If you call yourself a history buff, paying a visit to the arboretum’s National Capitol Columns is a must.

They sit atop Ellipse Meadow and resemble Stonehenge — mysterious and ancient. However, the columns were added to the arboretum only about 20 years ago.

The columns were originally on the East Portico of the Capitol in 1828, according to the National Arboretum’s website. They were quarried from sandstone in Virginia and then barged to Washington in the days before the Capitol dome was even officially complete. 

Unfortunately, once the iron dome of the Capitol was finished in 1864, the columns couldn’t adequately support the massive structure. An addition to help this problem was proposed but wasn’t constructed until the late 1950s. 

An official report written by the Architectural Historian of the Office of the Architect of the Capitol said, “In 1958, workmen began to dismantle the portico in preparation for the marble-clad extension to be built on the East Front of the Capitol.”

The columns were removed and stored until 1984, when arboretum benefactor Ethel Garrett took up the cause of establishing a permanent home for them. Now, they stand tall and grand in the middle of the meadow at the arboretum, with a reflecting pool below.

But you don’t need to be a history buff to appreciate this oasis. Popular activities at the arboretum include feeding the koi in the facility’s huge koi pond. 

“So many people were feeding them, they’re practically trained to come up to the corner of the pond,” Luria said. “We actually had to install a bubble gum dispenser with fish food for patrons.”

Many who frequent the arboretum enjoy hiking, walking, running and bicycling throughout the nine miles of roadways.

Luria said one of their most popular programs is the “Full Moon Hike,” where individuals come to the arboretum at night and go on a moderately strenuous hike for four miles with a guide who points out interesting nocturnal sights. 

“It’s a marvelous and invigorating tour,” Luria said. 

Participants are also treated to a view atop Mt. Hamilton, one of the highest spots in the city, with a view of the Capitol and Washington monument.

There are also cell phone and tram tours given, offering ways to learn more about the stories behind the plants and various sections of the arboretum, including the masterpiece collection of bonsai, one of which is 400 years old.

“Many people who have lived in the area, some their entire lives, never realized what was beyond our gates,” Luria said. “We’re right in your backyard and completely free.”

With its gates staying open every day of the year except Christmas, there’s really no excuse for Washingtonians not to give the arboretum a try.

“I think it’s a wonderful place to appreciate all the changes happening in nature as fall begins,” Luria said. “Going to the arboretum around this time gives you an opportunity to get in touch with what it means to be a human and the fall season starting in our lives.”

Luria calls the oasis “an amazing feeling to leave the city and a great space to unwind from its hustle and bustle.”

For more information and directions to the arboretum by Metro and car, visit www.usna.usda.gov.