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America's Best Urban Oasis

When people think of great parks in urban areas, Central Park in New York City and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco frequently come to mind. Often overlooked, but undeservedly so, is the National Arboretum in Northeast DC.

One wouldn’t expect to find 450 acres of pristine forest sandwiched between two major DC arteries, but at the intersection of Bladensburg Road and New York Avenue lies one of the most beautiful parks in the entire country.

A fantastic day at the Arboretum can begin with the peaceful, soothing elements of Buddhist culture. A walk around the park’s massive koi pond set behind the visitor’s center starts a leisurely day. There, one can marvel at the orange, white and black speckled fish, who in their decades in the pond, have grown to enormous lengths.

From there, head to the park’s bonsai forest, with painstakingly crafted, hand-cut trees honoring the Japanese tradition.

After the relaxing, Asian-influenced stroll, the Arboretum takes a decidedly American turn. First up is an amazing piece of the District’s history.

Heading away from the visitor’s center, as hikers crest a gentle hill, a concentric circle of columns comes into view. They are the old totems that once supported the east portico of the Capitol. And while that bit of history is a treat, a view of the real Capitol is even better. And not many people know that the Arboretum has one of the best views of Washington’s skyline.

Leaving behind the old columns, on their way to the overlook, visitors first pass through a rotating exhibit of vegetation. This month’s theme is “Power Plants,” which showcases a wide variety of greenery that can be used as sustainable forms of alternative energy.

Past the exhibit is the Azaleas Garden, which, when blooming in spring, is a fantastic sight to behold. In the fall and winter, the plants lie dormant. However, autumn may be the best season to visit the Arboretum, with the leaves of most deciduous trees rapidly changing colors. The sky throughout the park is a stunning array of bright oranges, browns and reds.

In the Azalea Garden is a thin dirt-path that winds up the highest hill on the grounds. It leads through labeled trees and flower beds, all telling visitors the genus, species and natural habitat of plants from near and far away.

The hike is brief, just fifteen minutes. At the top, it’s another five minutes along the plateau to an overlook at the far end of the hill. Up there is a small opening between a multitude of trees. Through the narrow slit lies the whole cityscape of Washington. The Capitol looms in the distance, as does the Washington Monument. Farther out are the gleaming office buildings of Rosslyn, all marvelous.

In a city that’s extremely flat, it’s hard to find a beautiful shot of this area’s wonderful skyline, but the Arboretum has it, and it just may be the area’s best.


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