Fall outdoor venues in Washington DC abound thanks to the amount of land dedicated to the national memorials and monuments on the National Mall. If you are willing to dedicate a half day for a walk on “America’s front yard,” you will enjoy spectacular foliage.
My list of the Top 10 Fall Outdoor Venues in Washington DC is located within a 3-mile radius. (Check out my Top 10 (Mostly Dog-Friendly) Washington DC Gardens.) They include museum gardens, outdoor sculpture gardens, and waterfront paths. The tour ends on the U.S. Capitol grounds designed by Frederick Law Olmstead (known as the “father of landscape design.”
I suggest starting DC’s Best Autumn Walking Tour at 7:15 a.m. at the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum so you can take photos during the “Golden Hour.” Since sunrise occurred at 7:36 a.m. EST, this meant that the grey-blue sky was painted in a Monet-inspired swirl of rose, lavender, and coral.
Somehow I managed to get my Golden Retriever (Parker) to quietly pose on the National Mall during the Golden Hour. The Washington Monument loomed in the distance. The sky looked like an Impressionist painting.
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I always tell visitors that if they only have one day to tour Washington DC, then they should devote it to walking the National Mall. (The distance from the the U.S. Capitol steps to the Lincoln Memorial spans 1.9 miles.) So the National Mall is ranked #1 on my list of Top 10 fall outdoor venues in Washington DC.
“This is where the nation comes to remember and where history is made. As ‘America’s Front Yard,’ the National Mall and Memorial Parks is home to many of our country’s most iconic memorials telling the story of people and events that shaped us as a nation.”National Park Service
During the fall, brightly colored orange, golden and red trees bloom along the sidewalks and paths of the National Mall. Moreover, visitors can easily exit the green to visit the Smithsonian museums.
Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden
For example, you don’t want to miss taking photos of the abstract outdoor sculptures outside the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden. This sunken garden is embedded in the National Mall.
There are several large trees that turn bright orange in the autumn. This contrasts beautifully with the bold red abstract work installed on the lawn. There are more than 30 works of art displayed year-round.
“Built to house Joseph H. Hirshhorn’s world-renowned sculpture collection, the sculpture garden offers a peaceful haven 14 feet below the surface of the Mall to observe and contemplate a rotating array of modern art.”Smithsonian
The garden opened in 1974. Sculptures comprised nearly a fourth of Joseph Hirshhorn’s initial gift. They allow residents as well as visitors to view modern sculptures outdoors in a meditative haven. The Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden should be visited during each of the four seasons to see how nature perfectly compliment the collection of modern sculpture.
Mary Livingston Ripley Garden
After Parker and I finished taking photos of the outdoor sculptures, we meandered up Jefferson Avenue to visit two Smithsonian museum gardens.
The first is tucked away in an alley between the Hirshhorn Museum and the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building. If you ever read The Secret Garden written by Frances Hodgson Burnett, then you will know the joy of wandering this space. I always remember her admonition that as long as you have a garden, you have a future.
“And the secret garden bloomed and bloomed and every morning revealed new miracles.”Frances Hodgson Burnett
As I sit on the bench, I feel eyes peering at me. But it is only the profile of the larger-than-life woman. During its renovation, the outside of the Hirschhorn Museum is wrapped in artwork.
During autumn, the curvilinear design allows you to step into autumn’s glory by the profusion of trees and flowers dressed in seasonal colors. Washington, D.C. architect Hugh Newell Jacobson designed the gardens. There is a main fountain framed by islands of flowers in raised beds. The deep red bricks of the august Smithsonian castle serve as a backdrop.
The Mary Livingston Ripley Garden is named after the wife of Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley. She conceived the idea for a “fragrant garden” on the eastern border of the Arts and Industries Building.
Enid Haupt Gardens
After wandering past the intimate collection of benches, hanging flower baskets, and raised flowers bed, you exit on Independence Avenue. It is a short walk up the road to tour the Enid Haupt Gardens. Come visit in the autumn to enjoy a picnic lunch outside.
This 4.2-acre “rooftop” garden is part of the Smithsonian complex. Situated outside the Smithsonian Castle, the Enid A. Haupt Garden opened on May 21, 1987. It is named after the American publisher and philanthropist Enid Haupt.
“Few visitors to the Haupt Garden realize that they are standing on the roofs of the National Museum of African Art, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, and the S. Dillon Ripley Center.”Smithsonian Gardens
The cultural influences in the adjacent museums dictated such design elements as the Moongate Garden and the Fountain Garden. The centerpiece is the Parterre, which mirrors the Victorian-style architectural sensibility of the Smithsonian Castle. Smithsonian gardens frequently change the flowers and bushes in this manicured oasis.
Most visitors would have no idea that a huge urban garden is planted outside the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s headquarters. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled it on February 19, 2009 on the occasion of President Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday.
Christened the “People’s Garden,” it is named in honor of Lincoln. He opined that “ . . . the most valuable of all arts will be the art of deriving a comfortable subsistence from the smallest area of soil.”
A towering burgundy tree provides a fall-inspired backdrop to the People’s Garden. There are clusters of yellow, red, and orange mums planted next to the stone pathways. Visitors are welcome to enjoy a snack or meal at the picnic table.
After we meander through the flower and plant beds, Parker and I walk a half-mile down to the Tidal Basin. At this point, we leave the National Mall to cross over Independence Avenue. While most tourists flock to the Tidal Basin to see the cherry blossom trees in late March, it is a glorious place to visit in the fall.
In early November, the oblong leaves on the Yoshino cherry trees turn to bronze, gold, and red. You will want to saunter slowly under the leafy canopy. Beware the low-hanging branches. My earphones hit the branch and stunned me when I didn’t lower my head sufficiently.
If you don’t have time to dedicate to a half-day autumn tour of the National Mall, head straight for the Tidal Basin. The 2.1 mile loop will take you past the Jefferson Memorial, the FDR Memorial, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, and the George Mason Memorial. It is part of West Potomac Park.
On this quiet Friday morning, there are few visitors on the path. The geese float on the water. There is a carpet of tangerine and red leaves laying on the lawn. A few yellow leaves still cling to the branches of the gnarled Yoshino tree.
Photographers will revel in the crystal clear water. It provides a mirror to capture a double image of the trees.
We also cross the street to visit the George Mason Memorial. It is tucked away near the entrance of West Potomac Park. The Virginia statesman rests on a bench with his legs crossed. Stray yellow leaves float down through the memorial’s open plank roof.
Crossing back over the street, we follow the Tidal Basin Loop across the bridge and then down through the FDR Memorial. One large tree is ablaze with reddish gold leaves. It is a peaceful yet strangely solitary place to gaze at the statue of Eleanor Roosevelt.
FDR’s quote from his 1945 address to Congress on the Yalta congress is inscribed on the rock memorial: “The structure of world peace cannot be the work of one man, or one party, or one nation. It must be peace which rests on the cooperative effort of the whole world.”
Around the next corner, we discovered the statue of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He was seated in his wheelchair. Parker decided to sniff noses with FDR’s faithful dog Fala (a Scottish terrier). The canine statue is HUGE!
Also not to be missed is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. His towering form seems to look down upon his flock. The bronze leaves frame the view.
After finishing the Tidal Basin Loop, we must walk 1.2 miles to reach the United States Botanic Garden. There are three stops along the way. Hidden along Constitution Avenue, you will discover the Smithsonian Pollinator Garden at the National Museum of Natural History.
In addition to the butterflies that flock here, autumn lovers definitely will want to meander through this space on the east side of the Smithsonian museum. Many of the plants, grasses, and trees turn yellow and orange in the autumn.
You will also want to check out the Pollination Investigation exhibit. Educational signage explains the who, what, when, where, why, and how of pollination.
National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden
On the next block, we will visit the second outdoor sculpture garden located on the National Mall. You should not miss seeing it. The National Gallery of Art (NGA) is home to the NGA Sculpture Garden. This exotic garden promises adventures that turn back the clock for visitors. See a giant Typewriter Eraser, Scale X (Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen), or run from the giant Spider, 1996, cast 1997 (Louise Bourgeois).
In the autumn, the bronze and golden trees contrast with the stark silver and bronze sculptures. The change is transformational.
“And all at once, summer collapsed into fall.”Oscar Wilde
Comprising 6.1 acres, NGA’s Sculpture Garden is located between 7th and 9th Streets. There are 33 different trees, ranging from fragrant snowbell to weeping American elm. In the fall, the elm’s leaves turn red, purple, or yellow.
National Museum of the American Indian
Autumn is the ideal time to visit the Native American Veterans Memorial (NAVM). Nature embraces this wooded enclave located outside the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) site. As a place of meditation, it ranks #1 as a fall outdoor venues in Washington DC.
There is a sign on the Independence Road side of the museum which declares this Smithsonian campus as a Native Place. The sign reminds visitors that “from the moment you step onto the grounds, you are in a Native place. Explore the forest, meadows, wetlands, and croplands to see the restored environments of the Chesapeake Bay and Piedmont regions from four hundred years ago.”
The changing autumn leaves provide a backdrop for the man-made physical island. A high stainless-steel circle balances on an intricately carved stone drum.
NAVM is an outdoor cathedral. Like a roof, the turquoise blue sky stretches above. The low-slung carved stone drum is the altar, and the large stainless-steel circle sits atop it.
United States Botanic Garden
Exiting the NMAI complex, it is a quick walk across the street to reach the United States Botanic Garden (USBG). This sprawling complex features the U.S. Botanic Garden Conservatory, gated outdoor gardens, and Bartholdi Fountain and Garden.
I think of the USBG’s National Garden as another D.C. “secret garden,” hidden behind metal gates and concrete walls. It is a place of seclusion and solitude. I walk the curving paths like a labyrinth, gliding past the billowing mums, deadhead roses, and willowy bronze oaks.
The USBG celebrates all four seasons with special exhibits and activities. For example, patrons can enroll in free virtual classes to learn about making fall wreaths from native and foraged favorites. “This online demonstration will highlight how to create a fall wreath with materials like vines and foliage, share information about native plants in the U.S. Botanic Garden collection, and address how to responsibly use foraged materials,” according to USBG’s website.
U.S. Capitol Grounds
After completing my walk around the outdoor gardens, we cross the street to walk through the U.S. Capitol grounds. As my regular readers know, this place holds a special meaning for me. Each day, I try to walk this circuit in the early morning with my dog.
The U.S. Congress commissioned the nation’s most famous landscape architect (Frederick Law Olmsted) to design the enlarged grounds in the 19th century.
“His symmetrical design incorporated park-like edging, low walls, lamps, careful placement of trees and simple shrubs, and a series of curved walkways that afforded attractive views of the Capitol.”Architect of Capitol
Follow the curving paths to see the blaze of trees adorned in red, orange, and golden leaves. Around almost every corner, the foliage frames the view of the stately U.S. Capitol complex. Autumn is a season that begs you to leave the comfort of your home. Sniff air that smells like apple cider. Marvel at the golden cast of once-green trees. Find a bench and snuggle with your dog. It’s a golden time of year when you are seeking Fall outdoor venues in Washington DC .