Picture a dirt pathway lined by giant azaleas and rhododendron bushes at the U.S. National Arboretum’s Azalea Collection. The 446-acre Arboretum is located in Washington DC. Walk past a Monet canvas of red, pink, salmon, lavender, and white puff flowers. Under your feet lie a carpet of silky petals that floated in the breeze before their descent. Take a virtual walk during peak blossom.
The air is perfumed by the rich moldy dirt. It may be the most glorious place to experience spring in Washington DC after the cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin. The earliest peak azaleas bloom date reported in the last decade was April 15; the latest was May 4. Depending on whether the temperatures heat up in March, the azaleas may dress up in the frocks like girls in their Easter dresses. This is the case in spring 2023.
Table of Contents
Arboretum Azalea Collection
Just like encountering “blossom fever” at the Tidal Basin in March, expect to see the crowds flock to admire the Arboretum’s azalea collection in April. The National Arboretum declares it “a premier spring attraction.”
Thousands of azalea bushes blossom on Mount Hamilton in the Arboretum’s Azalea Collection. Picture an abstract painter dripping gobs of brightly-hued oil paint on a dirt canvas. Azaleas bushes grow “up and out” as they mature so visitors will enjoy mini-flower mountains on the hillside. This blaze of color transforms the Arboretum’s hillside.
Dog owners can rejoice as leashed dogs are permitted at the U.S. National Arboretum. If you really want to make your pup happy, bring him down to hike the wooded paths and burrow his nose in the dirt. Exploring the Arboretum is a great “puppy trek” for owners.
Glenn Dale Hillside
The first place to head is the Glenn Dale Hillside if you want to see the greatest variety of azaleas blooming in a short span of time in the Arboretum’s Azalea Collection. Former Arboretum Director Benjamin Y. Morrison is responsible for the breeding work to create these azalea plantings.
“Morrison envisioned the modern hybrid azalea as we know it today and successfully married the large flowers and exciting colors of tender azaleas in the Southern Indian group with the hardiness of more northly species.”U.S. National Arboretum
I like to visit the Arboretum on the weekdays to avoid crowds taking selfies and blocking the paths. Viewing the azaleas in peace and tranquility is the goal. But of course, my Golden Retriever often has his own opinion on our hike so I may be pulled from bush to bush for sniffing.
In 1952, the U.S. National Arboretum finished its “Morrison Garden. They named it after the former director. The craftsmen used 31,500 bricks to construct the venue. According to the Arboretum, the 31,500 bricks were “salvaged from a schoolhouse located in what is now the Boxwood Collection.”
The Morrison Garden features low hedges of English boxwoods. The formal design highlights the Glenn Dale azalea hybrids. This is a wonderful place to stand quietly and observe the spring frenzy of azaleas branches dancing in the wind. Or sit down and let your gaze wander over the banks of azaleas.
There is also a courtyard area located southwest of the Morrison Garden. This is an ideal location for forest bathing. Spend time admiring the mature lacebark pine that shelters the Arboretum azaleas as well as forest creatures. A squirrel will probably scamper by while you rest. Be sure to hold your dog’s leash tight!
After a suitable rest time, head north to investigate the Frederic P. Lee Garden. You’ll find azaleas spread across the northeast slopes of Mount Hamilton. The National Arboretum dedicated this garden in 1971.
Wear your hiking boots so you can trek the long woodland paths that stretch up Mount Hamilton. You might slip on wet leaves if it rained the night before. There are intersecting paths that wind past groves of azaleas and sky-high trees. Disintegrating leaves turn the path into a soft carpet.
If you are in good physical shape, you can follow the trail to the top of Mount Hamilton. It is one of the highest points in the District of Columbia. “At the elevation of 240 feet above sea level, the hiker will be treated to a view of the Capitol framed by trees,” according to the Arboretum.
I believe the best way to see the Arboretum Azalea Collection is to spend a minimum of two hours hiking at Mount Hamilton. If you bring a snack in your backpack, you can enjoy a little mid-morning break sitting on a comfortable bench. (Your pup might even decide to take a quick snooze!)
The poet Peter Meinke described azaleas as “vessels of brilliant energy, their brilliant explosions enclosed by the frailest membranes.” Their branches tremble in the wind. Our hearts tremble as we gaze on their short-lived magnificence. But we know can return each spring to be revived by their perennial beauty.
Gardens & Collections
Here are other major sections to visit at the National Arboretum:
Japanese Woodland, Asian Valley, China Valley, Korean Hillside
Dogwoods, Anacostia River Overlook
Fern Valley Woodland, Prairie, Southeastern Coastal Plain
Arbor House: Friends of the National Arboretum Office, National Bonsai Foundation Office
Gotelli & Watnong Collections, Spruces, Firs, Japanese Maples
Display of trees representing the 50 states and the District of Columbia
Red-berried evergreen holly and fragrant southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)
Japanese, Chinese, North American, and International Pavilions
Historic Roses, Knot Garden, Specialty Gardens
Perennials, daylilies, daffodils, and peonies
Each year, thousands of children experience hands-on gardening and nutrition activities at the garden through family events and field trips
You can download a PDF of the Arboretum if you want to print it out and bring it on your visit.
Hours of Operation
According to the website, “the grounds of the U.S. National Arboretum are open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day of the year except for Christmas Day. The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Admission to the grounds and museum is free and no tickets are needed.”