Reflections Washington DC

Explore U.S. National Arboretum in Autumn

The U.S. National Arboretum in autumn wears its fall finery like a burgundy gown, its red embroidered hem trailing across the winding woodland paths. Look upward and spy a row of orange and golden (tree) bonnets lining the sky. A cardinal sings passionately to announce my waltz in these woods.

I love every season at the Arboretum: spring (azaleas), summer (roses), and winter (snow-covered trees) but autumn may be my favorite.

U.S. National Arboretum

Spanning 446 acres, the U.S. National Arboretum is operated by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. It will turn 100 years old in 2027.

Located off New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road on the outskirts of Washington DC, the Arboretum is a place for hikers, runners, gardeners, and canines. On this autumn day, I felt like I walked into Gustav Klimt’s painting of The Birch Wood as I explored the U.S. National Arboretum in autumn.

Abandoning the road to sneak into the woodland playground of deer, squirrels, and cardinals, my dog and I claim autumn’s presents—trees dripping in gold and ruby, bronze leaves fluttering to the ground like aerial ballerinas.

Dog-Human Adventure

Come with me into the woods after daybreak, while an early morning frost blankets the grass and the animal’s paws punch holes in the path at the U.S. National Arboretum in autumn.

Crunch, crunch, crunch I walk along the dirt trail, hidden under mounds of red, orange, and yellow leaves.

Sniff, stop, sniff goes my dog, pulling at his leash to inhale all the forest’s odors.

Suddenly I look up to see a deer streak across our path. He looks back startled at my retriever, sitting on a bench, then disappears into the clump of trees.

We stand up to continue my dog’s investigation of moldy leaves, mud puddles, deer poop, and broken sticks. I look up into the canopy that blocks the sunlight. It’s almost like the trees extend their branches across the sky to embrace. Parker looks down to breathe in autumn’s olfactory wonders.

Arboretum’s Azalea Collection

The U.S. National Arboretum is a place where I go to escape into the forest during all four seasons. I can find solace in wandering the twisting paths of the Azalea Collection. There is also a one-way drive along Azalea Road. But in the vibrant months of autumn, the trees steal the show as the Satsuki azaleas, Kurume azaleas, and historic Glenn Dale azaleas cannot compete with the forest’s technicolor leaves.

The hilly paths meander past groves of rhododendrons and azaleas. They stand together in rows and clumps like woodland sprites and fairies. In the autumn, they are dressed only in green, their floral cloak discarded months ago.

Dancing with Deers

I arrive at the U.S. National Arboretum at 8 a.m. on a Friday morning just as the gates open. Wandering the woods alone is my goal … if only for 30 minutes. But I slow down when I discover the animal kingdom’s idea of a morning rush hour.

A family of deer (three, four, no six) run and bound across the asphalt road. They don’t seem scared of my car as it draws near. So I stop my car so I can admire these svelte brown creatures that blend in among the tree trunks. It is the first of nature’s gifts this morning.

Walking with Mary Oliver

While I hike in the Arboretum’s woods, I listen to the new Audible book entitled “Wild and Precious: A Celebration of Mary Oliver.”

I have walked “mind in hand” with this poet for over two decades since I purchased Mary Oliver’s Blue Iris poetry book. Reading her poem about the Black Oaks, I connected with her how she went “pale with longing for their thick bodies tickled with lichen …

 “and you can’t keep me from the woods, from the tonnage of their shoulders, and their shining green hair.”

Mary Oliver

The poet writes that she won’t sell her life for money,  and she won’t come in from the rain.

Solitary Arboretum Expedition

Like Oliver, I want to linger a while among the black oaks, eavesdrop as the trees converse among themselves. My dog doesn’t argue with me either. He will skip his nap in a sun-drenched corner of my home in favor of an autumn romp at the Arboretum.

I could have invited a friend to get up early and join us but there is a delicious freedom in my solitary hike.

“Ordinarily I go to the woods alone, with not a single friend, for they are all smilers and talkers and therefore unsuitable.”

Mary Oliver

Of course, I am not alone because I would never dream of walking in the woods without my Golden Retriever. My only sadness is that I cannot take off his leash so he can scamper up the hilly paths and dive into the piles of leaves.

Dog-Friendly National Arboretum

Mary Oliver wrote a poem about her dog Percy (who of course was named after the poet Shelley) exploring the orchard after a blizzard.

The title is “The Storm.” She paints an indelible scene of her little dog exploring the new snow with wild feet.

“Running here running there, excited,
hardly able to stop, he leaps, he spins  …”

Mary Oliver

This is my joy now as Parker and I crush the autumn leaves underfoot with our wild feet and paws. Like Percy, my dog appears in delirium playing in nature, pawing the earth, and crunching on the fall leaves. This is what makes me feel like the little girl who used to jump into a mountain of leaves and make them scatter.

I want to go into the Arboretum all seasons of the year but especially in the early morning to greet the trees, rub their bark, and sit underneath their branches.

“Hello Lillian Willow, and Noah the oak tree I have hugged and kissed every first day of spring for the last thirty years. And in reply its thousands of leaves tremble! What a life is ours!”

Mary Oliver

Operating Hours

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. Admission to the grounds and museum is free and no tickets are needed.

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  • Nancy Roberts
    November 4, 2023 at 7:55 am

    A walk is always better with a dog! And autumn is one of the best times too. This sounds beautiful!

    • Terri
      November 4, 2023 at 3:50 pm

      Any time is a good time for a walk if you ask my dog. He never turns me down. The Arboretum is “sniff heaven.”

  • Linda (LD Holland)
    November 4, 2023 at 11:34 am

    I love enjoying the Fall colour as the leaves change and am always looking for new spots to visit. The US National Arboretum looks like a great spot for Fall colours. And to visit in all seasons too. I love the idea of visiting first thing in the morning and maybe catching the deer grazing.

    • Emma
      November 4, 2023 at 1:33 pm

      Great photos, love seeing all the colours that autumn brings. Looks like a lovely place to go for a still, thanks for sharing!

      • Terri
        November 4, 2023 at 3:48 pm

        Thank you. Autumn is truly a magical time to visit as the leaves change colors. And my Golden Retriever matches the leaves.

    • Terri
      November 4, 2023 at 3:49 pm

      I like to visit on a weekday or early in the morning before the trails get crowded. It is wall to wall rows of people in the spring when the azaleas bloom.

  • Marya
    November 4, 2023 at 3:22 pm

    The US National Arboretum sure looks like a great place for a walk, and even better to spend a quality time with our four-legged buddy. The beautiful fall color definitely tops it all! 🙂

    • Terri
      November 4, 2023 at 3:46 pm

      It is a magical place to walk with your dog. I started taking Parker when he was three months old. He loves the place as do I.

  • Sharyn
    November 4, 2023 at 4:52 pm

    Fall is such a good time to get out and about to see the beautiful colours of the environment. What a magical place the US National Arboretum is – you are so lucky you can walk around here.

    • Terri
      November 4, 2023 at 6:23 pm

      I agree Sharyn. I try to take long walks all through the autumn because I know it is a little harder to convince my pup to go out when it is freezing cold.

  • Laureen Lund
    November 4, 2023 at 5:12 pm

    Great photos. We love to include gardens, arboretums and nature reserves in any itinerary. This looks so peaceful.

    • Terri
      November 4, 2023 at 6:22 pm

      The National Arboretum is a real gem. I am so lucky to just live 15 minutes to reach it. Another great place to hike is Rock Creek Park!

  • Hannah
    November 4, 2023 at 7:05 pm

    Walks with your lovely dog Parker in this special place must create some pretty spectacular memories – thank you for sharing such an insightful and inspiring piece.

    • Terri
      November 5, 2023 at 4:56 am

      Hannah you are so kind. Mary Oliver’s poems inspire me to write this place of profound beauty. We are all so lucky that we can escape to the woods and forests!

  • Heather
    November 4, 2023 at 9:39 pm

    Any place that’s dog friendly is for me, I’m dog friendly too! Beautiful post, and love the photos.

    • Terri
      November 5, 2023 at 4:57 am

      I love to bring Parker to the parks in DC as a lot of the private gardens don’t permit dogs.

  • Viola
    November 5, 2023 at 2:52 am

    Beautiful pictures, Terri! Fall is such a magical time with all of its colours. You are so lucky that live close by. Thanks for the post!

    • Terri
      November 5, 2023 at 4:58 am

      Autumn is definitely my favorite season (right now lol)! The Arboretum is vast so there are so many different places to explore on each visit.

  • Sinjana
    November 5, 2023 at 1:14 pm

    Loved reading the story of your adventure. You are a really good writer and i felt like I took the hike with you and Parker.

    • Terri
      November 5, 2023 at 4:42 pm

      You are so kind. I really wanted to write a poetical piece about my walk in the woods as I was inspired by listening to Mary Oliver’s poems on the audiobook.

  • Tish
    November 7, 2023 at 12:27 pm

    Thank you for the beautiful pictures of fall!
    And of coarse dog !
    I love the fall colors of nature

    • Terri
      November 11, 2023 at 5:57 am

      Autumn is my favorite time of year Tish! I love to watch Parker playing in the leaves.