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.
Table of Contents
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.
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,Mary Oliver
hardly able to stop, he leaps, he spins …”
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
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.