Animals Reflections Washington DC

National Arboretum: Exploring Mount Hamilton in Winter

Sometimes I go into the woods at the U.S. National Arboretum just to breathe deeply. Feeling close to the mossy rocks, vine-draped trees, and skittering squirrels helps me to meditate as well as my Calm app.

What is it that causes our mind and body to react so strongly as to look at a tree? Flower? Fallen leaf?

“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”

William Shakespeare

National Arboretum Hiking

I like to hike at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington DC during all four seasons of the year. In the depths of winter, the woods transform into a winter wonderland.

Then the showy azaleas and rhododendrons put on their fashion show around Easter.

Come summer the formal gardens electrify with their explosion of summer annuals in bloom.

But the mighty trees own the autumn season as their leaves catch on fire in vibrant burgundy, tangerine, and amber shades.

I think winter may be my favorite season to walk alone among the trees. Their branches cannot hide under a canopy of leaves. Their skeletal shapes remind me of a ballerina who flings her arms wide and twirls.

“To really feel a forest canopy, we must use different senses. And often the most useful one is the sense of imagination.”

Joan Maloof

If you come to Arboretum in February, expect chilly drafts of wind, muddy footpaths, and rain-soaked benches. You’ll probably be the only person in the forest on a weekday. Nature is rising from its slumber—a bear leaving hibernation. Just as the eyes of the slumbering animal opens, the woods wake up.

Spring Harbinger

My first hint that change is afoot is underfoot. As my dog and I climb the steps leading into the azaleas’ collection, we see the tiny tendrils of the snowdrops coyly peeking out of a leaf drift. These tiny dancers wave their bobbed heads in the air.

I can almost hear them sing in whispery voices “Prepare ye for spring.” This little chorus clad in their white robes is the harbinger of spring.

Daffodils Dancing

But, no, I spy another flower that is ready to sound the trumpets. A cluster of yellow daffodils raise their faces to the sun. Their butter-yellow silk petals dazzle me, shining as bright against the moldy brown winter leaves.

While I admire the stately Dutch tulips that announce spring’s arrival in DC’s formal gardens, I prefer the less showy daffodil found in the woods.

“With each daffodil, nature writes a love letter to the world, promising the beauty of fresh starts.”

Emily Dickinson

Flowering Tree

We wave goodbye to the daffodils to continue our trek up the flanks of Mount Hamilton. A flowering tree wears her bonnet of purple flower buds. It is the only purple that I will see all morning on my hike. How unusual that it should bud before all the trees on Mount Hamilton.

Parker can smell the change in the air, a pungent scent that pulls his head down to the dirt path to sniff. His nostrils broadened as my eyes widened.

Frederic P. Lee Garden

Our first place to stop is the Frederic P. Lee Garden. It was dedicated in 1972. This forest space reminds me of an outdoor living room. There are three benches arranged for drop-in guests. Birds sing for us. This garden features late-blooming Satsuki cultivars planted around a small pond. (They put on quite a show, extending the azalea season into early June.)

We nestle together on the bench, as my dog leans against my body. Staring at the pond wearing a necklace of rocks, we each ponder our place in time.

I like ponds immensely, even if they are tinged green with moss. Their surface is a mirror to reflect back our faces as well as our thoughts. How wonderful to lose myself in these woods with my furry companion. His brown eyes turn up to look at my face. Ready to leave?

Ramble Time

I rouse myself to begin our climb along the twisting paths. We can choose to go left, right, up or down. A gentle pull of the leash tells me Parker has chosen for me. He must see a squirrel.

With a momentary sad look at the bench we pass, my dog leads us along the path, sniffing. We haven’t walked long before we stop to sit at another bench. You’d think that I’d be bored by all this stopping at benches but I believe my dog is teaching me how to slow down. My choice is always to walk fast and far. Parker likes to a slow ramble.

Because Parker doesn’t react to the squirrels he sees on our walks, I find that we can be invisible in the woods.
I love to watch the wild creatures go about their business, collecting acorns or racing from bush to tree.

Once I saw a deer and her fawn eating red berries in the thicket. We stared at each other for a long time. I felt wild with wonder. Then she tossed her head, running deep into the woods.

Morrison Garden

Next, we head to the Morrison Garden, a walled garden featuring formal brick walking paths and low hedges of English boxwoods. Created in 1952, the Arboretum used 31,500 bricks salvaged from a schoolhouse located in what is now the Boxwood Collection.

The formal design showcases different azalea specimens. There is even a gazebo with a bench to watch nature’s theatrical show closeup.

Parker and I like to walk up and down the three vertical paths in silent meditation, crisscrossing the dissecting horizontal paths at the outer, middle, and inner borders.

This is my version of labyrinth walking, an ancient practice for centering and contemplation. My mind quiets. I ponder the interconnected world of the trees, a stalwart family on an azalea mountain.

“The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.”

John Muir

Labyrinth walking is an ancient practice used by many different faiths for spiritual centering, contemplation, and prayer. Entering the serpentine path of a labyrinth, you walk slowly while quieting your mind and focusing on a spiritual question or prayer.

Rustic Woodland Paths

I end our meditation walk by beginning the trek up to the top of Mount Hamilton. The Arboretum designed a network of rustic woodland paths to follow the contours of Mount Hamilton. (During the spring, you can see the azaleas and rhododendrons close in colorful clusters on the trails—red, pink, salmon, purple, white, and bicolor.

But in winter all the bushes are cloaked in green leaves, with no clues except the garden signs that identify them as hybrid azaleas, such as Gable, Robin Hill, Kurume, North Tisbury, Back Acres, and Aromi. These paths allow you to view the blossoms at close range.

Climbing Mount Hamilton

I highly recommend that you plan at least 90 minutes to visit the National Arboretum. It would be such a loss not to climb Mount Hamilton. This is one of the highest points in the District of Columbia.

“At the elevation of 240 feet above sea level, you’ll be treated to a view of the Capitol framed by trees.”

National Arboretum

It takes my breath away to stand there on the road, looking down at the gleaming white U.S. Capitol.

We turn back into the woods to head back down Mount Hamilton. I don’t rush us because I don’t want my forest walk to end. I let us dawdle as Parker stops to sniff a decayed tree trunk, one of the “forest’s natural sculpture.”

Dog-Friendly Venue

As we reach the bottom, I stop to let us rest on a bench. I pull out my iPhone to read “Dog Songs” by Mary Oliver. This gifted poet loved her dogs so much that she immortalized them in this book.

“A dog comes to you and lives with you in your own house, but you do not, therefore, own her, as you do not own the rain, or the trees, or the laws which pertain to them …”

Mary Oliver

I am contemplating my unbreakable bond with this dog sitting beside me and two Siamese cats left behind, happily sleeping on separate pillows in my bedroom when I am interrupted in my reverie.

DC Treasure

But then I am suddenly interrupted. An older couple stands in front of me, asking about the Arboretum.

“Do you come here when the azaleas bloom?” the man inquires.

I respond, “Yes. You must come back in April to see them.”

He sadly shakes his head. “Nope. We live 800 miles away.”

Then they walk away. Did they look sad or just reflective?

I suddenly think how lucky I am to explore the U.S. National Arboretum in all seasons.

“I declare this world is so beautiful that I can hardly believe it exists.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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  • Bejal
    February 24, 2024 at 10:35 am

    Loved reading about your adventures with Parker and this place looks just as great to visit in the winter time as it does in summer. You have so many wonderful spots you super in here.

    • Terri
      February 24, 2024 at 11:06 am

      The Arboretum is a true DC jewel for nature lovers. I try to visit as often as possible.

  • Amy H Tull
    February 24, 2024 at 10:48 am

    Always love seeing how Parker is enjoying life.

  • Amy H Tull
    February 24, 2024 at 10:48 am

    Always love seeing how Parker is enjoying life!

    • Terri
      February 24, 2024 at 11:05 am

      Parker could be a DC travel guide! He goes everywhere dogs are permitted and sometimes sneaks into a garden. Lol

  • Sinjana Ghosh
    February 24, 2024 at 2:10 pm

    So nice to read about your trekking adventure. Parker looks like an obedient kid – so cute!

    • Terri
      February 25, 2024 at 5:44 am

      Parker is a very good boy. I love to bring him out to the forest to sniff to the heart’s content!

  • Cait
    February 24, 2024 at 3:44 pm

    Sounds like a lovely winter walk, love all the flowers.

    • Terri
      February 25, 2024 at 5:43 am

      The Azalea Collection is almost as famous as the Tidal Basin’s Japanese cherry trees. I love to hike here!

  • Lisa Bundesen
    February 24, 2024 at 7:43 pm

    Such a beautiful place to hike and especially being able to take your dog. I love being able to take our dogs with us when we go hiking but we are restricted to where we can in Australia.

    • Terri
      February 25, 2024 at 5:42 am

      This also true in the United States. Most private gardens restrict dogs. I wish I could take Parker to such famous gardens as Dumbarton Oaks!

  • Sharyn
    February 25, 2024 at 12:57 am

    What a beautiful place to enjoy with your beautiful dog. You are very lucky.

    • Terri
      February 25, 2024 at 5:41 am

      I know! It is one of my favorite places to walk my dog. 🦮

  • Laureen Lund
    February 25, 2024 at 5:14 am

    Always one of my fav things to do visiting gardens, but how is that I did not go here when I was in DC last spring? Well, we will certainly be back. Saving for the next time.

    • Terri
      February 25, 2024 at 5:40 am

      The Arboretum is not near a Metro stop so I think a lot of visitors miss it. But it is a wonderful place to explore.

  • Teja
    February 25, 2024 at 8:39 am

    Your narrative of the walk feels so peaceful, just from reading it. What a peaceful place, and what a sweetie Parker is.

    • Terri
      February 28, 2024 at 8:44 pm

      I am so glad that my walk made you feel peaceful. It is a lovely place to walk with my dog and talk to the trees!

  • Steph
    February 26, 2024 at 2:19 am

    Gotta love places that allow you to bring your dog! I dream of moving back to Australia with my dog, but there are so many places where it’s not allowed to bring a dog

    • Terri
      February 28, 2024 at 8:44 pm

      I agree. Dog friendly parks and gardens thrill me!