Adventure U.S. Washington DC

Peak Azalea Season: National Arboretum

Revel in the peak azalea season in April at the 446-acre U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. Nature paints its woodland canvas with bright and bold swipes of red, orange, purple, pink, and speckled white blooms. 

I always catch my breath when I see the azaleas bloom in mass at the Arboretum. A riot of color, azaleas burst like fireworks during spring in Washington, DC.

Dog Friendly

Dog owners can rejoice as leashed dogs are permitted at the U.S. National Arboretum. If you 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.

Arrive Early

Visit on a weekday to avoid the crowds. I arrive at 8 a.m. on a Friday when the gates open. Driving the winding highway to the parking lot, I only encounter the occasional squirrel running across the road. The lush green trees invite me to slow down and breathe.

My dog, Parker, sits up to watch the birds flying in the sky. Our anticipation builds as I park my Suburu. We walk quickly past the administration building to reach the “Forest Entrance” to our secret garden. We will be hiking hillsides dotted with bursts of floral color.

Annual Pilgrimage

I will make this pilgrimage multiple times during  April and May to see the giant azaleas and rhododendron bushes blooming at the U.S. National Arboretum’s Azalea Collection. Take a virtual walk during the peak blossom season.

Enter the world of the impressionist painters. Walk past a Monet canvas of red, pink, salmon, lavender, and white puff flowers. Squeeze your eyes into slits to view the soft pastel petals as a blur. Under your feet lie a carpet of silky petals that float in the breeze before their descent.

The azaleas slowly release their perfume like a gentle breeze wafting over your body. Contrast it with the thick, moldy scent of the wood chips crunching underfoot (and paw).

History of Azaleas

If you only have time for one stop, head straight to the formal Morrison Garden. Long-time visitors know this is the jewel of the Azalea Collection. It contains a large portion of the Arboretum’s Glenn Dale azaleas. 

Benjamin Morrison, the first director of the National Arboretum, hybridized these azaleas at the Plant Introduction Station in Glenn Dale, Maryland, starting in 1937. 

According to the Friends of National Arboretum (FONA), Morrison’s goal was to “produce large-flowered azaleas with a wide range of bloom times, filling a gap in the market that was present at the time.”

He succeeded beyond the wildest expectations. 

“The breeding program produced 454 named plants, and many more that remained unnamed and were planted on Mount Hamilton at the Arboretum.”

FONA

The Morrison Garden

In 1952, the U.S. National Arboretum finished its Morrison Garden, named after its former director. The craftsmen used 31,500 bricks to construct the venue, which, according to the Arboretum, were “salvaged from a schoolhouse located in what is now the Boxwood Collection.”

The Morrison Garden features low hedges of English boxwoods, and the formal design highlights the Glenn Dale azalea hybrids. It is a wonderful place to stand quietly and observe the spring frenzy of azalea branches dancing in the wind, or you can sit down and let your gaze wander over the banks of azaleas.

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.

Mount Hamilton

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. In fact, at 240 feet above sea level, you can see a view of the U.S. Capitol framed by trees.

Peak Azalea Season vs. Sakura Season

The most significant difference between the peak “sakura” cherry blossom season and the azalea season in Washington, D.C. is how you tilt your head. 

Winding down the path at the Tidal Basin, you look up to see the delicate pink puffs of color on the gnarled Yoshino cherry trees.

In contrast, you look down to admire the spreading azalea bushes along the forest floor. Both experiences are ethereal. 

Pace Yourself

Expect to walk slowly up the paths during the next hour as you crisscross woodland paths lined with giant azaleas. Thankfully, there are multiple places to sit on a bench and commune with the trees. The only sound I hear early in the morning is the energetic cardinal or bluebird singing an aria.

I see many shades of azaleas—fluorescent pink, pale pink, lavender, magenta red, and white. The most prized (in my humble opinion) is the delicately striped azalea on a white base, but I also admire the spotted and sanded white azaleas. 

You might feel sleepy and fantasize about taking a nap on a bench. Go ahead. To quote John Steinbeck, “The smell of azaleas and the sleepy smell of sun working with chlorophyll filled the air.” You’re already in a dream when you meander through the Arboretum’s fields of azaleas.

If you enjoy touring gardens, I recommend visiting the U.S. Botanic GardenDumbarton Oaks, and Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Washington, DC. I also created a list of the Top 10 (Mostly Dog-Friendly) Washington DC Gardens.

Hours of Operation

Address: 3501 New York Ave NE, Washington, DC 20002

The grounds of the U.S. National Arboretum are open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day 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.

Gardens & Collections

Here are other major sections to visit at the National Arboretum:

ASIAN COLLECTIONS

Japanese Woodland, Asian Valley, China Valley, Korean Hillside

DOGWOOD COLLECTIONS

Dogwoods, Anacostia River Overlook

FERN VALLEY

Fern Valley Woodland, Prairie, Southeastern Coastal Plain

FRIENDSHIP GARDEN

Arbor House: Friends of the National Arboretum Office, National Bonsai Foundation Office

GOTELLI CONIFER COLLECTION

Gotelli & Watnong Collections, Spruces, Firs, Japanese Maples

GROVE OF STATE TREES

Display of trees representing the 50 states and the District of Columbia

HOLLY AND MAGNOLIA COLLECTIONS

Red-berried evergreen holly and fragrant southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)

NATIONAL BONSAI & PENJING MUSEUM

Japanese, Chinese, North American, and International Pavilions

NATIONAL HERB GARDEN

Historic Roses, Knot Garden, Specialty Gardens

PERENNIAL COLLECTIONS

Perennials, daylilies, daffodils, and peonies

WASHINGTON YOUTH GARDEN

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 to print and bring with you on your visit.

FONA

Friends of the National Arboretum (FONA) was founded in 1982 as an independent 501(c)(3). FONA serves as the primary private partner of the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, DC. The organization preserves and enhances this vibrant public space and facilitates experiential programs that instill a love of plants, nature, and the outdoors in all who visit the Arboretum. FONA also promotes the Arboretum’s overarching research and education mission.

Since its beginning, FONA has raised funds for projects around the Arboretum, like the Capitol Columns, Flowering Tree Walk, and Springhouse Run stream restoration. FONA also supports the Arboretum’s research, plant explorations, and collections maintenance.

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  • anukrati
    April 20, 2024 at 6:12 am

    This is worth the annual pilgrimage. Love the hike.

    • Terri
      April 20, 2024 at 7:13 am

      I agree. I am so lucky that I am local and can visit OFTEN!

  • Sharyn
    April 20, 2024 at 6:16 am

    It looks like spring has sprung – the azaleas are so pretty – I just love the deep pink colour. And Parker looks pretty chuffed to be allowed in!

    • Terri
      April 20, 2024 at 7:14 am

      This is my dog’s favorite place to hike. I have been bringing him to the Arboretum since he was 3 months old.

  • Emily
    April 20, 2024 at 6:25 am

    Gorgeous photos and very informative post

    • Terri
      April 20, 2024 at 7:14 am

      Thank you. I am so proud how the colors POP! This is nature at its finest.

  • Laureen Lund
    April 20, 2024 at 9:33 am

    Gorgeous. I can’t wait to visit again. Such a fabulous place and always changing and with a visit. Maybe next year!

    • Terri
      April 21, 2024 at 5:31 am

      I do hope you get to return to DC in 2025 and visit the Arboretum. It is gorgeous year round. There is always something to see!

  • Bejal
    April 20, 2024 at 9:47 am

    Hello Terri, What a fab article. The colours are incredible on your photos and it’s alwasy wonderful to see Parker feature in your posts.

    • Terri
      April 21, 2024 at 5:30 am

      The colors blew me away. I love how the Arboretum put similar colors together. My favorite is the red azalea. Parker’s favorite thing is sticks. lol.

  • Sonia
    April 20, 2024 at 9:58 am

    The photos are beautiful, I’d love to be able to visit during peak season next year.

    • Terri
      April 21, 2024 at 5:28 am

      Fingers crossed! Bring your dog.

  • Taylor
    April 20, 2024 at 10:22 am

    Ohhh this is so pretty! I definitely want to visit DC to see this.

    • Terri
      April 21, 2024 at 5:28 am

      DC’s parks, botanic gardens, and arboretum will steal your heart. I hope you get to visit the city one day.

  • Mayi
    April 20, 2024 at 11:38 am

    Gorgeous! The colors are lovely. I would definitely visit if I were in Washington. It gives me a good reason to explore around London and visit more green spaces.

    • Terri
      April 21, 2024 at 5:27 am

      It is a technicolor explosion when the azaleas bloom. Luckily you have exquisite parks in London which I love to visit especially Hyde Park!

  • Maggie
    April 20, 2024 at 1:00 pm

    The arboretum is unmatched during peak azalea season. Definitely a hidden gem in DC. And you had the perfect companion for your visit!!

    • Terri
      April 21, 2024 at 5:25 am

      I agree that Parker was the perfect companion for my hike among the azaleas! The Arboretum is a DC gem!

  • Lisa
    April 20, 2024 at 8:53 pm

    Azalea’s are one of my favourite flowers. What a choice to make – azalea or cherry blossom season.

    • Terri
      April 21, 2024 at 5:24 am

      Luckily I don’t have to choose. I get to enjoy the amazing cherry blossom festival in Washington DC. Then it is azalea season. (In between, there is daffodil and tulip time!)

  • Teja
    April 21, 2024 at 1:15 am

    There should be more napping in parks IMO haha It would be like a fairy tale.

    • Terri
      April 21, 2024 at 5:23 am

      Quilt. Sunshine. Breeze. Tree shade. Perfect nap place.

  • Patricia (Tish) Mikan
    April 21, 2024 at 3:33 pm

    Thanks Terri. Spectacular flowers. Azaleas and Rhododendron are two of my favorite flowers. The pictures are beautiful

  • Goya Galeotta
    April 24, 2024 at 4:15 pm

    Such a gorgeous place – Thanks for sharing!

    • Terri
      April 27, 2024 at 2:24 pm

      You are welcome!

  • Jenn P. | By Land and Sea
    April 27, 2024 at 9:32 pm

    How beautiful! Would love to see this in person!