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Washington, DC Cherry Blossoms: Complete Guide

As spring unfolds in Washington, DC, there’s one thing on everyone’s minds: cherry blossoms peak bloom. Signaling the onset of spring, the pale pink and white blossoms of these trees engulph the Tidal Basin in delicate clouds of color. Each year, over 1.5 million people come to enjoy the cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin.

There are some tricky things to navigate when planning your trip to see the DC cherry blossoms. When the cherry blossoms bloom vary on the variety and the weather. Navigating the crowds of tourists (and locals!) can be stressful. Finding a place to park will be very difficult, and traffic will be backed up. In this guide, I’ll go over cherry blossom peak bloom, what happens at the Cherry Blossom Festival, less busy places to see the cherry blossoms and avoid the crowds, how to get there, and what to expect.

History of the Cherry Blossoms in DC

The story of the DC cherry blossoms dates back to 1912, when the mayor of Tokyo, Yukio Ozaki, gifted more than 3,000 cherry trees to America. This generous act marked a symbol of goodwill and friendship between the two nations. However, there were several people behind the scenes in the years preceding championing the idea.

A vintage stereoscopic image showing the Smithsonian grounds during the great flood on February 12, 1881. Bare trees are partially submerged in the expansive floodwaters, with several figures standing at the water's edge and in the distance, reflecting the significant impact of the flood. The image is mounted on a yellow card, characteristic of stereograph presentations from that era.
Smithsonian grounds during the great flood, February 12, 1881

In the 1880s, after repeated flooding, the Army Corps of Engineers dredged a channel into the Potomac River. As they dredged the river, they used the sediment to fill in the river’s large tidal flats, creating the East Potomac Park, West Potomac Park, and the Tidal Basin. Prior to this, the shores of the Potomac River came up to just beyond the Washington Monument.

In 1885, Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, a world traveler, writer, and diplomat, first proposed the idea of planting Japanese cherry trees along the new Potomac waterfront.

This is a historical black and white photograph from the 1880s, showing a serene scene in Japan. Three individuals, wearing traditional Japanese attire, are sitting on a bench under the canopy of cherry blossoms in front of a tea house. Another person is seated separately on a bench to the left, and a figure standing to the right appears to be tending to a stall or structure. The tranquility of the setting is palpable, with trees providing a gentle backdrop to this peaceful gathering.
Photo of a tea house from Eliza Scidmore’s 1891 book, Jinrikisha Days in Japan

Having travelled extensively, she fell in love with Japan and wanted to bring the beauty of the cherry blossom trees to Washington. She suggested that the Army Superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds should plant cherry blossom trees along the new shoreline, but to no avail.

The cherry blossom trees, also known as “Sakura” in Japan, hold cultural significance. They symbolize the transient nature of life due to their short blooming period, a concept that is embraced in Japanese culture and philosophy.

Eliza Scidmore did not give up, though. Over the next 24 years, she made the same request of every single new Superintendent.

First Cherry Blossoms Arrive

Dr. David Fairchild, a plant explorer for the USDA, imported cherry trees from Japan in 1906. As a plant explorer, it was his job to travel the world and find plants to introduce to the United States. He imported 100 cherry trees from Japan, planting them at his home in Chevy Chase, MD to see if they could thrive in the Washington, DC climate. After a successful experiment that proved cherry trees could thrive in Washington, DC’s environment, Fairchild promoted and planted cherry blossoms in various parts of Washington and Chevy Chase.

In April 1909, Eliza Scidmore decided to raise the funds required to purchase the cherry trees and donate them so that they could be planted along the waterfront, and wrote a letter to the then First Lady, Helen Taft. Mrs. Taft has lived in Japan and knew the beauty and magic of the cherry blossoms, and replied two days later that she was on board with the plan, but the new shoreline was too rough for planting in her opinion.

As fate would have it, Dr. Jokichi Takamine, a famous Japanese chemist, was in Washington with Mr. Midzuno, Japanese consul in New York. He was told of the plans to plant cherry blossoms along the roads around the Tidal Basin, and came up with the idea of having the trees donated to Mrs. Taft. Dr, Takamine and Mr. Midzuno worked with Tokyo mayor, Yukio Ozaki, to arrange the gift. It was to be a gift from Tokyo to Washington, DC. Mrs. Taft accepted the donation of 2,000 cherry blossom trees from Tokyo, and the cherry blossom tradition in DC was officially in motion

From a Gift to a Tradition

The first batch of 2,000 cherry trees arrived in Washington, DC on January 6, 1910, but an inspection a few days later discovered that the trees were infested by insects and nematodes, the trees had to be destroyed on the orders of President William Howard Taft. However, this setback did not end the campaign to plant cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin,

In a renewed gesture of goodwill, Tokyo Mayor Ozaki and others proposed a second donation. The donation now increased to 3,020 trees of 12 different varieties, which were grafted onto specially selected understock produced in Itami City, Hyogo Prefecture. These trees were shipped from Yokohama and on March 12, 1912, arrived in Washington, DC.

On March 27, 1912, First Lady Helen Herron Taft and Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese Ambassador, planted the first two Yoshino cherry trees on the northern bank of the Tidal Basin. Today, these two original trees still stand south of Independence Avenue SW near 17th Street, several hundred yards west of the John Paul Jones Memorial. You’ll find them marked by a large bronze plaque that commemorates the occasion.

The Cherry Blossom Festival: A Celebration of Spring

The National Cherry Blossom Festival, which most recently took place from March 20 to April 14 in 2024, celebrates the blooming of the cherry trees and the enduring friendship between the United States and Japan. Featuring a range of spectacular celebrations, including the Opening Ceremony, the Blossom Kite Festival, the National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade, and Petalpalooza, the festival has become a major attraction for both locals and tourists.

A woman in a blue jacket and brown leggings smiles as she leans on a gnarled cherry tree in full bloom, with pink blossoms framing the scene and a walking path alongside a body of water visible in the background.

Best Places to See Cherry Blossoms in DC

There’s no argument: the Tidal Basin is the most iconic and picturesque setting for viewing the cherry blossoms. Cherry blossoms surround the entire Tidal Basin, you can see the monuments peaking over and between them, and the water reflects the fluffy pink and white flowers back. It offers impressive photo opportunities near the Jefferson Memorial, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. If you want the quintessential view of the cherry blossoms, you have to go to the Tidal Basin.

However, if you wish to avoid the crowds and enjoy the blossoms in a more tranquil setting, you can explore other off-the-beaten-path locations.

Before Peak Bloom: Congressional Cemetery

“Peak bloom” in DC refers to when the Yoshino variety of cherry blossom trees around the Tidal Basin are blooming the most. However, DC has plenty of different varieties of cherry blossoms that bloom at different times.

The Okame cherry blossom is one of the earliest blooming varieties of cherry blossoms. They typically hit peak bloom 2-3 weeks before the Yoshino cherries at the Tidal Basin. Their petals are a more vibrant pink, with smaller petals. If you are coming to DC too early for the cherry blossoms, go see these instead.

Congressional Cemetery on the east side of Capitol Hill has a brick walkway lined with Okame cherry blossoms. These large, mature trees create a beautiful canopy over the walkway underneath. It’s a great spot for photos during the week, though the secret’s out and it’s more crowded on weekend. There aren’t a large number of trees, but the way they are planted, you feel immersed.

Congressional Cemetery is good for sitting in pensive appreciation as well as photos. If you’re looking for a more urban cherry blossom experience, the LeDroit Park sign is intertwined with Okame cherry trees. This spot may be pretty in pictures, but it’s located on a very busy road, and only has two (2) cherry trees. If you’re looking to be enveloped by cherry blossoms, the LeDroit Park sign isn’t the spot.

During Peak Bloom: Tidal Basin at Sunrise


cherry blossom peak bloom brings lots of crowds, but you can avoid them by going in the morning 🌸 #washingtondc

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There is no comparison to seeing the very pale pink, delicate Yoshino cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin. It’s iconic, and what people think of when someone mentions the cherry blossom in DC. However, the crowds can be incredibly overwhelming and it can be a stressful and unpleasant experience for those who want to relax with the cherry blossoms.

The pro tip I will offer you, as someone who has lived here for 16 years, is to go at sunrise, around 7:30 AM. If you’re able to go at sunrise during the week, even better. You’ll have a few hours before the crowds start coming, and truly can have a peaceful experience, sitting with the cherry blossoms by yourself.

At the Tidal Basin, your best bet is to walk around the water in a circle. Cherry blossoms line your walk, and you’ll see the clusters around the Jefferson Memorial, FDR Memorial, and MLK Memorial. For the FDR Memorial, I would recommend walking through the memorial to see more cherry blossoms instead of walking along the shoreline.

Getting there: If you go at sunrise on a weekday morning, you’re likely to be able to find parking along East Potomac Park towards Hains Point. If you go any other time, I would not recommend driving. You can take the metro to the Smithsonian station and walk. I never recommend people (especially tourists) go to L’Enfant Plaza station, because it is very confusing. While they have improved the signage, if you leave from the wrong exit, you will get lost and have to take a lengthy detour.

After Peak Bloom: Neighborhoods

After the Yoshino cherries bloom, the Kwanzan cherry blossoms are next, blooming ~2 weeks after the Yoshinos. These are almost a pepto bismol pink, with very full blossoms and lots and lots of petals. These are more commonly sold at garden stores because their blooms have that wow factor.

You’ll find these lining the streets in neighborhoods outside of the core city. Some spots with denser Kwanzan cherry blossoms are Greenwich Parkway NW in Foxhall, 30th Place & Linnean Avenue NW, Girard & 14th Street NE in Brookland, Chuck Brown Memorial Park in Langdon, and Anacostia Avenue NE outside of the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.

Cherry Blossom Peak Bloom Timing

For 2024, the peak bloom was March 17. Due to the cooler-than-normal weather, the blooms stayed on the trees for about two weeks in 2024. That was much longer than usual!

The peak bloom date, defined as the day when 70% of the Tidal Basin Yoshino cherry tree blossoms are open, varies each year. There are many different varieties along the Tidal Basin, but the Yoshino variety is the most common and peak bloom is determined off of their flowering schedule. While the National Park Service estimates the peak bloom each year, they warn that forecasting peak bloom is almost impossible more than 10 days in advance.

Over the past 20 years, peak bloom has been on average around March 30, and has occurred before April 4 in 16 out of the last 20 years. The dates change year-to-year based on weather conditions. It has been as early as March 15 (1990) and as late as April 18 (1958).

The entire blooming period, which includes the days leading up to peak bloom, can last up to 14 days, but the best viewing typically lasts four to seven days after peak bloom begins. The blooms are delicate, and rain and strong winds can quickly strip the cherry blossom petals from the flowers.

The National Cherry Blossom Festival doesn’t always line up with peak bloom. Because of the difficulty of predicting when peak bloom will be, organizers of the festival have extended the length of the festival to 3-4 weeks and started it earlier in the year to try to make sure peak bloom happens during the festival.

For 2024, peak bloom happened before the National Cherry Blossom Festival on March 17. The festival was held Wednesday, March 20, 2024 through Sunday, April 14, 2024.

DC Cherry Blossoms: More Than Just a Natural Spectacle

The DC cherry blossoms are more than just a natural spectacle; they are a symbol of friendship, a celebration of culture, and a tradition that binds two nations together. As you plan your visit to see the cherry blossoms, remember to respect and protect these beautiful trees. Picking the blossoms is against the law. Enjoy the blossoms, take photos to remember their beauty, but let them stay where they belong: on the trees. This way we can all appreciate the beauty of Washington, DC.

The DC cherry blossoms are a sight to behold that attracts visitors from around the world. Whether you’re a local or a tourist, the blooming of the cherry trees is an event that you need to see at least once. So, plan your visit, mark the dates, and get ready to walk through groves of gently falling cherry blossom petals.

Valerie Moore

Having lived in Washington, DC for the past 16 years, Valerie has a lot of thoughts about the best things to do, eat, and know around the city. She loves doing deep dives into the interesting things she finds, and sharing with the world. You'll often find her dog, Lil Mikey, along for the ride.

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