Washington, D.C. - Nature and Scientific Wonders

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smithsonian.com

Just minutes from the White House and the thriving commercial center, Washington, D.C. relaxes into a nature-lover’s paradise. Whether you’re traveling in a car, on a boat, on a bike or on foot, take some time to explore the outposts of natural beauty that lie both in and around the nation’s capital.

Kayaking, Canoeing or Rowing
Explore Theodore Roosevelt Island, tackle the Potomac’s raging Great Falls or just drift lazily along in a canoe or kayak. For those looking for a workout, join the university and recreational crews that row the Potomac early and late in the day. Bring your own, or rent one at Thompson Boat Center or, for a more historic experience, try Jack’s Boathouse near the Georgetown Waterfront.

Sailing
The majestic Potomac is one of the best bodies of water in the region for a relaxing day of sailing. There are several marinas on the Southwest waterfront, Old Town Alexandria and Arlington. A day on the river offers a new way to see the capital city and all of its historic monuments and institutions. Lessons are available at the Washington Sailing Marina, just south of Reagan National Airport on U.S. Route 1.

C&O Canal
This well-trodden towpath traces the historic canal from its Georgetown beginnings to Cumberland, Maryland. Join the local bikers, hikers and rollerbladers who tackle the pieces of the path.

Bicycling
Biking is one of the best ways to navigate the nation’s capital. Visit Washington, D.C.’s familiar monuments on a guided tour with Bike the Sites. Two- and three-hour overview tours of the city are offered daily from March through November. The Washington, D.C. area has several distance bike trails, including the C&O Canal, the Mount Vernon Trail, the Capital Crescent Trail and the Washington & Old Dominion Trail, all providing scenic vistas, well-groomed paths and physical challenges.

Fishing

Sportsmen traverse the falls and rapids on the Potomac River just west of Georgetown in search of smallmouth bass, rainbow trout, perch and other freshwater species. For fishing advice, stop by Fletcher’s Boathouse. It’s nestled along the C&O Canal just west of Georgetown, and the staff always knows what’s biting.

Washington, D.C. is also located surprisingly close to well-known outdoors destinations. A short trip from Washington, D.C. will take you to the picturesque Shenandoah Valley, the scenic Chesapeake Bay and the unforgettable Skyline Drive. During the winter skiing is available less than two hours from downtown. Stuck with a day indoors? Plan an indoor adventure at the National Geographic Explorers Hall or the National Museum of Natural History.

When city designer Pierre Charles L’Enfant laid out his plans for the nation’s capital, he envisioned a majestic Federal city situated among shady trees and ample green spaces. The cheery daffodils, tulips, roses and delicate cherry blossoms that frame the city's attractions provide a delightfully green environment for the city, as magnificent federal buildings dissolve into calming urban oases. Catch your breath in one of these wonderful parks and gardens, or in one of the many squares and circles throughout the city.

National Arboretum (Closest Metro: Union Station)
Perched on one of Washington, D.C.’s highest points, the National Arboretum rambles over 444 acres. Whether blanketed in spring green or autumn gold, this prestigious horticultural institution offers a welcome refuge from Washington, D.C.’s busier tourist attractions. Ten miles of hard surface roads wind through the scenic grounds, making it ideal for exploration on bicycle, on foot or by car.

The National Arboretum was established in 1927 by Congress and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. Administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Arboretum conducts research on trees and shrubs to develop superior forms that will thrive in various climates in the United States. By exchanging seeds and plant material with other horticultural research institutions throughout the world, the Arboretum is able to expand its genetic resources. The Arboretum includes several major plant collections, including azaleas, cherries, hollies, rhododendrons, ferns and wildflowers. Hundreds of acres of natural forest complement more than a dozen special gardens.

The National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, located on the Arboretum grounds, showcases the delicate Asian art form. Samples from China, Japan and the United States are housed in four pavilions adjacent to the Administration building. The Bonsai Collection was started with a gift of 53 master bonsai specimens and five viewing stones from the people of Japan and was expanded by subsequent gifts from Hong Kong’s Penjing Collection and the North American Bonsai Collection. The ornamental trees on display range from 15 to more than 350 years of age.

The National Arboretum was established in 1927 by Congress and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. Administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Arboretum conducts research on trees and shrubs to develop superior forms that will thrive in various climates in the United States. By exchanging seeds and plant material with other horticultural research institutions throughout the world, the Arboretum is able to expand its genetic resources. The Arboretum includes several major plant collections, including azaleas, cherries, hollies, rhododendrons, ferns and wildflowers. Hundreds of acres of natural forest complement more than a dozen special gardens.

The National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, located on the Arboretum grounds, showcases the delicate Asian art form. Samples from China, Japan and the United States are housed in four pavilions adjacent to the Administration building. The Bonsai Collection was started with a gift of 53 master bonsai specimens and five viewing stones from the people of Japan and was expanded by subsequent gifts from Hong Kong’s Penjing Collection and the North American Bonsai Collection. The ornamental trees on display range from 15 to more than 350 years of age.

Across the road from the bonsai collection, the National Herb Garden features an extensive spread of antique roses and ten specialty herb gardens. Sorted by their function, the Arboretum’s specialty herbs include fragrance herbs, medicinal herbs, herbs for dyes, herbs with industrial uses, herbs for cooking, herbs used by American Indians, beverage herbs and more.

Potomac Park (Closest Metro: Smithsonian)
Divided into two sections, East and West Potomac Parks, this swath of green space covers some of the city’s most memorable sights. West Potomac Park includes spectacular views of the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, Constitution Gardens, the Reflecting Pool, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the FDR Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial and the Tidal Basin, framed by the famous cherry trees. East Potomac Park also blooms with cherry blossoms in the spring. At the southern tip of the park, Hains Point features ball fields, a golf course, tennis courts, picnic grounds and The Awakening, the famous sculpture of a giant emerging from beneath the ground.

Rock Creek Park
Named after the Potomac River tributary that snakes through Northwest Washington, D.C. from the Kennedy Center into suburban Maryland, 2,800-acre Rock Creek Park is one of the nation’s finest and largest city parks. Designated a National Park in 1890, Rock Creek Park was the first urban natural area set aside by Congress as “a pleasuring place for the enjoyment of the people of the United States.” Today, Washingtonians and visitors escape into Rock Creek Park to bike, hike, play golf, ride horses, picnic, enjoy live performances and explore historic sites. Within Washington, D.C. city limits, Rock Creek Park boasts 29 miles of foot trails and 13 miles of bridle paths.

Rich in history, Rock Creek Park has served as a quiet refuge for many of Washington, D.C.’s leading citizens. After a grueling morning of politics, John Quincy Adams delighted in retreating to “this romantic glen, listening to the singing of a thousand birds." Nature-loving Teddy Roosevelt would often birdwatch and hike the vast terrain, while Ronald Reagan frequently rode horses at its stables. The park is such a presidential favorite that after the Civil War, a commission formed to find a “healthier situation” for the Executive Mansion seriously considered relocating the presidential residence to Rock Creek Park.

The creek itself tumbles through six miles of wooded forests, rolling hills and quiet wilderness in the heart of the busy capital city before fading into the Maryland suburbs. From late winter to early autumn, wildflowers decorate the grassy parkland, deferring to splashy tree colors in October. The creek is home to more than 36 species of fish, while squirrels, mice, weasels, foxes, beavers and opossums are frequently spotted in the woodlands. Birdwatchers can readily spot sparrows, woodthrushes, woodpeckers, crows, cardinals and many other species.

Rock Creek Park’s history reflects the early settlement and development of Washington, D.C. and the surrounding area. The parklands were originally inhabited by the Algonquin Indians who hunted, fished and relied on the rocks they found in the banks of the creek to procure and process their food supplies. White settlers relied on Rock Creek’s running waters to power their gristmills and sawmills.

Pierce Mill, one of eight original mills built along Rock Creek in the 1820s, used waterpower generated from Rock Creek to grind corn and wheat into flour until it was closed in 1897. More than 100 years after closing, Pierce Mill is once again a functioning flour mill. The antique millstones and hoppers offer a peak into the operations of a 19th-century flour and cornmeal mill.

The Art Barn sits next door to the Pierce Mill, originally built by the Pierce family in 1820 as a carriage house. Today the carriage house is home to the Rock Creek Gallery, featuring monthly exhibits by local artists. During the Cold War, the barn’s loft concealed American counterintelligence officials who attempted to intercept messages from the nearby Embassies of Hungary and the former Czechoslovakia.

Two miles north of Pierce Mill and the Art Barn, Rock Creek Park Nature Center provides an excellent orientation to the park and its special events and programs. Children will enjoy poking around the hands-on Discovery Room or visiting the Rock Creek Planetarium, the only planetarium operated by the National Park Service.

Next to the Nature Center, the Rock Creek Park Horse Center offers a truly unique opportunity to go horseback riding in an urban park. Guided trail rides depart regularly, Tuesday through Thursday at 3 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 12 p.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m.

Given Rock Creek Park’s expansive size and varied terrain, it affords visitors and residents a wide variety of outdoors experiences. Golfers can sneak in a quick round at the Rock Creek Park Golf Course, located near the Maryland border. During the summertime, the Carter Barron Amphitheatre presents a pleasing series of outdoors performances. The open-air fitness course, located near Connecticut Avenue, provides an appealing alternative to a stuffy gymnasium and caters to a broad range of fitness levels.

Tudor Place Garden (Closest Metro: Dupont Circle)
The stately grounds of the Tudor Place estate in historic Georgetown include five acres of beautifully landscaped gardens.

Owned by Martha Custis Peter, granddaughter of George and Martha Washington, the gardens have retained the expanse of green lawns, parterres and woodland originally developed by the Peter family. The sloping South Lawn contains the specimen trees planted in the early 19th century. Formal plantings such as the Flower Knot and English Box make up the North Garden. Along the estate's south facade is the ever-blooming China rose planted by Martha Peter.

U.S. Botanic Garden (Metro: Capitol South)
Azalea, lilies and orchids bloom within the glass and aluminum conservatory, while specialized areas of the facility explore primordial plants, medicinal plants, and other topics of interest. The Botanic Garden also features an exotic jungle and a tropical rain forest, in which climbing vines race toward the top of the tiered greenhouse. Another spectacular exhibit is the orchid collection, which features more than 10,000 varieties.

The Botanic Garden also hosts a variety of permanent and visiting exhibitions. Located in the west courtyard, "Southern Exposure"features plants from the southeastern and southwestern United States. In the east courtyard "How Plants Work"gives an inside look at all things botanical. New features are also in the works, including a children’s garden, more special events and exhibits.

Washington National Cathedral Gardens (Closest Metro: Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan)
The Washington National Cathedral's 57-acre tract provides a perfect view of the city. Located atop the highest point of the city, the grounds of the Cathedral include a variety of gardens. The Cathedral's small herb garden features rosemary, thyme and mint. The herb garden also includes Herb Cottage, where visitors can purchase herbs and herb-flavored vinegar. The Bishop's Garden is the setting for magnolias, orchids and exquisite flowers. The Little Garden is designed to look like a medieval herb garden surrounded by hedges of old English boxwood.

The Cathedral is also home to a rather mysterious treasure, the Glastonbury thorn tree. This English tree, according to legend, blooms only on Christmas Day and when royalty visits. The tree has lived up to the legend so far. It has bloomed only on Christmas Day. The other four times it bloomed were for Queen Elizabeth's two visits in 1951 and 1957 and for Prince Charles' visits in 1981 and 2005. The Cathedral is also the site of the annual Flower Mart held in early May.

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