Year in Review: The Best of D.C.’s Parks and Gardens

Washington D.C. is full of a vast array of museums and unique neighborhoods that you could spend days exploring without even scratching the surface, but what people don’t always take advantage of are its lesser-known historical gardens and parks, most of which are less crowded than the city’s major landmarks. Beautiful indoor and outdoor green spaces can be visited year-round and offer a quiet retreat from the bustle of the rest of the nation’s capital.

Taking a trip to any of the following places allows one to see and learn about the greener history of the city, as many of the country’s most prominent, early nature lovers artfully designed the parks to serve as a defining feature of the city– a tradition that continues to this day. Here are some of our favorites.

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Rock Creek Park

With a stream by the same name running through it, Rock Creek Park is situated in a tree-lined valley that runs the entire length of Washington D.C.’s northwest quadrant, making it the perfect place to escape the city without having to go too far. Considered one of the first federally managed parks, the 1700-acre space was deforested during the Civil War so the logs could be used to block Confederate soldiers from marching through it. Today, the trees have fully grown back into a healthy forest that’s enjoyed by all those who visit be it to picnic or hike.

Some of the park’s many running and hiking trails are so rustic that they really transport you to outside the city despite the fact that the park sits is entirely within Washington, D.C. President Teddy Roosevelt himself used to rock climb its craggy hills and ride his horses along the creek. In the center of the park you can take a tour of the Pierce Mill, a fully restored gristmill that was built in 1820 and once used to grind grain into flour. For the nature lover looking to birdwatch or animal spot, the park is home to three owl species, including the Great Horned, Barred, and Little Screech, as well as three wild dogs, the coyote, red fox, and gray fox. And, the park boasts the only planetarium in the National Park System, so there’s evening activities to partake in too.


National Arboretum

Serving as the national collection of trees, shrubs and floral plants, the National Arboretum is a one-stop shop to see a wide array of plants from around the world in a largely natural and forested setting. Established in 1927 by an Act of Congress after a successful campaign that was spearheaded by a chief botanist at the USDA, the site serves as a major center for botanical research and preservation of wild plant relatives. Among the more popular draws of the arboretum are the Aquatic Plants Collection, the Fern Valley Native Plant Collection, the Flowering Tree Walk, and the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, which houses some over 200-year-old, carefully manicured and twisting trees.

One of the most unusual landmarks on the grounds are the National Capitol columns that stoically sit atop a grassy knoll, exposed to all the elements, in the arboretum’s meadow (seen in the image above). The Corinthian columns were part of the East Portico of the Capitol Building until the 1950s, but were removed since their ability to support the large, newly built dome was questionable. In the last 20 years, they found a home at the arboretum and are complemented by a reflection pool that elongates their stature.


Meridian Hill Park

On Sunday afternoons in Meridian Hill Park, you can expect to find a historical drum circle with dozens of participants, young city dwellers slacklining between trees and tossing frisbees, and newly engaged couples taking photos against goliath stone staircases and spouting fountains. Modeled after other grandiose Renaissance gardens commonly found in capital cities around the world, the park’s design is heavily influenced by Italian gardens with large stone sculptures dotting the landscape. There are many sitting areas throughout the park many of which are enclosed by trees and shrubs, as well as grassy knolls for picnicking.

When the park was built a 100 years ago, its construction  actually served as a testing ground for a new type of concrete consisting of small pebbles that were wire brushed and acid washed to expose a varied texture. As the 12-acre park is situated on an almost precise north-south axis, Thomas Jefferson once proposed that it serve as a location for a U.S.based prime meridian but the idea never came to fruition. On Earth in 1994, President Bill Clinton designated the park as America’s first National Historic Landmark in the Designed Landscape category, a honor you’ll understand when you view the architectural feat in person.


Roosevelt Island

Resting in the Potomac River just across from Georgetown’s busy waterfront, the 88-acre park is home to a large plaza and bronze statue that honors the 26th President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. Tall granite tablets inscribed with Roosevelt’s famous quotes surround the memorial along with large pools and fountains, paying homage to his most noted lifelong passions like conservation and outdoorsmanship. In fact, Roosevelt was the first president to make preservation a focal point of his domestic policy; in all, he helped conserve around 230 million acres of land across the United States during his time in office.

The formal memorial area is just one of the draws of the island, since it also contains miles of trails and boardwalks that allow one to experience three distinct ecological zones: an upland forest, swamp, and tidal marsh. In the 1930s landscape architects restored the island to a natural landscape after it was farmed for over a century during which time it was known as Mason’s Island after the family that cultivated it. To restore the land, the Civilian Conservation Corps cleared the island of non-native vegetation and planted about 20,000 native hardwood trees and shrubs. The park can be reached from the George Washington Parkway, but renting paddleboards or kayaks from the Georgetown waterfront is a more scenic and adventurous way to get there.

USBG Holiday Show - Capitol building and poinsettias(1)

United States Botanic Garden

Considered a living plant museum, the U.S. Botanic Garden sits adjacent to the Capitol Building on the eastern edge of the National Mall. Founded in 1850, the garden has more than 65,000 plants for exhibition and research, many of which date back to the U.S. Expedition of 1838-1842 whose explorers traversed the Pacific Ocean and its islands. As you walk throughout the indoor portion of the garden, you’ll enter climate-controlled rooms that house collections of orchids, cacti and succulents, medicinal plants, and Mid-Atlantic native plants among others. The collections illustrate the importance of plants to the economy, as well as demonstrate the diversity of climates they grow in around the world.

The main conservatory is akin to a tropical paradise replete with lush greenery and an elevated walkway that wraps around all the treetops, giving you an aerial view of all the plants and pools below. During the holiday season, the Conservatory hosts the one of the largest indoor decorated trees in Washington, D.C. and is surrounded by a wonderland of poinsettias. Within the East Gallery, a model train exhibit winds through D.C. landmarks like the Capitol Building, Lincoln Memorial, and the Washington Monument–all of which were carefully constructed from plant materials. The holiday exhibit runs until January 3, 2016.

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