On February 14, 1912, the S.S. Awa Maru departed the shores of Yokohama, Japan, bound for the United States. Among the ship’s cargo was a gift of friendship from the Japanese to the American people—3,020 flowering cherry trees to symbolize life, death, reproduction, and rebirth.
One month later, First Lady Helen Herron Taft, joined by the wife of the Japanese ambassador, planted two of the Somei-Yoshino cherry trees on the banks of the Tidal Basin in the nation’s capital. From this simple ceremony grew the National Cherry Blossom Festival—an annual celebration of the 3,750 cherry trees that now occupy the National Mall and East and West Potomac Parks, and of the lasting friendship between the United States and Japan.
But as nearly one million festival-goers descend upon the District of Columbia each spring, a visit to the Tidal Basin can quickly dissolve into headache-inducing chaos. So if you happen to be in town and the cherry trees are blossoming, make like a local and keep these simple tips in mind.
- Don’t plan ahead. Although the National Park Service makes a valiant effort to predict the five-day blooming schedule for these notoriously fickle trees, the timing of the peak bloom is entirely dependent on weather conditions. While 2012 saw the cherry blossoms reach their peak on March 20, visitors in 2014 were kept waiting until April 10. So do yourself a favor and avoid booking plane tickets months in advance, expecting the trees to adhere to a schedule. And if you find yourself arriving in Washington just days after the last petal has fallen, I have two other delightful itineraries just waiting to console you.
- Get an early start. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t believe natural wonders are best enjoyed with a mob of frantic sightseers. That’s why I choose to visit the cherry blossoms on weekday mornings between the hours of 6:00 and 7:30 a.m. The low light, still water, and (relatively) uncrowded walkways are a photographer’s dream—and something all sane people will appreciate as well.
- Stake out the best spot. Everyone has their own favorite view of the cherry blossoms, but I’m particularly partial to the western edge of the Tidal Basin, just south of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. Whether it’s sunrise or sunset, you’ll be treated to beautiful vistas of the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument bathed in light (see map).
- Take public transportation. Unless you’re an early riser and can snag a parking space in one of the lots on Ohio Drive S.W., do the entire city a favor by leaving your car at home. There’s no point in sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic when the Smithsonian Metro station is only a 15-minute walk from the Tidal Basin.