Photos: Cherry blossoms in bloom

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  1. Two people in a row boat view cherry blossoms in full bloom in Tokyo, Japan, on April 2. "This weekend and probably the entire next week should be the best time this year to see cherry blossoms in major cities," according to the Web site japan-guide.com. (Kimimasa Mayama / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. With the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in the background, cherry trees blossom along the Tidal Basin near the National Mall in Washington on March 30. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Cherry blossoms begin their annual blooming season along the Tidal Basin on March 31, 2010, in Washington, D.C. The cherry trees, given by Japan to the United States as a gift 98 years ago, are the center of the Cherry Blossom Festival which runs from March 27 through April 11. (Win McNamee / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. The National Cherry Blossom Festival lasts two weeks each year, and celebrates springtime in America's capital. In 1912, Japan gave 3,000 cherry trees to Washington to mark the friendship between the two countries. (Win McNamee / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Cherry blossoms bloom near a Japanese sculpture and the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. In 1981, Japan was given cuttings of D.C.'s cherry blossom trees to replace some of their own that were destoyed by flood. (Win McNamee / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A monk from Thailand, now living in Alexandria, Va., walks along the Tidal Basin to view the cherry blossoms in bloom in Washington, D.C. (Brendan Hoffman / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. People view cherry blossoms by boat in Tokyo on March 27. The bloom was only at 30 percent as continuous rainy days and unseasonably low temperatures delayed the full bloom. (Kimimasa Mayama / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Japanese macaques eat cherry blossom at Tokyo's Ueno zoo on March 29. The zoo incorperated a cherry tree into the macaques habitat as the sprouts and flowers are their favorite foods. (Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A steam locomotive passes under fully bloomed cherry blossoms at Hitoyoshi city in Kumamoto prefecture, Japan's southern island of Kyushu, on March 27. The JR Kyushu operates the steam locomotive every weekend as a tourist attraction. (JIJI Press via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. The Tokyo Tower is seen behind a cherry blossom in full bloom in downtown Tokyo. Japan's meteorological agency announced that cherry trees bloomed six days earlier than previous years. (Toru Yamanaka / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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updated 3/19/2011 1:06:06 PM ET 2011-03-19T17:06:06

Mark your calendars. The National Cherry Blossom Festival has unveiled the most hotly discussed seasonal bellwether since that groundhog popped his head out of his home in early February.

That would be, of course, when the peak blooming days are for the cherry blossoms along D.C.'s Tidal Basin: March 29-April 3. Check the National Cherry Blossom Festival website for details and the full schedule for the March 26 - April 10 event (think everything from parades and parties to road races and street fairs).

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No matter when the peak is (and it can swing wildly from mid-March to mid-April depending on how harsh the winter was), there are a few things you should know if you're planning on going. I lived just outside of Washington D.C. for nearly 20 years and found that even though it's Tourist Central (and why not?), those flowering trees were just as much of a local magnet. Here are a few tips for enjoying the festival:

Avoid the crowds
Easier said than done. While cherry trees are scattered around the city, the iconic forest of pink is sequestered around the Tidal Basin just off the National Mall —and the body of water itself is ringed by a relatively narrow sidewalk. So you can expect a tightly packed mass of humanity on weekends. I'd suggest going in the early morning (watch the sunrise over the blossoms — it's magical) or in the late evening. During dusk it's a beautiful scene, and you won't have to push your way through a crowd. Even better, go during a workday because most everyone is, uh, working.

Watch your step — and your head
The trees swoop fairly low in some spots, and you could conk your noggin if you're not paying attention. There's also a sea of dogs underfoot for some reason (really, why can't people just leave Mugsy at home?), so it's easy to get tangled up in someone's leash or stumble over a wayward Chihuahua. Sidewalks can be a bit uneven in spots as well, so consider going off the trail and walking among the trees themselves.

Pack a meal
I can't think of a better place to eat than on a blanket tucked under the cherry trees, and there's ample greenswards that allow you to do so. But because the Tidal Basin is fairly far afield from delis and the like, it's best to arrive onsite with food in hand.

Wear comfortable shoes — and do the entire circuit
You can't get a really get a good sense of the breadth of the display without actually walking the entire route, so give yourself a few hours (at least). You can visit the F.D.R. and Jefferson memorials along the way (both are top-notch photo ops as well), and you'll be surprised at how different the vantage points are as you progress.

Don't drive
OK, you can drive if you arrive early enough and opt to park closer to the Mall, which is 15 to 45 minutes away by foot depending on where you settle. Just about every distance in Washington looks closer than it actually is, so be aware that you may have a schlep before the schlep. It's best to take mass transit, but even the Metro will involve a bit of a hike. Or grab a cab and get out a few traffic-free blocks from the main event.

Stay off the trees
That's Rule No. 1 actually — there are warnings everywhere to that effect. But it doesn't matter: There's always someone clambering on a branch. If you witness this affront on nature, feel free to lash out at the culprit, and everyone will think you're a D.C. native (they're very protective of this amazing asset).

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