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).
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.
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).