Monday, October 21, 2013
Halloween Corn Maze Alternative: The U.S. National Arboretum
While the Smithsonian museums and Skyline Drive reopened to the usual flood of tourists last week, one of our most alluring living museums remains eerily quiet. At the risk of giving away one of the Capitol's best kept secrets, I feel compelled to shout that the United States National Arboretum is open, for free, year round! I've rarely spotted more than a few dozen people ambling among the azaleas, biking the rolling park roads, or marveling at the 100-plus year old Bonsai trees. Though the Arboretum is a little off the beaten path, there's ample free parking. It's a 10-minute drive from the Capitol and about 30 minutes from Virginia and Maryland suburbs.
Last Saturday was a perfect October day for leaf-peepers and pumpkin-seekers. We opted to skip the traffic clogged ex-urbs and headed for the National Arboretum. We pulled in at 9:00am to a nearly empty parking lot. A security guard eyed our daughter's scooter and told us it wasn't allowed in the park. Bikes are welcome, however, and there's a tram that offers a guided tour around the 446-acre campus. Walking is clearly the best way to experience the winding paths of Fern Valley, the enchanting Asian Collection, and spring-blooming Azaleas. We began our tour in the herb garden, where signage explained traditional medicinal uses. Pollinators were hard at work, filling up on late-season nectar.
Exiting the herb garden, we followed meadow-mowed paths to the National Capitol Columns. Originally intended for the Capitol building, the locally-quaried Corinthian columns proved out of proportion for the Capitol dome. They were added to the Arboretum's ellipse in 1984. The columns face a quiet reflecting pool and are surrounded by meadow grasses and flowers that offer an unusual urban habitat for native insects and mammals. Watching kids dart through the high-mowed paths made me think of the corn mazes we weren't really missing.
Moving on to Fern Valley, with its eery natural decay, clinched our fortuitous choice to stay local rather than embark on a "haunted" trail. Migrating birds landed on wobbly seed pods, filling up for their long
As luck would have it, we wandered into the Washington Youth Garden, just in time for the Annual Garlic Planting Party. That's right - plant garlic in time for Halloween! With free lunch provided by Chipotle, a delectable mint infusion prepared by the Youth Garden Manager, green tomato pie courtesy of the garden staff, and a very unusual squash pie, we were in Eden! Loe and behold, we even discovered a corn and tall grass maze. This lovely little spot invites children to smell, touch, dig, leap across logs, and play a large wooden xylophone. Though our daughter was still energized after several hours of walking, snapping photos, sniffing, hopping, and eating, we opted to leave on a high note. We'll save the remainder of this enchanting secret garden for another fresh, cool day.