Planning a Trip to the Washington DC Cherry Blossoms Based on Averages and Guessing

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This is a guest post from my dad, Grandpa Points. He and my mom are in their late-60’s, are (mostly) retired, DSCN4512and are ticking off “bucket list” destinations quicker than they ever thought possible thanks to miles, points, and travel deals. They have an intense love of this country, of its National Parks and treasures, and have no problem with a clean budget hotel room and an economy airline seat on a low-cost airline as long as it gets them where they want to be. A photographer by trade he often tells his story not just with his words, but with his images. Today he brings us a story from planning another one of their adventures…

 

We have heard about the Washington D.C. cherry blossoms for a long time. A few years ago, we decided that seeing them in bloom should be something we experience for ourselves. We initially targeted last year as “the year,” but stuff happened, and we never finalized any plans. As it turned out, the very warm weather in the D.C. area last year resulted in a very early bloom, and a subsequent frost caused a significant diminishment in the floral quality and beauty. So, maybe everything worked out for the best.

Fast forward to January 2018. We decided again that this would be “the year.” However, if you know anything about the D.C cherry blossoms, or the azaleas at The Masters, or the bluebonnets in Texas, then you know that trying to predict their bloom date and optimum viewing period is like picking the winning number on a roulette table. Except, instead of red and black, you have March and April, and instead of even and odd, you have cold fronts and warm fronts to consider. The “peak bloom” can occur anywhere in a historical window that covers about 21 days with the peak lasting for 3-7 of those days. And when you live 1500 miles away from our nation’s capital and driving is not a practical option, travel plans and reservations need to be made way in advance of the arrival of spring and its colorful delights.

In early February, we did as much research as we could to assist us in picking our dates. The National Park Service and The Cherry Blossom Festival sites offer helpful info as to dates that the sequential stages of blooming occurred through the years. We used these facts to establish an average date that the trees have been at their blooming best. We put our money down on April 4, 5, 6 and 7 and hoped the roulette wheel would be kind to our picks.

The NPS has an annual “peak bloom” projection that it releases on March 1st. This projection is based on the growth activity of the trees, the extended weather forecast and the experience of the experts on the staff. We waited anxiously for this prediction, hoping that our chosen dates would be winners. WRONG!! The NPS analysis for the year 2018 indicated March 17-20 would be the best time to see the cherry blossoms at their finest.

A second established group, The Washington Post “Capitol Gang,” pegged March 24 as their best bet. Either way, either date, spelled trouble for our team as our chosen dates were as much as two weeks too late given these two scenarios.

The NPS does offer the caveat that the dates it projects are “best guess” and that reliable estimates can best be made only 10 days prior to full bloom.

For a couple of days, we were somewhat at a loss. Do we just go as planned and hope, or do we alter our trip and hope? We decided to change our itinerary because we felt it was important enough to us to try and do it right and get it right. But, what dates would be right? We studied the situation with the progress of the buds, and we looked at the two-week weather forecast. It indicated that the D.C. area would have below normal temperatures for about 15 straight days. This suggested to us that the “peak bloom” might not come as early as the NPS anticipated. So, we implemented our version of advanced analytics and took our non-experienced, never been there before what-do-we-know-hunch and bet the NPS was wrong. We chose March 27-30, 2018, as our new best calendar friends.

We re-booked our hotel and paid the change fees that Spirit Airlines required to make alterations to our original flight plans. The change fees were less than the purchase of new tickets, and it was just what we had to do considering the circumstances.

Every day or two we would recheck the NPS Bloom Watch page for updates, and we would monitor the temps in D.C. The NPS site didn’t change and the weather stayed cool. The buds on the trees had reached their first stage of monitoring on February 25th, and went into a holding pattern for one week, then two weeks.

The longer this suspended animation continued for the bud development, the better we felt that the “peak bloom” forecast might be moved back toward our visitation days. I must confess that we were getting a little anxious as day after day the NPS held fast to their original prediction.

And then….yesterday afternoon, the NPS site finally changed to reflect a shift in its outlook for when the trees will be most beautiful. The new dates are March 27-31st.

Eureka, the roulette ball landed on our numbers!  Maybe. Hopefully. Possibly.

Now we will root for warmer D.C. weather, beautiful sunshine, proper and timely bud development, and a Tidal Basin surrounded and lined with the greatest display of cherry blossoms that old timers can ever remember. We want the whole Shock and Awe treatment. That’s not asking for too much, is it?

NPS Photo

Stay tuned.

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  1. Check out the official Parade date – it’s typically a good indicator for peak blossom time. The parade itself is very nice with a view of White House or Washington monument, and you can get tickets online in advance.
    If you miss the peak blooms around the Basin, then go to Potomack river island – it has many many trees of slightly different variety that blossom later by week or two. Plus there are few other places where you can catch blooms around town.

    • This year we hope the trees are in full bloom two weeks prior to the parade as the parade date is April 14. Thanks for the advice on the other locations that might offer us other trees to view. It always helps to have multiple options. Thanks again for your suggestions and comments.

  2. Be prepared for Disney-like crowds without the organization and if humanly possible, you might try to avoid a stroller, at least when doing the Tidal Basin. The path isn’t well maintained in places and, honestly, you’re going to spend some time on the grassy hill along the side just to keep even a modicum of forward motion. Avoid the weekend.

  3. I saw the cherry blossoms at peak two years ago. Like this year, the NPS changed their initial forecast. I booked my airfare on Southwest so no fees to change dates. I also booked changeable hotel reservations. It worked perfectly in the end – I was at DC on the exact peak date.

  4. If peak bloom happens to match your dates, I’d suggest going for sunrise or sunset. It is stunning. We will be in Tokyo for the days you are here or I would offer a tour of the area. We will be hoping for peak bloom ourselves, just on the other side of the world. Currently predicted for the day we arrive!

  5. I’ve lived in DC for fifteen years. First, they are the Capital Weather Gang. Not the Capital Gang. Second, trying to play the Cherry Blossom game is a losing battle. If it freezes or rains it could change at any minute. Sometimes they last a week. Sometimes a couple days. We’ve had so much nasty wind the past few weeks if that happens again they will be gone. Third, yes it’s popular and busy. But there are plenty of places to see them that aren’t the waterfront and you can actually enjoy nature. I recommend the Arboretum or Anacostia Park. Many fewer crowds. Nice places to take a picnic and enjoy. Hope you get your Cherry Blossom experience. Please stand to the right on metro escalators and you will have Most Favored Tourist status. This is not our favorite time of year.

    • Also in the future I’d recommend azalea season as the most beautiful time to see DC. That’s usually early May and lasts longer. Not as concentrated but almost every house has them and walking around seeing the azaleas is really beautiful. You can enjoy the old southern aspects of DC.

    • We are all subject to the whims and winds of nature and we just hope they are on our side most of the time. Thanks for the info about other options and the tip about the escalators. Our neck of the woods is a’bloom with azaleas right now. they are some kind of beautiful. Thanks again!

  6. Thank you for posting all of this great information! We will be there a day before y’all and I’ve been keeping my hopes in check until now! According to iPhone weather it looks good for that week so let’s intend for dry, mild and sunny weather. Have a great trip!

  7. I am taking my daughter for her first visit. We will be in D.C. from the 23rd-27th. I can’t wait to see her expression 🙂

    • Yes, we have watched the weather closely for a month now and it seems there haven’t been too many normal days. Yipes! We got into a bad two month weather cycle in southeast Texas earlier this year that left us all befuddled.
      Good luck!

  8. I’m not going specifically for the cherry blossoms, but was hoping to coordinate my visit so that I could catch peak bloom. Of course, I took a guess and waited until the weekend after Easter, so I’m scheduled to arrive April 6th. Guessing I’m gonna miss everything. *sigh*

    • Our fingers are crossed. Those are the approximate dates we are scheduled to go. Due to the weather and slow bud growth, we are considering delaying trip till first week of April. Will need to decide in next day or so. Good luck!

    • It is our understanding that blooms can last up to 10 days if weather is calm. I am doubting that “peak bloom” will be in the current NPS forecast window of March 27-31. Growth and development have been so slow with more cooler than normal weather forecast. It is all a guessing game….

  9. Peak bloom forecast changed again. Mother Nature doesn’t follow a schedule. Key takeaways from my Cherry Blossom visit two years ago:
    1) Flexible plans is key.
    2) Book airfare on Southwest (no fees to change dates) or using American miles (no fees to change AA awards as long as origin and destination remain the same)
    3) Book changeable hotel reservations (avoid prepaid hotel reservations)
    4) Keep up with latest developments on the NPS website and cherryblossomwatch.com

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