When is the Best Time to Visit Washington DC to See the Cherry Blossoms?

The when, what, and how of visiting DC for the cherry blossoms.

The cherry blossoms have come and gone for 2015. Bu they’ll be back again in the spring of 2016. You can find more information on the most recent blooming on the 2015 Cherry Blossom Peak Bloom Forecasts page.

If you’re looking to visit Washington DC during the blooming of the famous cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin, you’re going to have to contend with uncertainty about precisely when the cherry blossoms will be in bloom. I realize that uncertainly isn’t much good if you’re trying to schedule travel plans, so I’ve put together some information that helps you at least make an educated guess.

The cherry blossom blooming period is a relatively brief window–a week or two, really–when they go from just buds to beautiful flowers to falling off and being replaced by green leaves. I’ve put together a cherry blossom timeline that shows the various stages.

But the main complication is that the bloom date changes year to year, and we really don’t know for sure when it’s going to happen until it’s almost upon us. Around the first week of March, the National Park Service issues its first peak bloom forecast for the season that factors in the winter temperatures, the current state of the trees, and the weather forecasts for the coming month or so. All things considered, the forecasts are remarkably good, but they’re often off by a bit and it’s not at all unusual for the forecast to change as we get closer to the date.

On average, the blooms come out around the last week of March through the first week of April, and that’s typically a good time to aim for if you’re planning on visiting. But precisely when peak bloom occurs depends on the weather in the weeks and months leading up to it. And there’s no guarantee it will even fall within that period. In 2012 the peak bloom fell on March 20. The following year, it was April 9. In both 2014 and 2015, it was April 10.

That variation is because the date of the peak is heavily dependent on local weather conditions in the months leading up to it. Warmer, sunnier conditions through the winter and early spring tend to bring an earlier bloom. Sustained cold, wintry weather delays it. Unseasonably warm and sunny conditions in 1990 helped bring an early peak on March 15, and very cold conditions in 1958 delayed the peak bloom until April 18.

The average peak bloom since 1921 is April 3.1 Here are the official peak bloom dates for the past decade or so:

2015: April 10
2014: April 10
2013: April 9
2012: March 20
2011: March 29
2010: March 31
2009: April 1
2008: March 26
2007: April 1
2006: March 31
2005: April 9

For more on what “peak bloom” means, take a look at the post “What Peak Bloom Means and Why It (sort of) Matters.”

If I Come in May/June Will I Still Get to See the Cherry Blossoms?

No, I’m afraid they’ll be gone by then. You can see them in various stages for about a week before peak bloom and for several days after, so the window to see flowers is really only a maximum of 2 weeks, often shorter. Here’s a photo timeline of the progression that illustrates the point. The full bloom period is much shorter still. Even with a late bloom, such as we had in 2014, they’re all gone by around a week or so after peak bloom. The latest peak bloom date on record is April 18 (in 1958), and even then the flowers would have been well and truly gone before the end of the month. This post on peak bloom might also be helpful.

There are other types of cherry blossoms around town that come out a week or so later than the main Yoshino Cherry Blossoms around the Tidal Basin. Particularly notable are Kwanzan cherry blossoms, and you can find more about them here. But even those tend to be gone around early May.

2016 National Cherry Blossom Festival

The 2016 National Cherry Blossom Festival® will kick off on Sunday, March 20, and run through Sunday, April 17, making it an unusually long festival period.

The festival is run by the National Cherry Blossom Festival, Inc., a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization and features a number of events, exhibits, and performances related to the cherry blossoms and U.S.-Japanese relations. Among the events and activities are a parade, fireworks, concerts, and special exhibits that take their theme from the cherry blossoms. You can find more information at the National Cherry Blossom Festival’s official website.

The National Cherry Blossom Festival is typically scheduled around the average peak bloom date. The hope is that the blossoms will come out at some point during the festival, but there’s no guarantee of that and it’s unlikely they’ll be out for the duration. In 2014 and 2015 the peak bloom fell right at the end of the festival. This year, the festival is longer than usual–a month–and extends later than usual, so it’s likely that the peak bloom will fall within the festival dates.

How Do I Get Tickets to See the Cherry Blossoms Blooming?

Tickets are NOT required to see the cherry blossoms. The trees are on public land cared for by the National Park Service. There are no fences or gates restricting access and no fees or reservations are required to visit. You are free to wander around as much as you like any time of the day or night.

If you want to do an organized tour, either by bus or by boat, that’s different. They’re all handled by private operators, and any tickets for those are for the boat tour or bus tour and are not admission tickets for the cherry blossoms (since you don’t need admission tickets). Also, please note that the only boats allowed on the Tidal Basin are the paddle boats for hire. Any boat tours that advertise cherry blossom cruises are out on the Potomac around Hains Point and along the Southwest Waterfront; both areas are also ringed by cherry blossoms, but it’s not the picture postcard view you’ve probably seen of the Tidal Basin.

National Park Service rangers also conduct free walking tours of the trees that are scheduled throughout the day during the bloom. These are informal walks–no tickets are required. You’ll find rangers around the MLK Memorial, the FDR Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, and in the Maine Avenue parking lot where all the tents and facilities are set up during the Cherry Blossom Festival. They’re a friendly lot–ask them for the day’s schedule.

Camping is not allowed, and there are no designated picnic areas or grills. Parking restrictions are clearly signed. Parking is free, but at the height of the bloom parking spaces are in very high demand and DC’s parking inspectors can enforce the rules rather enthusiastically.

Large, organized public gatherings, protests, or other special uses might require a permit. Commercial photography/videography shoots might also require a permit, although the reality is that unless you’re disrupting others’ enjoyment or using a large crew you won’t run into much trouble. You can find details and application forms on the NPS website.

During the National Cherry Blossom there are many other events and exhibitions that the Festival’s organization hosts. Some of those might require tickets. Check their website for details.

Visitor Guides for Washington DC

Here are some good online resources to help plan your visit to Washington DC:

And if you’re after a guidebook for Washington DC with maps you can carry with you, here are some good ones:

If you’re just after a map, this laminated Streetwise one is good for the National Mall and surrounding area and includes a Metro map (the Metro is DC’s version of subway public transport). MapEasy makes a more traditional foldout map. Around the Mall and Tidal Basin, the National Park Service has done a pretty good job of putting up signs that are also very helpful.

If you’re after information specifically about the cherry blossoms, these are good places to start (and also make very nice gifts):

Frequency of Specific Peak Bloom Dates Since 1921

This chart shows how many times peak bloom has fallen on a particular day since records started being kept in 1921. The earliest recorded peak bloom was March 18 (2000). The latest was April 18 (1958). The most common dates for peak bloom are April 2, 6, 7, and 9. Since 1921, the overall average peak bloom date has been April 3.2

Frequency of Specific Peak Bloom Dates Since 1993

And here’s the same thing but looking only at the past two decades. As you can see, the dates are weighted a little earlier in recent years. Since 1993, the average peak bloom date has been March 31.[foot]Data source: National Park Service Historic Peak Bloom Dates.[/foot]

Average Peak Bloom Dates by Decade

1921-1930: April 2
1931-1940: April 7
1941-1950: April 2
1951-1960: April 7
1961-1970: April 7
1971-1980: April 4
1981-1990: March 31
1991-2000: March 31
2001-2010: April 1

Peak Bloom Dates

Here are the official peak bloom dates since 1921.[foot]Data source: National Park Service Historic Peak Bloom Dates.[/foot]

1921 March 20
1922 April 7
1923 April 9
1924 April 13
1925 March 27
1926 April 11
1927 March 20
1928 April 8
1929 March 31
1930 April 1
1931 April 11
1932 April 15
1933 April 9
1934 April 15
1935 April 1
1936 April 7
1937 April 14
1938 March 25
1939 March 30
1940 April 13
1941 April 12
1942 April 5
1943 April 4
1944 April 9
1945 March 20
1946 March 23
1947 April 12
1948 March 28
1949 March 29
1950 April 9
1951 April 6
1952 April 9
1953 March 27
1954 April 6
1955 April 2
1956 April 6
1957 April 8
1958 April 18
1959 April 6
1960 April 14
1961 April 2
1962 April 7
1963 April 3
1964 April 11
1965 April 15
1966 April 5
1967 April 6
1968 March 30
1969 April 9
1970 April 16
1971 April 8
1972 April 11
1973 April 11
1974 April 3
1975 April 3
1976 March 23
1977 March 26
1978 April 12
1979 April 2
1980 April 6
1981 April 3
1982 April 7
1983 April 7
1984 April 3
1985 April 7
1986 April 2
1987 March 28
1988 March 31
1989 March 29
1990 March 15
1991 March 29
1992 April 7
1993 April 11
1994 April 5
1995 April 2
1996 April 4
1997 March 26
1998 March 27
1999 April 5
2000 March 17
2001 April 6
2002 April 2
2003 April 2
2004 March 31
2005 April 9
2006 March 30
2007 April 1
2008 March 29
2009 April 1
2010 March 31
2011 March 29
2012 March 20
2013 April 9
2014 April 10
2015 April 10

  1. The National Park Service uses the date April 4 as the average peak bloom date. 
  2. Data source: National Park Service Historic Peak Bloom Dates