Cherry Blossom Watch Update: March 23, 2016

It's shaping up to be a beautiful day for cherry blossom viewing. Not all the tree are in full bloom yet, but they're getting close.

It’s shaping up to be a beautiful day for cherry blossom viewing. The trees aren’t yet in full bloom–at least, they weren’t as of this morning–but are getting very close. Many of the trees are out now, and warm weather today will bring out more during the day.

Yesterday afternoon, the NPS said that the trees had reached the “puffy white” stage, which is the last one before peak bloom. It looks as though we might hit peak bloom around tomorrow or Friday, which is going to make for a spectacular weekend. And a crowded one!

There were a lot more people down there for the sunrise this morning. Lots of photographers. Lots of people getting engagement/wedding photos done. And a few small groups had the right idea by starting the day with a sunrise picnic under the cherry blossoms. A few low clouds on the horizon made for a beautiful predawn glow, but the sun barely broke the horizon before it went behind clouds again. All in all it’s shaping up to be a lovely day down at the Tidal Basin.

The indicator tree is still going strong, which is a good sign for longevity of the flowers on the other trees. It has dropped some petals, but is still very much in full bloom.

There are quite a few photographers reading, so a few things that might be of interest to them . . .

Firstly, several people have asked, and no, there’s no problem using a tripod. As you can see from the photos below, there were hundreds out this morning. (But don’t use a drone!)

Secondly, there have been a lot of people doing sunrise timelapses the past couple of mornings. If you’re looking to line up the sun behind the Jefferson Memorial, a mobile app that provides the location and timing of the sunrise comes in very handy. Here are some of the best ones.

You get an incredible collection of camera gear around the Tidal Basin at this time of year, right across the spectrum from the fanciest pro gear to old school large format film cameras to the latest lightweight travel kits. I’m noticing a lot more mirrorless cameras this year, many of them Sonys, which is hardly surprising given what good cameras they are.

I’m testing out a couple of new lenses at the moment. One is the new Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR. The other is the new Sigma 24-35mm f/2 DG HSM Art Lens. Quite a few of the photos I’ve been posting lately are with those lenses, and I’ll be posting full, detailed reviews on my main site in the coming weeks.

I’ve had several people ask about some of the photos I’ve been posting, so I’ll try to remember to provide some details from time to time about how some of them were taken. I’ll start with the one at the top of this page, even though I used something similar yesterday. There’s no magic here–it’s not Photoshopped and hasn’t had the saturation boosted in post-processing, and it’s not HDR. It’s basically straight out of the camera like that (as was yesterday’s). It was shot handheld on a Nikon D810 with the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR. The trick to the colors–to the extent it’s a trick–is that it’s underexposed compared to what the camera’s light meter wants to do. Underexposing can naturally deepen and saturate the colors, which is an old trick from slide film days. The built-in light meters in modern cameras are incredibly sophisticated, but they’re aiming for a safe middle ground of exposure. In the vast majority of cases for the majority of users, it’s likely exactly the right choice. But “perfect exposure” is ultimately an entirely subjective thing, and sometimes you want to emphasize something else; in this case I wanted to emphasize the colors in the sky rather than having an evenly lit Jefferson Memorial. So using the exposure compensation function, this one was underexposed by 1 2/3 stops from what the light meter wanted to do. It ended up being ISO 500, 1/80 s at f/2.8 at 70mm and was taken about 15 minutes before sunrise. Two other things help in this case. One is shooting RAW, which provides more image information in the original. And the other is that I’m using a camera that has a higher-than-average dynamic range, the Nikon D810, so the shadows don’t block up as much.

Common Questions

Apologies for repeating myself here. These next two sections are the same as yesterday, but these are questions I’m getting a lot at the moment and readers may not have already seen yesterday’s update.

What Peak Bloom Does and Doesn’t Mean

Now that we’re getting closer to the peak bloom, I’m getting a lot of questions about which day to go to catch the peak bloom. So it’s worth clarifying what “peak bloom” is and isn’t.

While we end up referring to it a lot, “peak bloom” isn’t the be-all and end-all of seeing a spectacular view. That is, you don’t have to be there on that exact day to see the trees in full bloom. It simply means that the NPS experts have determined that on such-and-such date 70 percent of the trees are in full bloom. That, of course, also means that up to 30 percent are still yet to reach full bloom.

There’s a window of about 2 days before to 2 days after the peak bloom day that I’d consider prime viewing. In the right conditions it can be longer, potentially a lot longer. At the beginning, the flowers start white; they gradually turn a pale pink. So if you don’t happen to be there on the specific peak bloom date (and the NPS won’t announce it until–or even after–it happens), it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re getting a lesser spectacle. In fact, I personally prefer how they look a couple of days after peak bloom when they’re turning pink.

I have much more about what “peak bloom” does and doesn’t mean here.

Will There Still be Flowers To See on X Date?

This is the question I’m getting most at the moment, understandably. And as much as I’d like to be able to give a flat “yes” or “no,” it’s impossible to give a definitive answer. That’s because there are several factors that come into play that determine how long the flowers will stick around.

There’s a window of about 2 days before to 2 days after peak bloom that I’d consider the safe zone. Outside of that, it varies year to year, but the general rule of thumb is that the risk increases for each day you move away from the peak bloom date.

As with nearly everything about the cherry blossoms, weather is a very big factor. If we have cool, still, and dry weather, the flowers can stick around longer. Perhaps maybe even a week or more. In perfect conditions, the NPS says they can last up to 10 days, although we haven’t seen that in practice anytime recently. If we have warm, windy, rainy, or stormy weather–all of which are pretty common at this time of year–they can disappear much more quickly. Perhaps only 3-5 days after peak bloom.

Further complicating it is that the clock doesn’t start ticking until we get to around peak bloom, which in this case serves as a useful reference point. And we won’t know when that is until it happens. And yet another complication is that not every tree is on exactly the same schedule. Even after most of the trees are finished and have green leaves, there might well be some late stragglers.

I have a photo timeline that gives examples of the types of things you might expect to see in the days after peak bloom.

The upshot is that if you’re visiting next week (say, March 28 to April 3), my answer as to whether you’ll see any flowers is “maybe”. The odds are best earlier in the period and reduce later in the week. I realize that’s a pretty wishy washy answer, but it’s about as good as is possible to give in advance. As a practical matter, if you are planning to visit, your best chances will be at the beginning of your visit rather than the end.

If you do miss the main bloom by a couple of weeks, your timing might be good for the Kwanzan cherries. They bloom a couple of weeks later. While there aren’t as many of them, they’re especially pretty. I have more information on them, including how to find some of the larger clusters, here.

You might also catch the tulips. While tulips aren’t unique to this area, of course, there are an unusually large number of them in and near the National Mall, especially up around the grounds near the U.S. Capitol Building, near Memorial Bridge, along the George Washington Parkway, and at the Netherlands Carillon, and they are quite a highlight in their own right (here are some examples).

And the area has some other exceptional spots to catch spring flowers like the National Arboretum, River Farm, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, and Dumbarton Oaks. Here are some other suggestions.

Photos From This Morning

Indicator Tree

It’s still going strong, which is a good sign for the others.

Want to Help Support DC's Cherry Trees?

If you'd like to help support the care and upkeep of the cherry trees around the Tidal Basin, the Trust for The National Mall has launched an Endow a Cherry Tree Campaign. Donations go to the official Cherry Tree Endowment, which will give the National Park Service additional resources to fund the care, maintenance, and possible replacement of the cherry trees. You can find more information here.

The Trust is dedicated to marshaling private support for maintaining and improving the history National Mall area. I'm not affiliated with the Trust--just an admirer of their efforts.

Last updated March 15, 2017 1:23 pm

View Comments

  • Where is a good place to park that won't cost an arm and leg?

    I am planning a trip to see the trees on Friday, March 25th. I will be going down in the morning.

    • Free parking is available along Ohio Drive and around East Potomac Park and Hains Point. The catch is that during busy times there can be a lot of competition for spots. There's more information on parking options in this post.

      • I assume parking along Ohio Drive or around E. Potomac Park isn't a problem around sunrise (on Friday, to be precise)?

        Thanks for this terrific site -- it's a great resource.

        • Definitely don't count on getting parking -- one year we drove down and didn't find anything. We had to go home.

        • Actually, you'd be surprised.... Spots might be scarce on the long stretch of Ohio Drive that runs next to the FDR Memorial well before sunrise. And the catch is that if you can't find a spot there it's all one-way, so you'll have to exit onto Independence Ave and start the circuit again. If you'd prefer a safer option, at the T-intersection next to the George Mason Memorial, turn left towards the 3 small parking lots under the 14th St bridges. But I don't recommend cutting it too fine with timing--sunrise during the cherry blossom bloom brings out a lot of people.

  • Thanks for your faithful Cherry Blossom blog. It's so helpful. I plan on going there for sunrise Saturday morning to take some pictures, coming from Fredericksburg. Is there parking Saturday morning on Ohio Drive? Thanks so much. Love your photos.

    • Yes there is parking there, but it will also be very busy. So I'd recommend aiming to be there well before sunrise or parking elsewhere around the Mall and walking.

  • Love your pictures! I am planning to take the 5:43am train from Baltimore to DC on Saturday... to catch the sunrise. Is it okay? And which location should I go to catch the moment? I really don't want to miss the sunrise. The flowers are just so beautiful in your pictures.

    • Sunrise will be at 7:01, but because DC is a built-up environment, you can add an extra 7-10 mins or so before you actually see it appear above the horizon. To see the sunrise over the water (assuming the clouds cooperate), go anywhere along the long stretch running from the MLK Memorial and past the FDR Memorial. If you want to line it up with the Jefferson Memorial, go further along that stretch towards the Jefferson Memorial end--you'll see a very large number of photographers set up there with tripods waiting for the sunrise. For even more precision, try one of these phone apps that track the position of the sun and moon. I also recommend being there at least 20 mins before sunrise if you can--when the conditions are right, as they have been the past few days, you can get some beautiful predawn colors.

      As for the train, I'm sorry but I don't know the scheduling of that one or how reliable it is. I assume it's also going to drop you off at Union Station, which is either a very long walk from the Tidal or a cab ride (Metro doesn't open until 7 on weekends, which will be too late). So you'll need to factor that time in too.

      But so long as you make it in time and the clouds cooperate, anywhere next to the FDR Memorial is a great spot.

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