More Than 1 Million Expected as Cherry Blossom Festival Kicks Off in D.C.

For Jake Kwon, spring does not begin until the city's famous cherry trees have bloomed, wrapping the Tidal Basin in a stunning canopy of pink and white petals.

But he did think of staying away this year, weary of fighting traffic, traipsing through muddy grounds trampled by tourists and trying to snap that perfect photograph with throngs of people in the way.

"It seems like no matter where you go, you're going to run into crowds," said Kwon, a consultant from McLean, Virginia.

For the 16-day National Cherry Blossom Festival beginning Saturday, visitors like Kwon can get a viewing without the daunting crowds: lantern-lit tours at night, boat rides on the Potomac River and, for the first time, early morning jogs.

More than 1 million people are expected for the festival, which has become Washington's signature tourist event since it began in 1935.

Executive director Diana Mayhew said to better handle the crowds, there is now interest in spreading out the time people visit the blossoms and encouraging them to explore beyond the Tidal Basin.

This year's festival includes dozens of events celebrating the 1912 gift of 3,000 cherry trees to the United States from Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo.

For the first time, the National Park Service is offering early morning "cherry chit-chat" runs.

Before the busloads of tourists arrive, park ranger Rebbecca Steketee will take runners on a 3.5-mile (5.63-kilometer) jog that starts at the Washington Monument and continues to the Jefferson Memorial before winding around the Tidal Basin.

Along the way, Steketee will share little-known facts about the blossoms.

The first trees from Japan, for instance, arrived in 1910, she said. But they were so infested with insects and disease that the Agriculture Department had them burned. Some were spared, and remain alive today at a nearby golf course.

Runners also will pass the peculiar "indicator tree" near the Jefferson Memorial. The tree got its name because it blooms about a week before the other cherry trees.

"We don't know why it blooms ahead of the others," Steketee said. "It's a mystery."

Though most tourists flock to the cherry trees during the day, savoring the blossoms after sunset can be rewarding. For eight nights during the festival, National Park Service rangers will give lantern-lit walks around the Tidal Basin.

In Japan, viewing the blossoms at night is called "yozakura," said Nobumitsu Kamio, assistant secretary to the Japanese Embassy.

The tradition can take on a party-like atmosphere as revelers hang lanterns from the branches and eat, drink sake and sing under the trees.

Another way to elude the daytime crowds is to hop on a boat.

Enjoying the blossoms by water has become so popular in recent years that one Washington company has started offering two-hour river cruises in which tea, sandwiches and scones are served. Most of the tickets are sold out in advance.

"It's a whole different perspective," said Doug Gerry of Capital Yacht Charters. "You get to see trees you don't from the land."

Though the Tidal Basin is the most scenic spot, it is not the only place to see the blossoms, festival organizers say.

There are thousands of cherry trees on Hains Point — the tip of land where the Potomac and Anacostia rivers meet. Rows of the trees also can be found along Anacostia Park in southeast Washington.

The blossoms' beauty is fleeting, though.

Robert DeFeo, the chief horticulturist for the National Park Service, predicts the flowers will be at their peak from Saturday until Monday. That's when 70 percent of the blossoms are in bloom.

The total blooming period is expected to last until April 9, he said.

Kwon, who plans to stroll past the trees despite his frustrations with the crush of people, said he is motivated by his wife, who will be seeing the blossoms for the first time.

"If you haven't seen it once, you have to do it," he said.