WASHINGTON I don't normally think of a rainy Wednesday night as an ideal time for a hike through the finest trees here, but I had already signed up for the U.S. National Arboretum's popular Full Moon Hike. If I missed it on this cold, miserable night, it might have been weeks before I could try it again.
This was my chance to see Washington in a different, uh, light. With 11 other hikers and two volunteers including our guide, Lynn Batdorf, a curator at the arboretum, I set out in the dark to walk a brisk five miles through the hills by the Anacostia River and across the grounds.
Not being much of a horticulturist even in the daylight, I had a hard time distinguishing the plants in the dark. But Batdorf stopped to point them out. The hike took us through the cold, mystical night to the azaleas, part of the muddy fern valley, the crabapples, holly and magnolias, the Asian collection, the dogwoods, the dwarf conifers and the herb garden.
The routes change according to the season. The coolest part of this one was the view of the Anacostia River during the walk down and up the steps through the Asian collection. I overheard one hiker call that spot "magical."
With the warmer weather and the flowers in bloom, the spring hikes are more popular. But the winter ones are not only easier to reserve, they also provide the best views of the city. At the top of Mount Hamilton, one of the highest points in the city, we got a view of the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol through the bare trees.
Later, heading down the east side of Hickey Hill, we could see the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. (You should be able to see the Washington National Cathedral from there, too, but I couldn't spot it. The cathedral is no longer lighted at night, Batdorf said.)
I enjoyed the hike through the chilly air, but when we rounded the corner to stand in front of a big willow oak, the night walk through nature began to make a little more sense. The more-than-200-year-old tree, 80 feet tall with branches spreading 110 feet across, is circled by much smaller trees. Its dark, leafless branches pop out in contrast to the pink winter night sky.
Roy Heintzelman, a 34-year-old chef, has gone on about six of the night hikes since spring. His favorite part is seeing the arboretum's National Capitol Columns illuminated. I first spotted the columns as I walked up Mount Hamilton and glanced left toward Ellipse Meadow. They look like something from the Acropolis, but in fact the 19th-century sandstone Corinthian columns were originally on the East Portico of the Capitol. In 1958, the Capitol architects replaced the columns with marble ones. The Capitol Columns were then in storage until the 1980s, when they were brought to the arboretum.
Don't expect to ponder the existence of God with your friends on this hike. As we started out, Batdorf asked that we keep talking to a minimum so we could see or hear any animals. The only things I could hear, however, were the faraway sounds of the city and shoes on wet pavement. It also isn't a leisurely stroll. Batdorf said the hike would be at a "reasonably fast pace" and did not slow down. No pets, or children younger than 16 are allowed.
The hike is limited to 30 people, and you can register online. There are no hikes in July and August because of the heat and the late sunset.
In June, the arboretum hosted a party before the usual hike to celebrate the blue moon. It featured blue food, blue drinks and blue-moon music. ("You wouldn't believe all the songs about blue moons," Batdorf said.) The next blue moon and blue moon party and hike isn't until December 2009.
Barry Stahl, 58 and a horticulturist, was on his fourth hike with his wife, Joan. "It's an exceptionally great experience. We know the arboretum well, but you get such a different perspective at night."
Nice, even in the cold rain.