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Must-See Gardens in California

Must-See Gardens in California

Stop to smell the roses—and see orchids, poppies, and weird cacti—at these horticultural hot spots

Whether you’re an amateur botanist, a backyard gardener, or even just a curious kid, you should make a beeline to California’s incredibly diverse botanic gardens. These protected oases are often peaceful retreats—and a great way to chill out on a go-go-go vacation. Some gardens are fascinating looks at individual passions, like the underground lair hand-dug by Sicilian immigrant Baldassare Forestiere, or a railroad magnate’s collection of international gardens near Los Angeles. Add one or more of our favorite green gems into your itinerary, listed here north to south, and who knows what you’ll be inspired to do—or grow—back home.

Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens

Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens

This lush preserve’s diverse plantings of perennials, trees, and shrubs—including many natives—showcases the showcases Mendocino County’s botanical diversity. It’s also a great spot for birding (some 150 species frequent the property), so bring binoculars for close-up views. If you’re traveling with kids, pick up a Quail Trail Guide at the park entrance so the kids can learn about park resident Quincy the Quail and follow his hints for finding 17 quail markers along the stroller-friendly paths. Master gardeners and other experts teach assorted workshops here throughout the year; check the calendar of events to see what may be on offer. During the winter holidays, come see the gardens sparkle during the Festival of Lights (late November to mid-December). (More: Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens)

UC Botanical Garden At Berkeley

Shaded by soaring (and native) coast redwoods, this 34-acre research garden and museum in the Berkeley Hills lets you follow winding paths to see naturalistic landscapes that feature more than 13,000 plant species, including rare and endangered plants. Make sure to swing by Julia Morgan Hall, a rustic, wood-sided structure laboriously moved to the site from its original location on campus, and named in honor of its architect. Now overlooking the garden’s California native plant collection, the simple cottage-like building is polar opposite to Morgan’s best-known and arguably most lavish project: Hearst Castle along the Central Coast. (More: UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley)

San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers

San Francisco Conservatory Of Flowers

As pretty as a wedding cake, the Victorian bit of finery that is the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers has provided a tranquil refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city for generations. Visitors can roam about several rooms filled with exotic plants, take a docent-led tour, or just sit and take in the otherworldly ambience. From November through early January, the conservatory hosts its annual Night Bloom event, during which light and sound with transform the setting into a radiant jungle with immersive and interactive experiences around every corner. (San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers)

Forestiere Underground Gardens

Beneath the surface of the Central Valley, a staggering network of subterranean tunnels, chambers, and grottos meanders for some 10 acres as the city of Fresno bustles above. This Forestiere Underground Gardens, created from 1906 to 1946, is the handiwork of Sicilian immigrant Baldassare Forestiere. No somber collection of barren caves, the hand-chiseled underground complex includes an underground fishing pond and a chapel; there are even open-air skylights so an underground garden and fruit trees could grow. Seeing the results on a guided tour, you can’t help but be moved by the seemingly Herculean achievement of this humble Sicilian immigrant.

Know before you go: Forestiere Underground Gardens is closed late December through early March, and on Tuesdays of every week. Check the garden’s tour calendar for details. (More: Forestiere Underground Gardens)