CA Vacation - Which Gardens to Visit?

ritmatt(GA 7b)March 19, 2013

Hello Californians,

I'll be visiting with my family in a few weeks and will be traveling from San Francisco to LA, with a several-day stop in the Monterey Bay area. I'd really like to visit an arboretum or garden or two while we're in the state. I'm particularly interested in conifers, but I'm open to all types of gardens.

Any suggestions?



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The UC Botanical Garden in Berkeley is one of my favorites. If you go, don't miss the redwood grove across the street from the main gardens. You have to ask for the code to the locked gate at the kiosk where you pay; the entrance is at the far end of the parking lot. The redwood grove is a magical place for a picnic; there are several tables in there. You can pick up food from any number of places in Berkeley and drive on up.

Here is a link that might be useful: UC Botanical Gardens

    Bookmark   March 19, 2013 at 12:46PM
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Central_Cali369(Sunset Z9, Fresno, CA)

The Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek is a great place to stop. There is also a really neat private garden at Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant in Big Sur along Highway 1.

If you will be traveling through the Valley, Fresno has a nice Japanese Garden in Woodward Park that's worth a visit.

    Bookmark   March 19, 2013 at 1:11PM
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The Huntington Library near Pasadena!

On your next trip you can visit America's Finest City.

Here is a link that might be useful: Huntington Library and Botanic Garden

    Bookmark   March 19, 2013 at 6:20PM
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jkom51(Z9 CA/Sunset 17)

Traffic being what it is in California, knowing your starting point, your route, and your end point would be helpful. So a few more specifics from you will allow more helpful suggestions.

When you visit anything in CA around an urban area, your most important questions are not "How far is it?", but instead "How long does it take to drive there from here in non-rush hour traffic? And how long does it take IN rush hour traffic?"

I can get to my niece's house in 13 min., non-rush hour. But if it's rush hour, on the freeway it will take 45+ min. stop and go, or on city streets almost exactly 1 hr.

Especially if you are going over any of the bridges in Northern CA, anywhere in or near Silicon Valley, crossing from one end of San Francisco to the other, or on any freeway south of the San Fernando Valley, morning rush hours don't end until 9:30a or 10a, and evening rush hour sees traffic starting as early as 3p.

If you are flying into SFO and taking Rte 1 or 101 South, on a relatively short trip it would be backtracking through rush hour traffic to cross the Bay Bridge to visit East Bay gardens. Instead, there are magnificent gardens in the South Bay to visit that would be closer to a planned southern drive, such as Filoli in Woodside, or San Mateo's Japanese Garden, or San Jose's very fine Rose Garden (which has the added benefit of being near the unique and wonderful Rosicrucian Museum). Golden Gate Park in San Francisco is large enough that you could spend two days walking through it without having time to visit the De Young Museum and CA Academy of Sciences inside the park. The Arboretum in GG Park has many unique specimens, some of which are extinct in the wild.

BTW, you should note that conifers are more a specialty of the North County coastal areas of CA, from Marin County upwards through Sonoma, Mendocino, and Shasta counties. There's a number of nurseries, but not many public gardens or arboretums in the area. North County distances are considerable; California's east-west roads are generally much slower to travel than the north-south roads. Great conifer gardens are more common in the Pacific NW area.

    Bookmark   March 19, 2013 at 6:22PM
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I would strongly second the recommendation of the Huntington Library and Gardens, it has everything from Camellias, Rose Gardens, Cactus, Palms, Tropicals, etc.

I also like the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, a lovely site with gorgeous plants.

    Bookmark   March 19, 2013 at 7:03PM
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jkom has set you up well. And, the arboretum in golden gate park mentioned by jkom does have a redwood grove and some other conifers so it would be a good start. The Japanese Tea Garden is across the street.

    Bookmark   March 19, 2013 at 7:56PM
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hoovb zone 9 sunset 23

Filoli in Woodside just south of San Francisco is quite breathtaking.

    Bookmark   March 19, 2013 at 10:27PM
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Everybody mentioned my favorites except Muir Woods just across from the golden Gate bridge. A paradise of ancient forest if there ever was one. Be sure to get lunch or dinner in Chinatown in SF.

    Bookmark   March 20, 2013 at 10:04PM
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jkom51(Z9 CA/Sunset 17)

I second the Muir Woods suggestion; it's relatively close to SF and there are finally some decent places to eat in Larkspur, Tiburon and San Rafael.

If you must eat Chinese food in SF, you are better off eating in the Richmond or Sunset neighborhoods, where enormous #s of Asians live (we did, for 17 yrs before moving across to the East Bay). For dim sum, Koi Palace in Daly City or Hong Kong Flower Lounge in San Mateo are cheaper and almost as good as the iconic Yank Sing, which has two locations, both OUTSIDE Chinatown: 101 Spear St. (Embarcadero) and 49 Stevenson (alley in the Financial District).

Whatever you do or wherever you stay, try NOT to drive downtown! Take public transit instead. Parking is impossibly difficult; meters are now graduated rates according to time of day and accessibility. San Francisco is the pilot program for the Dept. of Transportation's new program to discourage urban drivers. Meter rates can vary from 50 cents to as high as $10/hr for the same parking space, depending on computerized availability during day and evening.

Frankly, the best food in SF can be found in the smaller new bistros, such as Rich Table, State Bird Provisions, Quince/Cotogna, Benu, etc. Although if I were dining with an out-of-town foodie, I would pick Aziza, whose fusion cuisine has wandered far from its original Moroccan roots without disdaining them. Mourad Lahlou and his pastry chef Melissa Chou are both utterly brilliant, creative, and inspired. No other restaurant in Northern CA does the kind of cuisine Lahlou does. It is literally one-of-a-kind" -- never less than very good, and much of it 5-star greatness.

Monterey/Carmel is a great area but there are not a lot of big public gardens. Carmel-by-the-sea has lovely courtyard gardens of beautiful container plantings hidden between buildings - check out the back courtyard of Anton & Michel's restaurant (but don't eat there, it's awful) for one of the prettiest, complete with splashing pool.

Starting May 1st (tourist season officially begins) is the small-scale Secret Gardens of Old Monterey, which I linked below. Do try to reserve a tour at Tor House in Carmel, too - the little English garden is quite pretty, the setting absolutely superb, looking out over the Pacific. Website is

Most people do the 17 mile drive, but don't realize that there's a coastal trail you can walk (weekdays are much less crowded than weekends!) leading to and from Asilomar State Beach, in Pacific Grove. You can actually start at the Monterey Bay Aquarium but I always find it very crowded with both tourists and locals. Almost everybody drops away after Lover's Point, where it's a level stretch to Asilomar Beach, walking along the Pacific's edge - absolutely gorgeous on a nice day!

Here is a link that might be useful: May 1st: Secret Gardens of Monterey

    Bookmark   March 22, 2013 at 5:03PM
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Sara Malone Zone 9b

For conifers in the Bay Area: Quarryhill Botanical Garden in Glen Ellen (Sonoma County), especially if you plan to visit the Wine Country as it is nearby. This botanical garden specializes in wild-collected seed from Asia, works in conjunction with the American Conifer Society and has some 80+ different species of conifers. UC Berkeley another good spot, and Tilden Regional Park, which is very near, has nearly all of California's native conifers in its collection. UC Santa Cruz Arboretum has a good collection of CA conifers, plus many from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, and is somewhat near the Monterey area. San Francisco Botanical Garden has a large collection of conifers (Pinus radiata is one of the three 'signature' trees planted in 1872 to create the park canopy) which includes all members of Taxodiaceae, many in Araucariaceae (including some from New Caledonia), Podocarpaceae and collections from virtually every continent. Makes a nice stop as the major SF museums are nearby (the De Young has a great cafeteria even if you're not interested in the art and the Hall of Science has a fabulous living roof). SFBG also has a dwarf conifer collection near the main entrance that is attractively planted.

Have fun on your trip!


    Bookmark   March 22, 2013 at 8:36PM
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jkom51(Z9 CA/Sunset 17)

It should be noted, BTW, that when the gardens at Filoli in Woodside were originally planted, the head gardener was a close friend with John MacLaren, superintendent for Golden Gate Park (GGP).

A tour guide once confided to us that over the years, certain shipments of rare plants purchased for GGP would arrive short one specimen of each, having sort of....ummmm, fallen off the truck and "accidentally" landed near Filoli!

As a result, there are some very rare trees that exist out here in two places, not just one, LOL.

Here is a link that might be useful: History of Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

    Bookmark   March 22, 2013 at 11:00PM
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If you're going south after the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, be on the lookout for orchid farms. There are lots of orchid growers along the coast in the area. The Huntington near LA is outstanding.

    Bookmark   March 23, 2013 at 12:16AM
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hoovb zone 9 sunset 23

Yes if you get off at Seaside Gardens in Carpenteria, fab demonstration gardens, there are a couple of Orchid growers right there too.

Now that you have two months of activities to amuse you, you will have to extend your vacation. :)

    Bookmark   March 24, 2013 at 7:03PM
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Sara Malone Zone 9b

I think it might be more like three months! This makes me want to go on a roadtrip myself!


    Bookmark   March 24, 2013 at 9:55PM
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I also like the Huntington Gardens for their succulents, but the L.A. County Arboretum is bigger and should not be missed. The different areas are arranged as continents so that you will see plants native to the same continent grouped together.

Everything else I can think of has already been mentioned, except perhaps the Descanso Gardens, which is small in comparison to Huntington, but still nice.


    Bookmark   March 29, 2013 at 3:19PM
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peachiekean(z10A CA)

Descanso Gardens in La Canada-Flintridge. Awesome roses, irises and old oaks. And the lilacs bloom in April.

    Bookmark   March 29, 2013 at 10:54PM
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gotsomerice(Sunset 23)

1. Golden Gate Park for The Conservatory and Dahlias.
2. Lotus Land in Santa Barbara for Silver Garden and Lotus, but you have to make an appointment ahead of time.
3. Santa Barbara Botanical Garden for California native plants.
4. Huntington for the Desert and Japanese Gardens.
5. Los Angeles Arboretum for the Peacocks
6. Descanso for Camelia
7. Anza Borrego for wild flowers
8. San Diego Botanical Garden for Cycads, Palms and Bamboos.

This post was edited by gotsomerice on Tue, Apr 2, 13 at 20:40

    Bookmark   April 2, 2013 at 8:35PM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

Might add the Getty Museum to the mix, I'd definitely try and fit the UC Santa Cruz Botanic Graden and the Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens to the list, as well as UC Berkeley. Botanic Garden and Tilden as well. The Huntington, the San Diego Botanic Garden, Balboa Park in San Diego and the zoo.

    Bookmark   April 10, 2013 at 3:55AM
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