If you associate Los Angeles with urban sprawl—well, that’s fair. But it’s so much more than that. And tucked within the miles of freeway overpasses and traffic-packed boulevards are an array of tranquil, historically significant botanical gardens that feel a world apart. So whether you’re seeking an hour alone with your journal on a shaded bench in the heart of the city, or you have a full day to explore gardens on the outskirts of the county, these venues offer the alfresco sojourns you need.
Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Gardens
$15 for adults (members free)
This 127-acre botanical garden covers what was once the historic Rancho Santa Anita in what is now Arcadia, a city at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains northeast of downtown L.A. The California business pioneer and real estate speculator Elias Jackson “Lucky” Baldwin purchased the rancho in 1875, and the intricate Queen Anne–style cottage he constructed on the land for his fourth wife about a decade later still stands beside a lake. (The Victorian house is open for public tours just twice a year, so plan ahead if you want to see inside.)
A range of themed landscapes dots the elegant property, including an aquatic garden with serene pools, water lilies, and shaded benches, and a serpentine path that loops through the aptly named serpent garden, drawing inspiration from the Australian Aborigines’ creation myth. A water conservation garden shows how intentional planting design can yield both socially responsible and experientially pleasing results.
As you wander through the grounds of this official wildlife sanctuary, you will almost certainly see its famous peafowl: Baldwin introduced them here in the late 1800s, and they have since thrived and multiplied. Hardly coy, peacocks readily display their dazzling tails for visitors. But astute bird-watchers can keep a more careful eye out for the more than 250 species of birds that have been spotted here, including various types of owls, hummingbirds, and herons, along with other aquatic creatures, reptiles, and mammals.
$15 for adults (no ticket required for members)
These 150-acre gardens in La Cañada Flintridge were once part of a massive 36,000-acre ranch given by the first Spanish governor of California to corporal Jose Maria Verdugo in 1784 in recognition of his military service. The property stayed in the Verdugo family for more than a century and was later purchased by newspaperman Elias Manchester Boddy, who managed it as a working ranch. Boddy eventually sold it to L.A. County in 1953; now, it’s managed in a public/private partnership with the county. Descanso finally joined the National Register of Historic Places in 2021.
The primarily forested area here includes man-made streams and ponds, plus abundant fruit trees, including pomegranate, pear, peach, orange, and crabapple. Visitors can meander through the paths to discover different blooms all year long: Think tulips and cherry trees in March, roses and azaleas in May, summer annuals throughout the season, and camellias from November through April.
A peaceful Japanese-style garden includes plants native to Asia, an arching bridge, a stream filled with koi, and a teahouse designed by architect Whitney Smith. Descanso’s newest themed space, the prehistoric gardens, opened in 2015. Stroll through to feel transported to prehistoric times, with 180 plants representing 60 varieties that haven’t changed much since the dinosaurs roamed.
Visiting in the winter? Descanso is also well known for its holiday lights spectacle, Enchanted.
The Huntington Library, Art Museum & Botanical Gardens
$25 for adults on weekdays; $29 for adults on weekends (members free)
Block out a full day to explore the Huntington, which comprises expansive gardens as well as a world-class library and art museum. Established by the railroad magnate Henry E. Huntington and his wife, the philanthropist Arabella Huntington, and building upon their original collections, the site is located in San Marino, about 12 miles from downtown L.A. It has a vibe that feels like a whole other planet.
The 120 acres here include Japanese and Chinese gardens, a California garden, a desert landscape garden, and one aimed at children, offering sculptures and water features meant to be explored. A robust live event calendar contains compelling exhibitions, classes, lectures, and tours.
Multiple dining venues are standing by to fuel your day of exploration. The standout Tea Room, situated within the historic Rose Garden, offers an experience inspired by the classic English tea. (The Tea Room has been closed for renovations, but it is set to open again in winter 2022.)
Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Gardens
Located in Westwood, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) is surrounded by some of the poshest residential real estate in the city (and the world). As such, a stroll through the campus’s quiet and relatively small-scale Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Gardens can feel like meandering around your own lush estate (if you squint).
The 7.5-acre public garden includes diverse plant collections intended to facilitate research and teaching at UCLA while also serving as a peaceful retreat from the urban and campus bustle.
The Nest outdoor classroom and amphitheater here has semicircular bench seating, and its surrounding gently sloped paths and entrances make the venue especially inclusive for all visitors, including those with physical disabilities. It’s a meeting place for tours, an event venue, and a resting place beneath a stately ginkgo biloba tree.