Places to Play: Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

A small child in the distance approaching a redwood tree at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

Since its founding in 1926, Santa Barbara Botanic Garden has been one of the city’s top attractions. It feels safe to say that locals and visitors have never been so appreciative of such a safe, scenic and peaceful outdoor space. At this time, the garden is open to the public seven days a week, and it’s a delightful destination for much-needed, nature-rich recreation. (Capacity is limited and all inside spaces are closed – check for updates to the visitor guidelines.)

The garden covers 78 acres and offers 5.5 miles of trails that loop around Mission Creek, leading you through a diverse array of native Californian landscapes. Stroll through a series of habitats and displays, some carefully cultivated and others left wild, and take in some of the garden’s 1,000-plus native plant species. Views of the ocean, Channel Islands and the Santa Ynez Mountains add another dimension of natural beauty to the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. You will also see several historic structures, most notably the well-preserved remains of the Mission Dam and Aqueduct built in 1806. Wear sturdy shoes as some trail sections are rocky, and bring your dog if you like – they are welcome on a leash.

a creek bed under the shade of a large oak tree in Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

Highlights of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

Springtime visitors to the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden are welcomed by a spectacular sea of blooming wildflowers in the Meadow. It’s a highlight during any season, blanketed with California poppy, lupine and other native wildflower and grassland species. There are wide-open views of mountain vistas from the paths around the Meadow, too.

The Woodland Trail connects the Meadow and Redwood Forest sections of the botanic garden. It winds along a canyon slope densely vegetated with stands of coast live oaks. In the Redwood Forest, feel the shift to a cooler microclimate under the shade of mature coast redwoods. Ferns and wild ginger tangle around the forest floor.

The Canyon Section along Mission Creek represents a riparian corridor. The year-round water sauce nourishes tall trees like big leaf maples, coast live oaks and fragrant California bay laurel. Visitors are welcome to dip toes into the creek and scramble over the boulders that line the creek bed. The water level varies considerably by season.

Other areas include the Desert Section, where flowering palo verde and desert willow share space with interesting cacti, and the Manzanita Section, dedicated to 60 species of the striking red trees. Look out for huge boulders, thought to have been deposited at the site in prehistoric times. The Water Wise Home Garden should be of interest to avid gardeners looking for drought-tolerant native plants.

Historic Landmarks at the Botanic Garden

The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden includes a section of Mission Creek converted into a sophisticated waterworks system for the mission one mile to the south. Under orders of Franciscan padres, local Chumash constructed the Mission Dam and Aqueduct in 1806. Many parts of the system, now a registered State Historic Landmark, remain in place and are visible all along the creek.

Some other interesting structures at the garden date back to the early 20th century and are designated historic landmarks by the county. These include a caretaker’s cottage built in 1927, the information kiosk added in the late 1930s, and the historic entry steps carved out of sandstone in 1950.

The garden also features an authentic Japanese teahouse. It’s currently closed, but in pre-pandemic times it hosted traditional Japanese tea ceremonies.

a small child runs through a natural hedge maze at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden for Kids

The garden is an ideal place to take kids in Santa Barbara. Looping trails allow for hikes of varying lengths, and there are plenty of benches along the way. With crisscrossing bridges, boulders and logs to clamber on, shallow water in the creek and room to run freely, children of all ages enjoy an experience of the great outdoors. There’s also a fun hedge maze to navigate.

Check out “Places to Play: Santa Barbara Zoo.”


Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

1212 Mission Canyon Road, Santa Barbara, CA 93105

(805) 682-4726

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