Looking for an escape from the city without packing your bags? Then head to Descanso Gardens, the 150-acre botanical garden in La Cañada Flintridge that offers much-needed respite from city life no matter what time of year you go. Descanso means “place of rest” in Spanish after all. Scroll below for all the must-sees and must-dos and don’t be surprised if you find yourself coming back month after month to this off-the-radar gem. It’s a pretty magical place for both parents and kids alike.
photo: Amanda S. via Yelp
When to Go
Spring: Mar.-May is when everything is blooming in the garden so if you have your heart set on seeing flowers upon flowers upon flowers, this is the time to go. Of course this is when the garden is busiest so if you want to see more of the plants and less of the people, head here during the week, first thing in the morning on the weekends or about an hour to an hour and a half before closing for what Jennifer Errico, Public Relations and Marketing Director of Descanso Gardens dubs, “The Golden Hour.” She told us that this when the garden tends to clear out and, at times, is at it’s prettiest.
Summer: Check out the Rose Garden where those fancy blooms are on full display. And according to Errico, this part of the garden gets better and better every year.
Fall: The leaves usually make their big changes in Nov. but good to keep an eye out on the website or call ahead of time if you want to really capture autumn at its peak.
Winter: Enchanted: Forest of Light is the big draw in Dec.-early Jan. and for many late-rsvp’ers, they find they can’t get tickets to this stunning light display.
Insider Tip: Tickets for Enchanted: Forest of Light typically go on sale Oct. 1 for members, and then Oct. 15th for non-members. FYI: The earliest time slot you can get, the less crowded it will be. And if you can swing a mid-week visit, you’ll have more time-slots to choose from as opposed to picking a more popular (i.e. more crowded) weekend timed entry.
photo: Karol F. via Yelp
Where to Go in the Garden: The garden is too big to cover in one day but here are some highlights for your first couple of trips whether you have little kids or big ones.
Little Kids: Grab the “Children’s Walk” brochure from the visitor’s center. It’s a habitat walk/scavenger hunt for kids to look for and see what lives in the garden. And since it’s less than a mile and you can go at your own pace. Its a low commitment activity with just enough draw and curiosity to drive them to the next location.
After the hunt, it’s probably time to grab a snack. Picnics are not allowed on the property (aside from an occasion or two detailed in this article) so head to the main lawn if you need a rest and an energy boost. There’s a small outdoor amphitheater where kids can stage an impromptu show while the grownups sit back and relax.
If your little ones are ready for more adventure, head to the back of the rose garden, behind the bathrooms where you’ll find a little children’s maze that is short and lovely. Ideal for age six and under, here you can let your kids run free and explore without worrying about them getting lost or on any sort of main road (Descanso Gardens is entirely fenced in).
Don’t forget to check out the lake behind the rose garden. That’s where most of the wildlife resides and is a great spot for bird observation and a chat with the docent who is ready to offer knowledge and answer questions. Got a little tired? Take a seat in one of the Adirondack chairs. Once you’ve rested, take the short path around the lake, down the boardwalk and through the Oak Woodlands.
Ride the Enchanting Train: Full Steam Ahead! Families can board an iconic, 1/8th replica of a diesel train for a delightful journey into nature via the seven-minute train ride on the Enchanted Railroad at Descanso Gardens. Parents and tykes alike will appreciate the birds-eye view into the scenic garden surroundings. The Enchanted Railroad is open for train rides four days a week: Tue. & Fri. from 10 a.m. to noon and Sat.-Sun. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Cost: $3 per rider, $25 for a book of 10 tickets
Insider Tip: If you plan on riding the rain, buy tickets at the visitor’s center before heading into the park. You can’t buy tickets at the train.
Older Kids: With their longer legs and hopefully more stamina than the toddler set, make your way to the Sturt Haaga Gallery and the Boddy House for a little exposure to rotating art and culture exhibitions in addition to the beautiful grounds along the way. Currently, the Boddy House is exhibiting a show called Japanese Garden and will run through 2019.
Insider Tip: Behind this gallery is Hope’s Garden, where, if you go up some stairs, you’ll find a secret garden with amazing views. Afterward, take the stairs down to the Camilia Forest and you’ll find yourself immersed in the garden, convinced you aren’t less than 15 miles from DTLA.
Another great spot for bigger kids? The Redwood Rest (the most northern part of the property) that features a pergola and a quiet place to sit (a nice reward for walking all the way here). It feels like you’ve found someplace special and there are trails that go off in various directions that make you feel like you can choose your adventure and get lost (in a good way) but you really can’t get lost. Like Errico says, you can “Let them be free in a place that feels wild and special but totally safe. Just let them know (if you do let them wander on their own, when it doubt, head downhill where you’ll find yourself at the beginning of the gardens).
Insider Tip: Check with the visitor’s center to make sure the Sturt Haaga Gallery and the Boddy House are open during your visit before heading there.
Where to Eat
If you come on the weekend and want to make sure everyone is fed, full and happy before exploring the garden, make a reservation at Maple restuarant. The space was recently renovated and now exudes a bright, modern feel with a nod towards its craftsman roots. Whether you dine indoors or out, there is not a bad seat in the house.
The menu changes seasonally, thanks to Chef Philip Mack, who successfully combines American-inspired cuisine and fresh produce with a south of the border twist. The result? A memorable family brunch that will even have the kids asking when you can go back.
The kid’s choices range from waffles and pancakes to cheeseburgers while the adult menu has hard to choose toasts (the avocado toast came with edible flowers!), a just-the-right-amount of spicy breakfast burrito plus their signature fried chicken and beignets. There’s so much variety on the menu that a repeat visit will yield a completely new and memorable experience.
Insider Tip: Order a side of beignets for the table if you don’t order the fried chicken so everyone can indulge a little bit in the southern fried donut.
Hours: 9 a.m.-2:00 p.m.
If you are looking for more cafe style or grab-and-go options, Cafe Descanso (located next door to Maple) is a good bet.
photo: Grace K. via Yelp
Events to Watch For in 2019:
In addition to weekly programming like weekend walks, story time, craft workshops and more, there are some extra special events to look forward to in 2019.
Mar.-Apr.: Drop-in art making, Spring bloom walks begin.
Apr.-May: Boddy House/Arts Education: Showcase House of Design. Additionally, Maple, will be open during these showcase times, offering more reasons to come back and eat.
Apr. 27: The City Nature Challenge BioBlitz is a community event that focuses on identifying wildlife species in a specific place in a short amount of time. Help contribute to the worldwide 2019 City Nature Challenge from 9:00 a.m.-11:30 a.m. and upload your photos to iNaturalist to add your discoveries to a growing map of nature in Los Angeles.
Spring-Summer: New scavenger hunts will be starting, stop by the visitor’s center for more details.
Summer: Evening Concert Series: The garden closes at 5 but during the summer, it reopens at 5:30 (sometimes for an additional fee) for their summer concert series. Tues. are world music nights, expect everything from Hawaiian dancers to Taiko drums, on Wed. you’ll hear summer songs by a DJ in the garden (this along with world music nights are probably the most kid-friendly), and Thurs. is jazz night. You can buy food and drink and put a blanket down and picnic—one of the only times you can do so in the garden.
Good to Know: Descanso Gardens participates in Museums Free For All where on a designated day, visitors can access the gardens for free (does not apply to special exhibits). And if you become a member of Descanso Gardens you are entitled to all kinds of perks, like discounts, early Enchanted ticket sales and special member-only events. You can save a lot of money. Or ask for a membership as a Christmas, Hanukkah or birthday gift! You’ll certainly get a year’s worth experiences that they whole family will be able to enjoy.
My kid’s favorite part of the garden? The teahouse in the Japanese Garden where they get to offer a pretend tea service to unsuspecting strangers. See—there really is something for everyone in this magical place.
Descanso Gardens is open daily (closed on Christmas) and has plenty of free parking in front.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Last entry is 4:30 pm).
Cost: Adults $9; seniors and students $6; children ages 5-12 $4; under 4 are free
1418 Descanso Dr.
La Cañada Flintridge
All photos by Andie Huber unless stated otherwise.
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