Invite your favorite flower- and plant- loving friend, mom or grandma to escape with you into these secret gardens for Mother’s Day or any day! The solitude and splendor you’ll find on these magical walks is worth the drive. They’re all kid-friendly with some having playgrounds, alphabet gardens or sensory touch & smell gardens. All are stroller/walker friendly and perfect for taking a slower pace, while allowing bigger kids to run ahead. Read on to find which one you’ll stroll over to first!

Insider’s Tip: 3 of these gardens participate in the American Horticultural Society (AHS) reciprocal membership program. Buy a membership to one of the three gardens, and you’ll get reciprocal admission to all three of them, as well as to 330+ other public gardens across North America.

Japanese Friendship Garden

Jump across the rocks in the stream, walk over the bridges and admire the Japanese culture from this beautifully landscaped garden. The flat gravel trails will take you all the way down to the bottom of the canyon and back up again. Along the way you’ll see all the koi fish ponds, waterfall, bamboo water fountains and sculptures. Afterward, stop at the Tea Pavilion next door to choose from over 50 kinds of tea, noodle dishes or Japanese snacks.

Membership: Get a membership here for reciprocal admission to other AHS gardens.

Bathrooms: yes, at the top and bottom of the trails

Japanese Friendship Garden
2215 Pan American Rd. E, Balboa Park
619-232-2721
Online: niwa.org

Rice Canyon Demonstration Gardens

Wander through this little cactus and succulent garden near the small parking lot before you head down to the trails for an easy hike. It’s a 3 mile path out and back, so only go out half as far as little legs will walk before they get tired. Just across the street is Discovery Park with a shaded playground and bathrooms.

Cost: Free

Bathrooms: not here, but you’ll find some across the street at Discovery Park

Rice Canyon Demonstration Gardens
N Rancho Del Rey Pkwy + Buena Vista Way
Online: ricecanyondemonstrationgardens.org

San Diego Botanic Garden

Stop and smell the flowers in this horticultural wonderland featuring exotic plants from all over the world. There are 37 acres of plant species and 4 miles of trails from which to enjoy them all. There are 2 children’s gardens here that you don’t want to miss. Hamilton Children’s Garden has a big treehouse to climb inside and up to the top, a musical garden, a large sand pit and a stream to play in. The Seeds of Wonder Children’s Garden has dinosaurs, a playhouse and running model trains. Kids will also love the ABC garden with a plant labeled for each letter of the alphabet.

Special Event: The Oceanside Museum of Art has a current exhibit inspired by nature that complements the botanical setting. You’ll find 13 different works of art displayed throughout the Botanic Garden until Aug. 1.

Membership: Get a membership here for reciprocal admission to other AHS gardens.

Bathrooms: yes

San Diego Botanic Garden
300 Quail Gardens Dr., Encinitas
760-436-3036
Online: sdbgarden.org

Point Loma Native Plant Garden

Enjoy the simplicity and quietness in this native plant garden tucked away in a residential neighborhood. You’ll likely have this place all to yourself because it’s not very well known and a little tricky to find. But once you get there, the kids can run ahead to explore while you catch a few beautiful moments to yourself.

Cost: Free

Bathrooms: no

Parking: Street parking only at Greene St. + Mendocino Blvd.

Point Loma Native Plant Garden
2275 Mendocino Blvd., Point Loma
619-297-7380
Online: sandiegoriver.org/point_loma.html

Water Conservation Garden

Learn how to create your own backyard oasis with the water conservation ideas you’ll find here. Even if you’re not planning to overhaul your own backyard, anyone can enjoy these gardens. This has been our favorite spot for years because the kids can wander at their own pace, watch the turtles, drive the concrete cars, play in the children’s dinosaur garden and clubhouse, dig in the sand box, look for butterflies in the butterfly pavilion and run through the spray misters.

Tip: Check their website for Butterfly Releases in May & June

Cost: $8/adults; $5/seniors 55+, students & military; $4/kids 3-17; Free ages 2 and under

Membership: Get a membership here for reciprocal admission to other AHS gardens.

Bathrooms: yes

Water Conservation Garden
12122 Cuyamaca College Dr. W., El Cajon
619-660-0614
Online: thegarden.org

Alta Vista Botanical Gardens

Get lost in over 16 different gardens within this garden! The fun children’s garden and discovery trail is just inside the front gate where you’ll find whimsical sculptures, crawl-through tunnels and flip over trivia question boxes. Meander past this as far as you want to go before looping back around to the front.

Cost: $5/non-members, $3/children ages 3-12, Free for ages 2 and under

Bathrooms: yes

Alta Vista Botanical Gardens
1270 Vale Terrace Dr., Vista
760-945-3954
Online: altavistabotanicalgardens.org

Mission Valley River Garden

Explore the wild flowers at this volunteer-managed garden in Mission Valley. The river is pretty overgrown so you can’t actually see it and the freeway noise is noticeable, but once you start wandering around you won’t even notice it while you’re there. The trails are well marked and will lead you around several loops down and back. You’ll likely have this place all to yourself because the large gates out front are locked so it looks closed. But it’s a public garden, so you can park in front of the gates and walk through the easy to miss side gate to start exploring.

Cost: Free

Bathrooms: no

Mission Valley River Garden
3376 Camino Del Rio N., Mission Valley
619-297-7380
Online: sandiegoriver.org/river_garden.html

Azalea Park Water Conservation Garden

Walk through this small water conservation garden with flat gravel trails that will loop around through recycled art sculptures. My kids favorites are the ones made out of car parts. You’ll find painted car hoods transformed into a tall flower and other car parts turned into a bull. Picnic tables and open grassy fields are behind the rec center for kids to run around.

Tip: You’ll find a playground tucked behind the rec center building.

Cost: Free

Bathrooms: yes

Azalea Park Water Conservation Garden
2596 Violet St., City Heights
619-235-1162
Online: sandiego.gov

Alcazar Garden

Designed after the gardens of Alcazar Castle in Seville, Spain, you’ll marvel at the intricate garden, ornate Moorish fountains and vibrant flowers year round. Take a few slow walks around while the kids have fun dipping their hands in the water fountains. Grab some take out from nearby Panama 66, or sip some coffee from Prado Perk or Daniel’s Coffee as you spend the rest of the day walking around Balboa Park.

Challenge: Try to find all 13 other gardens at Balboa Park!

Cost: Free

Bathrooms: yes

Balboa Park Alcazar Garden
1363 El Prado, Balboa Park
619-239-0512
Online: balboapark.org

––Bonnie Taylor

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