Spring at the San Diego Botanic Garden, Encinitas, California

Text & photos © Catherine Nichols

With leaf earrings dangling from my ears, I got in my car and drove three miles to one of the best kept secrets of San Diego.

Even though I live so close to San Diego Botanic Garden in Encinitas, California, I rarely visit. I decided to go this year because we’ve had an unusually wet year. I knew the gardens would probably be in bloom like I had never seen in my life. And, boy, was I right. The trees were swollen with blooms, the succulents’ shoots were at record heights, and there wasn’t a limp leaf to be seen.

Paved and Private Path

Paved and private path

San Diego Botanic Gardens is one of those places where natives must take their out-of-town guests, especially since it’s a huge departure from all the action-packed activities one expects to do in San Diego. Serene and slow-paced can be a welcome reprieve from surfing, skim-boarding, hiking, golfing, swimming, sky-diving, and snorkeling.

California Gardenscapes - Butterfly on Verbena and the California State Flower, California Poppy

Verbena and the state flower, California poppy

Parking is plentiful at the gardens and costs $2 per car. The entrance fee is paid at the booth so be prepared with cash or credit. Entrance fees range from $8 to $14. Children under 2 are free. The first Tuesday of every month is free for San Diego residents—not the parking, however—but it’s a zoo (see what I did there? The San Diego Zoo is another must-visit spot), and not as peaceful as at other times of the month.

Ocean View from The Overlook

Ocean view from The Overlook

Wear comfortable walking shoes, sunglasses, sunscreen, a hat, and bring water and your camera. Allow at least two hours for a quick walk-through, and far longer if you’re a real garden enthusiast or a slow walker. Garden junkies may need four hours and a membership! The San Diego Botanic Garden has a small cafe’ but its food choices are limited.

African region and South African beauties

African region and South African beauties

On the day I visited, it was a beautiful Southern California day with blue skies and not even a wisp of a cloud in sight. The temperature was 75 in March and because the San Diego Botanic Gardens are near the Pacific Ocean, there was a gentle breeze to cool off the warm spring day. I consulted my map to see where I should start but decided to just wing it. The goal, after all, is to enjoy the flowers and greenery but if you’re a Type A person, here’s a map to plan out your visit.

Peaceful places to sit & take in the view

Peaceful places to sit and take in the view

The San Diego Botanic Gardens are divided up by regions. At a specific region, you will find plants from that particular area. For example, Mediterranean, African, New Zealand, Tropical, and there’s even a Mexican garden complete with a Mariachi band made out of metal and succulents (see feature photo). You want to see fruit trees, medicinal herbs, and panda food? Check! Check! Check!

Bamboo Garden

Bamboo Garden

Unbeknownst to me, the San Diego Zoo grows bamboo at the San Diego Garden to feed their pandas. Walking through the Bamboo Garden—a shady, peaceful walk—I saw bamboo with orange stalks and black. Black bamboo. Who knew there were so many varieties! And the sheer number of blooming bromeliads is a testament to the garden’s mission statement to “collect and propagate beautiful, fascinating and / or significant plants and display them in attractive gardens for recreation and learn[ing].”

Yellow Clivia

Yellow Clivia

The Mediterranean region is very similar to Southern California. We have a wet winter (when we’re lucky) and a dry summer climate, a mixture that is perfect for some plants. There’s a lovely combination of flowers, succulents, and palms along the paved path with signs alerting the visitor to each plant’s name.

Mediterranean region

Mediterranean region

For me, it’s like visiting a model home looking for decorating ideas—I can write the names of the greenery I like and take them to my local nursery. Or, the San Diego Botanic Garden has its own shop where you can buy some beautiful plants you could never find at Home Depot.

Ready for gardening

Ready for gardening

The Lawn House Garden, a popular and beautiful place for weddings and other events, has a gazebo and is one way in which an East Coast transplant like me can get her fill of green grass in a climate like San Diego’s!

SubTropical and Tropical regions

Sub-tropical and tropical regions

As the sunny Lawn House Garden path heads toward the waterfall, the sun disappears behind the many trees San Diego Botanic has on its 37 acres. Visiting the many water features located throughout the garden is a must. The waterfall has an upper and lower area, each with its own unique view. There are ponds, too, with water lilies floating on the surface.

Lower Falls Area

Lower Falls area

The Overlook has a boardwalk trail to its two-story view tower. Not only can you see the Pacific Ocean, but you get an idea of the plants native to the area on your way. If you’re lucky, you can get a distant view of Sam the Tortoise at the same time as the ocean. I think I may have seen him in his corral but it could have been a rock, too. Darn these old eyes!

The Overlook

The Overlook

Those interested in art can find original pieces at various regions all over the park. They are for sale with the price listed next to each installation. Be prepared for sticker shock. One of my favorite pieces was $50,000!

$50,000 art by Jeffery Laudenslager Taiji

$50,000 art by Jeffery Laudenslager Taiji

Art installations throughout the gardens

Art installations throughout the gardens

The San Diego Botanic Garden has something for everyone including the younger set, so don’t hesitate to bring the kids along. There’s a special section just for them but the whole park is perfect for curious cherubs. Who knows? Maybe they’ll stand next to an unafraid lizard, or stare in amazement at the numerous birds and butterflies that stop by for a drink of water.

Upper Falls Area Make a wish - I did

Upper Falls area. Make a wish – I did!

San Diego Botanic Garden is truly a magical place. They have compiled an amazing assortment of flowers, bushes, trees, cacti, succulents, and specimens. Anyone with an interest in gardening and ocean views should make time to visit while in San Diego. I loved my visit so much, I sprung (did you see what I did there?) for a year-long membership!


Cathie Nichols, staff member at Milliver's Travels

Catherine Nichols

Originally from the East Coast, Catherine Nichols has spent the last 29 years in San Diego, and stays in the area because of its extraordinary beauty and a lovely lack of humidity. Accused by her three children of looking at too many rocks while visiting Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon and the deserts of Nevada, she continues to marvel at the ever-changing southwest landscape. With trips to Washington DC, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Portland, and Europe planned, Catherine plans to reawaken her desire to see the world, and leave no stone unturned. Catherine writes in her blog at and tweets as @bloggoneit.


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