Ten Amazing Flower Walks: Santa Barbara to San Francisco

By Dina Saalisi   |   July 9, 2024

One of the things I love most about living in California is the diversity and abundance of floral life throughout the year. Taking road trips is a hobby of mine, and I especially adore the drive from Santa Barbara to San Francisco Bay. I’ve compiled a list of 10 amazing flower walks that can be enjoyed during any season.

Santa Barbara

1. Lotusland

A private botanical garden set on 37 acres, this eclectic sanctuary of rare flora was designed and developed by Polish opera singer Mme. Ganna Walska from 1941-1984. There are 14 gardens sprawled throughout, including a surreal “Blue Garden” and a towering “Cactus Garden.” Everything – from the iconic pink walls to the newly redesigned Japanese garden – is sheer splendor to experience. Non-members can reserve a spot on their guided tour, which offers the rich history of the place and insight into Mme. Walska’s visionary landscape design through a blissful two-hour walk. A must for any flower and plant connoisseur.

2. Alice Keck-Park Memorial Garden

In 1975, Alice Keck-Park – the daughter of a California oil baron – anonymously donated this prime square city block of real estate to the city of Santa Barbara. Her identity wasn’t known until her death in 1977. This public drought-tolerant garden in the middle of town hosts a multitude of old-growth specimens, a large central turtle and koi pond, a sensory garden for the visually impaired, and several gorgeous spaces for picnics and gatherings. I like to stroll the paths regularly to see what’s in bloom or sit and reflect quietly under one of the magnificent trees, or near the lavish hibiscus bushes.

3. Mission Rose Garden

This massive rose garden adjacent to the Santa Barbara Mission fills the surrounding area with a wafting fragrance, and a visual spectacle that sets the soul ablaze. With over 1,500 species of rose and a large grassy meadow with a view to the ocean, this special spot is a favorite with couples, friends, and families. Amid the rows of larger-than-life blooms, one can find liveliness or respite any day of the week.


4. Jack’s Peak County Park

Named for Scottish developer David Jack, the amazing views of the bay from this highest point on the Monterey Peninsula, are the focus of the many trails within the 500-acre park. A rare stand of native Monterey Pine, as well as a variety of wildflowers in bloom right up through the fall months, is a draw among local hikers and travelers alike. Sagebrush, ceanothus, sticky monkeyflower, and yarrow are a few of the indigenous blossoms that can be found at this lofty spot.

5. Fort Ord National Monument

Every year in early spring I make a pilgrimage here to witness the unique wildflowers that prosper. A defunct army base, this 14,000-acre reserve, with nearly 100 miles of useable trails, is home to some of the rarest native wildflowers I’ve ever encountered. Shooting star, fairy lantern, mallow, pretty face, rock rose, lupine, centaury, red chestnut, all contribute their essence to the vast energy of this sanctuary. There’s enough space for all who tread the paths – be they hiker, jogger, or nature-lover, the awe-inspiring views offer a sense of the omnipotence of nature.

Santa Cruz

6. Arboretum at the University of California, Santa Cruz

This small, beautifully laid out botanical garden is believed to be home to the largest Australian plant collection outside of Australia. Grass and dirt paths lead to year-round blooms, making it easy to find respite within the gardens. There’s an impressive display of South African protea, as well as a noteworthy collection of conifers. The arboretum even boasts an aroma garden where one can experience the luscious fragrances of a selection of drought-tolerant native California blossoms.

7. Quail Hollow Ranch County Park

Driving up into the hills of Felton, once you enter the 300-acre nature preserve, you’re greeted by a charming antique farmhouse, which holds a small visitor’s center. The bucolic air can be felt throughout the land, as the scenery harkens back to a time of long ago. If you visit in the spring/summer months, you’ll see a magnificent display of bleeding heart at the front entry. Beyond the house, the trails split off into different directions, leading to a placid pond, wildflower meadows or sandy back country. Giant oaks, sprawling lupine, and perhaps a rare monkeyflower will grace your path. Whether you only have time for a short stroll, or decide to make an afternoon of it, your soul will find joy on this historic “farmland.” And if you’re lucky you’ll spot a family of quail waddling by.

San Francisco

8. Golden Gate Park: Japanese Tea Garden; San Francisco Botanical Garden; Conservatory of Flowers

Golden Gate Park is itself a wondrous world of pathways leading to numerous gardens, a few lakes, and many a secret spot. One could spend days exploring this surreal city park of over 1,000 acres. Some of my favorite spots are the Japanese Tea Garden, SF Botanical Garden, and Conservatory of Flowers, and you can conveniently buy a daily Garden Pass for access to all three. The Tea Garden sits on a mere five acres, yet is packed with the voluptuous beauty of Asian specimen plants, beautiful buildings with hand-painted florals, a lovely flowing koi pond, and the giant Buddha statue which graces the front of the picturesque arched bridge. Plan a visit during cherry blossom season in early spring for a special treat. There’s even a delightful tea house that serves refreshments. When you’re done with your mochi, head across the road to the SF Botanical Garden to stroll the naturalized pathways that span 55 acres, filled with a variety of over 8,000 plants, including unusual specimens such as the turquoise puja flower and Himalayan blue poppy. Then top off the day with the current botanical offering at the Conservatory of Flowers, which boasts an impressive permanent collection of rare orchids, bromeliads and the “Giant Water Lily.” The enormous glass greenhouse is divided into different botanical galleries, which sometimes hold special exhibits.

East Bay

9. University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley

This is one of the best gardens I’ve ever experienced, and as is the case with gardens, each time I go, it’s filled with new surprises. Set on a lavish 34 acres, with over 10,000 native, Australasian, and South African specimens, this botanical haven is home to many rare and endangered plants. I especially love the “Ethnobotanical Collections,” comprised of Chinese and native medicinal herb gardens, unique crops from around the world, and an old growth rose garden. The life force energy is quite potent here, with well-kept trails that lead to spectacular views overlooking the San Francisco Bay.

10. Berkeley Rose Garden

This small sanctuary within the city of Berkeley is easily accessible yet feels worlds away. Growing up in New Jersey and living in California for nearly 30-years, I’m still in awe of flowers blooming throughout the seasons. Experiencing roses in the winter months will never get old. I’ve spent many an afternoon sitting serenely among the over 100 terraced rose bushes, drinking in their delightful scents, and admiring their beauty. A perfect respite for journaling, this lovely spot allows for deep inner-reflection and a profound sense of peace.

Want to learn more about the power of flowers? Join Dina Saalisi at Lotusland on Wednesday, July 10, from 11:30 am to 12:30 pm for Strengthen Your Intuition with Flowers and Sound, where the audience will learn how to engage with nature and experience the garden with a fresh perspective.  


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