This article originally appeared online for AAA Highroads in January 2015.

No matter the season, botanical gardens enable us to experience the world within a few beautifully maintained acres. From desert succulents to tropical plants and towering trees, these beauties are dedicated to preserving the rare and endangered as well as bringing other parts of the world right to the United States.

If you are planning a trip to Palm Springs or Southern California, these botanical gardens are destinations worth discovering.

Sunnylands Center. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

Sunnylands Center. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

Sunnylands Center & Gardens

Sunnylands is located in Rancho Mirage, California, about 15 minutes from Palm Springs. The facility is a retreat center, garden, and historic midcentury modern estate that once was the vacation home of Walter and Leonore Annenberg. It has been host to presidents, royalty, political figures, and cultural icons.

Visitors can explore the cultural center and 9-acre gardens for no charge when the center is open (it is closed in July and August). The gardens feature paths and desert plants complete with benches, reflecting pools, and a labyrinth. There are free 1-hour guided walks every Thursday and bird walks every Friday. For an unforgettable experience, make reservations for a guided tour of the magnificent home filled with art and antiquities.

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

The Huntington is a collections-based institution founded in 1919 by Southern California real estate and railroad mogul, Henry Huntington, and opened to the public in 1928. Huntington was passionate about art, books, and gardens — and that’s what you’ll find at The Huntington today.

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Created in 1912, the Japanese Garden features a small lake spanned by a moon bridge, a traditional house, and trellises of wisteria that bloom in early spring. Photo courtesy The Huntington

The botanical gardens cover 120 of The Huntington’s 207 acres in Pasadena, California, and are absolutely stunning. Two of the most impressive gardens at The Huntington are the Japanese Garden and Liu Fang Yuan Garden of Flowing Fragrance (Chinese Garden). The classic, peaceful Japanese Garden features a moon bridge and koi-filled ponds. The Chinese garden is one of the largest outside of China and was constructed by Chinese artisans and craftsmen. Five stone bridges lead to small islands, and pavilions provide places to reflect on the garden’s natural beauty.

While visiting the gardens, allow time to see The Huntington Art Galleries and Library, also included in your admission. It’s easy to spend two to three days exploring everything at The Huntington.

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18th-century French tapestries, carpets, furniture and decorative arts are among the treasures of The Huntington’s European art collection, seen here in the large library room of the Huntington Art Gallery. Photo by Tim Street-Porter, courtesy The Huntington

Descanso Gardens

Descanso Gardens is a hidden gem in the Los Angeles area, just a few minutes from Pasadena in La Cañada Flintridge, California. Once part of the E. Manchester Boddy family estate, the gardens today are a true urban retreat covering 160 acres in a lovely residential community.

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Boddy House at Descanso Gardens. Photo courtesy Descanso Gardens

The landscape, which includes gardens, woodlands, and chaparral, is dominated by Coast Live Oaks, a native California evergreen oak. Boddy planted dozens of common and rare camellia varieties in the shade of the oaks, and they are in full bloom each year from January through February. Two other spring favorites are the more than 400 lilac bushes that bloom mid-March through April and the tranquil Japanese garden. The Japanese garden is ideal for quiet reflection by the koi ponds, strolling through the Zen gardens, and enjoying the blooming cherry and plum trees.

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The Japanese Garden at Descanso Gardens is in full bloom each spring. Photo by John Stanley, courtesy Descanso Gardens

While at Descanso, take time to hike up to the Boddy House, open to the public Tuesday through Sunday. The 22-room, 12,000-square-foot mansion offers a glimpse of a bygone era. Descanso Gardens participates in the American Horticultural Society’s Reciprocal Admissions Program, which gives cardholders special admission privileges and discounts at nearly 300 gardens throughout the United States.

Be sure to read about these other great Western botanical gardens on Wander. You can also discover more to see and do while visiting California. We also love gardens on Wander, so check out even more around the world.

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