Located in Papago Park, not far from downtown Phoenix, the Desert Botanical Garden is a Phoenix Point of Pride and one of only 24 botanical gardens accredited by the American Alliance of Museums. Unlike most botanical gardens, though, it focuses on the plants that thrive in and, to a lesser extent, the animals and people that live in the Sonoran Desert, which surrounds Phoenix.
Throughout the year, the 140-acre garden hosts concerts, plant sales, art installations, and special events like Las Noches De Las Luminarias. It even boasts a top-rated restaurant, Gertrude’s. Here’s a complete guide so you can make the most of your visit.
The Desert Botanical Garden dates back to the Great Depression when wealthy divorcée Gertrude Divine Webster found herself struggling to raise rare cacti. On a friend’s recommendation, she turned to Gustaf Starck for advice, and their conversations eventually evolved into a plant to create a botanical garden dedicated to desert plants in Phoenix.
Webster lent her financial support, the self-taught botanist recruited other enthusiasts with a sign reading “Save the Desert,” and together, they began collecting specimens. In 1939, the Desert Botanical Garden opened to the public. World War II forced the fledgling garden to close temporarily, but it flourished in the 1950s, growing from a mere 1,000 specimens at the end of World War II to 18,000 by 1957.
Today, the garden exhibits more than 50,000 plants, including 485 are rare and endangered species, and welcomes more than 450,000 visitors annually. It is one of the most popular attractions in the Valley and one of the best ways to experience what makes the Sonoran Desert unique.
What to Do
The Desert Botanical Garden has five major trails: Desert Discovery Loop Trail, Plants & People of the Sonoran Desert Loop Trail, Desert Wildflower Loop Trail, Sonoran Desert Nature Loop Trail and Center for Desert Living Trail. Start on the Desert Discovery Loop Trail, just off the Ottosen Entry Garden. A mix of cacti and succulents from around the world as well as palo verde trees the loop. Don’t miss the Kitchell Family Heritage Garden, showcasing the plants found in Baja California, along the way.
From the Desert Discovery Loop Trail, you can branch off to all but the Desert Wildflower Loop Trail. On the Plants & People of the Sonoran Desert Loop Trail, you’ll learn how plants have been used for food, medicine and building materials and see example of Tohono O’odham, Western Apache and Hispanic households. Nearby, the Sonoran Desert Nature Loop Trail offers incredible views of Phoenix and the surrounding mountains while the Center for Desert Living Trail explores sustainability.
You’ll find the Desert Wildflower Loop Trail off the Ottosen Entry Garden just past the Garden Shop. During the spring, yellow, orange, pink and purple blossoms color the 1/3-mile loop, but you won’t want to miss Boulder, Bee, Shade, Hummingbird and Butterfly gardens the rest of the year. The seasonally open Butterfly Pavilion is also on the Desert Wildflower Loop Trail.
Usually open for several weeks in the fall and spring, the Butterfly Pavilion contains hundreds of butterflies, including Monarchs, that live in the Southwest. Visitors can learn about the pollinators and pose for pictures in the pavilion as butterflies flutter around them. An activity book for kids can be downloaded before you visit. Admission to the Butterfly Pavilion is free with general admission although you will need to reserve a time to visit the pavilion.
The Desert Botanical Garden also has a 9,000-book library dedicated to native desert plants, a children’s play area, and the award-winning Gertrude’s restaurant, which focuses on locally-sourced ingredients. Gertrude’s is open for brunch, lunch, and dinner as well as cocktails daily. Drop in next door at the garden’s gift shop, the Garden Shop, for gardening and desert-related gifts.
In the past, the garden hosted free daily tours of the garden starting at 10 a.m., 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. as well as free behind-the-scenes tours. However, group tours and activities have been replaced indefinitely by private experiences, thanks to COVID. These experiences cover topics ranging from landscaping to the garden’s extensive agave plant collection. You can also add food and beverage packages like an afternoon tea ($430) or a private agave tequila or wine tasting ($320 each) to your visit. Contact the garden to arrange.
Special events draw people to the garden year-round. Watch for music concerts in the spring and fall and seasonal events like Boo-Tanical Nights and Agave on the Rocks. Dog Days at the Garden welcomes you to bring your four-legged best friend for an early stroll through the garden while Las Noches de Las Luminarias invites the whole family to enjoy holiday-themed activities as they stroll trails lit by 8,000 luminarias.
The Desert Botanical Garden is located at 1201 N. Galvin Parkway. By car, take the 202 to Priest Drive, which becomes Galvin Parkway, and head north through the Van Buren Street intersection. Go through the first round-about. At the second round-about, turn right and continue to the parking lot. Parking is free.
Or, you can also take the Loop 101 to McDowell Road and turn west. Continue six blocks to Galvin Parkway, turn left, and turn left at the first round-about.
It’s possible to take public transportation but not easy since there is no Valley Metro Rail station within a reasonable walking distance. However, you can take the light rail to the Washington/Priest Station and transfer to Bus 56 north. The bus stops in the garden’s parking lot. A one-day pass for local bus and light rail transport is $4.
How to Visit
The Desert Botanical Garden is open daily except Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and July 1 through July 5. Hours are seasonal, and the garden may close early for special events, so check the calendar before you go. Garden members can enter the garden an hour early on Wednesday and Sunday.
Admission is $14.95 to $29.95 (depending on the season) for adults and $9.95 to $14.95 for children 3 to 17. Children under 3, active military personnel and members get in free. General admission does not include special events or exhibitions.
No matter what time of the year you visit, be prepared. Bring a refillable water bottle (the garden has two hydration stations) and sunscreen, which is essential even in the winter. Sunglasses and maybe even a hat are recommended, too. Since there’s no tram, you’ll be doing a lot of walking. Wear comfortable shoes.
Things to Do Nearby
You can easily combine a visit to the Desert Botanical Garden with a visit to its next-door neighbor, the Phoenix Zoo, although it will make for a long, tiring day, especially during warmer months. Another option is to visit the Hall of Flame Museum of Firefighting, less than a mile away. Or, stop by the equally close Arizona Heritage Center, run by the Arizona Historical Society.
The Desert Botanical Garden is located within Papago Park. For an Instagram-worthy shot, hike to the park’s famous landmark, Hole in the Rock. You should be able to spot it from Galvin Parkway and find its parking lot easily. The hike takes only 10 minutes, if that, and has a minimal elevation gain. Go at sunset for breathtaking views of downtown Phoenix silhouetted against a dramatic orange sky.
When the holidays come around, one of the most popular tickets -- yes, they do sell out -- is Las Noches de las Luminarias at Desert Botanical Garden. The cool winter evenings are transformed by luminarias placed along the walking paths while patrons enjoy music, food and beverages. It's a sophisticated, beautiful holiday experience.
Video: A Visit to DBG
Get a glimpse of what you'll see and do on a visit to the Desert Botanical Garden, or DBG.