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, 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 the city.
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 Swedish botanist Gustaf Starck for advice, and their conversations eventually evolved into a plan to create a botanical garden dedicated to desert plants in Phoenix.
Together, they began collecting specimens; while Webster lent her financial support, Starck recruited other enthusiasts with a sign reading “Save the Desert." 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 the war to 18,000 by 1957.
Today, the garden exhibits more than 50,000 plants, including 485 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.
Things to Do
The garden offers plenty of things to see and do, from five different loop trails showcasing native desert plants to an award-winning restaurant offering up seasonal fare. Here's how to spend your visit.
Learn About Local Flora by Getting Lost in the Trails
The Desert Botanical Garden has five major trails:
- Desert Discovery Loop Trail: Start your visit on the Desert Discovery Loop Trail, just off the Ottosen Entry Garden. Palo verde trees, along with a mix of cacti and succulents from around the world, line the loop. Don’t miss the Kitchell Family Heritage Garden, which showcases the plants found in Baja California. From the Desert Discovery Loop Trail, you can branch off to all but the Desert Wildflower Loop Trail.
- Plants & People of the Sonoran Desert Loop Trail: You’ll learn how plants have been used for food, medicine, and building materials, in addition to seeing examples of Tohono O’odham, Western Apache, and Hispanic households.
- Desert Wildflower Loop Trail: During the spring, yellow, orange, pink, and purple blossoms color the 0.3-mile loop. Take this loop to visit the Butterfly Pavilion.
- Sonoran Desert Nature Loop Trail: This trail offers incredible views of Phoenix and the surrounding mountains.
- Center for Desert Living Trail: This trail explores sustainability.
Visit the Butterfly Pavilion
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.
Dine at Gertrude's
This award-winning restaurant serves up New American fare every day of the week. With a seasonal menu focusing on locally-sourced ingredients, expect entrées like green chili cheeseburgers, duck enchiladas, and lamb curry. Come for brunch, lunch, or dinner, or, if you're looking to imbibe, a cocktail or two.
Sign Up for a Private Experience
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 with private experiences due to COVID-19. 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.
Explore the Garden's Indoor Offerings
When you're in need of some shade, check out the 9,000-book library dedicated to native desert plants, as well as the gift shop for gardening and desert-related souvenirs.
Check Out an Event
Special events draw people to the garden year-round. Be on the lookout 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 walk 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. Head north through the Van Buren Street intersection before driving through the first roundabout. At the second roundabout, turn right and continue to the parking lot.
Alternatively, you can take the Loop 101 to McDowell Road and turn west. Continue six blocks to Galvin Parkway, take a left, and then another left at the first roundabout. Parking is free.
If you're using public transportation, 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 on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and July 4. Hours are seasonal, and the garden may close early for special events, so check the calendar before you go. Garden members can enter an hour early on Wednesday and Sunday.
The cost of admission depends on the season; entry ranges from $14.95 to $29.95 for adults and $9.95 to $14.95 for children between the ages of 3 and 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 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.
For an Instagram-worthy shot, hike to Papago 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.