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We were staying at the Magnuson Hotel Papago Inn, just a short distance from the world famous Desert Botanical Gardenso we decided to visit. The Desert Botanical Garden encompasses a vast 140 acre area containing 21,000 different plants, including over 100 endangered species. Even for those visitors that do not particularly enjoy botany, I recommend visiting these gardens. They are a meticulously created work of art that, through a gentle human touch, combine the beauty of nature with the orderly placement and utmost care of plants.

Only a few minutes’ drive or 30 minute walk from the Magnuson Hotel Papago Inn, the Desert Botanical Garden is a fun destination for the whole family. In December, we found the leisurely walk along the paved Cross-cut Canal Multi-Use Path and then the hike along the dirt trail through the Papago State Park pleasant and reminiscent of Dorothy’s yellow brick road.

Upon arriving at the gardens I was struck by the stark contrast of bright flowers against the brown earth as well as the Chihuly glass sculptures delicately mimicking the cacti around them. The Desert Botanical Gardens host a wide array of art events every year from Chihuly sculptures to music and storytelling, yet another way the garden masterfully mixes nature and man made art.

Before touring the gardens,we sat down for lunch at Gertrude’s. This fine dining establishment far surpassed any restaurant I have ever encountered inside a park. We sat at an outside table next to a fountain, and the heat lamp by our table was quickly turned on. For the first course we ordered their pretzel with fondue style cheese, all made in-house. For lunch the menu offered a generous variety of salads, sandwiches, and desserts to choose from, and our friendly waitress even let us sample some wines from the area. They have an awesome dinner menu too!

While eating we enjoyed the beautiful view of the desert and were visited by a road runner begging for scraps. Coming from the Pacific Northwest, I found the novelty of this roadrunner to be much more charming than the pigeons I am use to dealing with.

After lunch we walked through the well stocked and tempting gift shop out onto the trails of the Desert Botanical Garden. As winter visitors we were only able to walk the Desert Discovery Loop, but during the summer months, the colorful Wildflower Loop trail and the butterfly exhibit are both open as well. Nonetheless, the Desert Discovery Loop turned out to still be worth the trip. As someone who had very limited exposure to cacti and succulents before my trip to Phoenix, I was astounded by the number of different shapes, sizes and colors I observed. Some of the plants had white spines, while others were purple or red. Some stood straight up like in Looney Tunes cartoons, while others were spiraling, thin, and wild, like octopus tentacles. My favorite cactus was the short round Ferrocactus that had sprouted yellow fruit on top of it that looked like miniature pineapples. I learned that these fruits are even edible, although unfortunately we were unable to sample them.

ispersed among the plants are beautiful statues, areas with couches and fire pits, and a stunning sun dial. Water fountains and bathrooms are also conveniently sprinkled throughout the gardens. Overall, strolling through the gardens was an incredibly aesthetically pleasing experience.

If you arrive at the Garden in the morning there are guided tours available. Although we missed the last tour of the day, the staff that we encountered were extraordinarily friendly and helpful. The majority of them are volunteers, passionate about the mission of encouraging understanding, appreciation, research and conservation of the rare desert landscape.

Even without a tour, visiting the Desert Botanical Gardenswas a very informational experience. By reading the plaques along the path we learned that cacti have wooden skeletons and can live up to 300 years. We also learned about the people of the Sonoran Desert through examples of how the Tonoho O’odham tribe lived. We walked through a short long hut made of dry grass that they used as shelter, and we practiced using a traditional mortar and pestle made out of stone. 

“A garden should make you feel you've entered privileged space -- a place not just set apart but reverberant -- and it seems to me that, to achieve this, the gardener must put some kind of twist on the existing landscape, turn its prose into something nearer poetry.” ? Michael Pollan

Before visiting the garden, I recommend checking out the Desert Botanical Garden website for special events. In the Spring the gardens offer “Music in the Garden” with a lineup that features a variety of different genres from salsa and swing, to blues and jazz. If you are especially lucky you may even be around for “Dogs Day”, for a day full of cacti and canine fun. In late November and December you can catch “Las Noches de las Luminarias", a magical candle-lit night stroll through the gardens accompanied with hot beverages.

At the time we were there, the entry fee was $22 for adults, $12 for students, and $10 for children. We decided, however, to buy a membership. Starting at $75, memberships offer unlimited entry, guest passes, discounts on events, and the warm fuzzy feeling of knowing that you are helping support a local effort that relies heavily on its visitors for funding.

Story by Marjorie Pichon - Photos by Marjorie Pichon and Bret Wirta