The beautiful Descanso Gardens has a serene setting in an old oak grove, just 14 miles north of downtown LA.
Descanso Gardens is so stunning, that Walt Disney once scouted it as a possible location for his theme park!
The 160-acre Descanso Gardens was originally owned by prominent L.A. newspaper editor E. Manchester Boddy who purchased the land in the late 1930's, then sold it to Los Angeles County in 1953 to use as a park.
Set aside 3 to 4 hours at Descanso Gardens to explore 20 themed gardens, and visit Boddy's 12,000 square foot house. Stop by the cafe and gift shop, and take kids to the miniature railroad.
Descanso Gardens is located at 1418 Descanso Drive, La Canada Flintridge. Check hours & admission.
10 best things to do at Descanso Gardens
1. Eat inside the cafe or outdoor shaded patio.
The relaxing courtyard at Descanso Gardens is near the entrance, and has a cafe and outdoor shaded patio. The cafe serves sandwiches and wraps, salads, wine, beer and coffee, and there's also a kid's menu. The patio area was featured in the highly successful HBO TV series Big Little Lies, with Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman!
2. Explore the fun gift shop at Descanso Gardens.
The Gift Shop at Descanso Gardens has a wonderful selection of eclectic merchandise like candles, jewelry, cards, hats, ornaments and books. It's housed inside a charming arts and craft building with loads of ambiance. You don't need to pay an entrance fee to visit the Gift Shop.
The best time to visit is around Halloween and Christmas, when there are gorgeous seasonal decorations in the Gift Shop. Don't miss the discount table for great buys, and there's also a kid's section with books and puzzles.
The small nursery is on the other side of the Gift Shop, and has plants, unique pots, wall art, outdoor lanterns, and bird houses.
3. See 600 varieties of roses at the Rose Garden.
The 5-acre rose garden has 600 varieties of roses, in a romantic setting with a fountain. The fountain is based on the style seen in old Californian Missions, and you can see native birds drinking at the fountain's edge. There's a curved pergola behind the fountain, draped in bougainvillea.
Descanso Gardens has an informal rose garden where the roses aren't laid out in rows. They are instead mixed in with colorful perennials giving it the appearance of a cottage garden, with a romantic, whimsical feel.
The fragrant roses reach full bloom in early Spring, when you can wander along paths with exotic varieties from China and Japan, beneath metal and wooden archways festooned with climbing roses. Don't miss the two day Rose Festival each May with music, floral art, and guided walks through the Descanso Gardens.
Many of the roses at Descanso Gardens were hybridized by Boddy's chief botanist, Dr Walter Lammerts, meaning that he combined different rose species to create a super-class of roses. These rose varieties needed to be hybridized to ensure their health and survival, because they had been overbred. By combining different species, they also bloomed more frequently. The most famous example of this super-class of rose is the pink Queen Elizabeth (1954), which co-incided with the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in England.
This is the Victorian Gazebo at the rose garden, which is popular for weddings.
The stunning promenade near the stream that runs along the rose garden's northern border is lined with Camellia bushes planted in the 1940s. The Camellia's thrive under the shade of coastal oaks, native to the Descanso Gardens. They are in bloom from October through May, even during the middle of winter!
Boddy acquired the biggest Camellia collection in the US, by purchasing them from two local Japanese nursery owners during WWII (the Yoshimura and Uyematsu families). These nursery owners were forced into internment camps after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and an Executive Order by President Roosevelt sent 120,000 Japanese to internment camps.
Boddy had compassion for these Japanese nursery owners, and offered them a fair price for their camellias before they entered the camps. This demonstrated integrity because most Japanese were forced to sell their possessions for cut rate prices, losing almost everything. Boddy also took over one of the local nurseries for a Japanese family who were interned.
Boddy was a savvy businessman and wanted to enter the Camellia trade, because during the 1940's there was massive demand for Camellias on the East Coast, and he was successful cutting and selling these flowers to this market. As an added bonus, they flowered during the colder winter months.
4. Spot koi in the Mulberry Pond.
The hillside Mulberry Pond has a waterfall that cascades into the pond, that's also full of koi.
5. Stroll through the enchanting Japanese Garden at Descanso Gardens.
The Japanese Garden opened in 1966, with a high level of consultation from the Japanese community. It has a lovely stroll garden with a meandering stream and waterfalls, and a red temple bridge, tea house, stone lantern and torri gates.
The temple bridge was designed by Kenneth Masao Nishimoto, and styled after one in Kyoto, Japan. The tea house used to be a refreshment stand selling tea and cookies, but was closed after the restaurant and cafe was constructed in the 1980s at the entrance to Descanso Gardens.
E. Manchester Boddy had a profound respect for the Japanese, their work ethic and cultural norms. He even wrote a book published in 1921 titled Japanese in America, which you can purchase on Amazon.
The pond at Descanso Gardens is full of koi.
6. Cool off in the shade at the Ancient Forest at Descanso Gardens.
The Ancient Forest is a welcome respite from the scorching Californian sun. It has a pathway lined with Jurassic-era tree ferns, known as the Fern Canyon, and a natural stream meandering through it.
7. Explore the historic 12,000 square foot Boddy House.
Stroll up the hill to the Boddy House at Descanso Gardens, constructed in 1939 by newspaper editor E Manchester Boddy who published the LA Illustrated Daily News. The Boddys lived in this house for 14 years, from 1939 to 1953, and had 2 sons.
The lower floor of this 12,000 square foot home is open to visitors, and has fascinating exhibits on the history of this house.
Boddy originally purchased the property in 1937 as a ranch, attracted to the beautiful spring-fed streams and stunning oak groves in the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains. Native Americans once used the acorns as a food source and for medicinal purposes, and were able to make starch from the acorns. The oak groves also supported an incredible eco-system of wildlife.
In 1950 Boddy opened his LA garden for just one weekend to the public, and it attracted an incredible 5,000 visitors! This came as quite a shock to the neighbors. Boddy then tried to get the proper permits to run his property as a garden open to the public, however the neighbors lobbied hard against this.
In 1953 Boddy retired and put the property up for sale, attracting the attention of Walt Disney who thought this LA garden might be perfect for his new theme park. There was also another proposal on the table to use the land as a dump.
The estate was finally deeded to Los Angeles County for $1.16 million to be used as a public garden. A group of neighbors came together to form a Guild to promote and fundraise for the garden.
The Boddy's house was designed in the Hollywood Regency style by 'Architect To The Stars' James Dolena. There are many examples of Dolena's work throughout Beverly Hills and Brentwood.
The Boddy House is also available to rent for special events, where guests can read inspirational quotes on the wall from Boddy!
This is the entry way to Boddy's house, with lots of historic exhibits about this LA garden.
Look at the gorgeous parquet floor, and ornate chandelier.
Boddy was an influential figure, and this is the living room at Boddy House where he entertained the founder of Time Inc, Henry Luce. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands also visited here.
Peer through the beautiful bay windows with glimpses of the garden.
This is not the original kitchen, and was added later to ensure that the Boddy House could support catering for larger events. You can book a reception for up to 100 people at the Boddy House and lawn.
This is Boddy's study at Boddy House. Can you imagine Boddy sitting at this desk writing his popular newspaper columns? The bookshelf is full of his writings and memorabilia, and the wood panelling gives this room a more masculine feel.
Look at the newspaper clipping in the display shelf that reads "Publisher Boddy to run for Senate". In 1950 Boddy ran for the Californian Senate seat before eventually dropping out of the race. Richard Nixon ended up winning the seat, putting Nixon on the path to becoming President.
Boddy had a rags to riches story, and was born into poverty in a cabin in Lake Tapps, Washington State. After a series of odd jobs he eventually became a salesman for Encyclopedia Britannica in NY. He was injured in WWI from a German mustard gas attack, then returned home to continue selling encyclopedias.
Boddy moved out to the West Coast to improve his health, and in 1926 he became Editor of the NY Illustrated Daily News owned by the Vanderbilts. Boddy then aquired the paper from the Vanderbilts after it went into bankruptcy. Boddy adopted a celebrity, tabloid-style format which resonated with the public, and the paper began turning a profit in the 1930s and 1940's.
Enjoy magnificent views of the San Gabriel mountains from the sun room. The chessboard black and white tile is exquisite, and infuses the room with 1930's Hollywood glamour. Some fabulous parties were probably thrown here overlooking this stunning LA garden.
8. Browse art exhibitions at the Sturt Haaga Gallery.
The adjacent garage has been beautifully renovated to accommodate the Sturt Haaga Gallery, with ten rotating exhibitions each year. The Sturt Haaga Gallery has three gallery spaces across 1,500 square feet, and there's a modern extension to the garage to house the gallery.
9. See the vertical garden and living roof at Erskine Garden.
The Erskine Garden is in the courtyard of the Boddy House, and has a beautiful vertical garden and a living roof.
The Fall sculpture is by Alison Saar (2011), and features a bronzed goddess making some type of offering. The Descanso Gardens is full of oak trees with acorns, so perhaps she is offering up acorns.
10. Celebrate Holiday lights and Halloween pumpkins.
The Descanso Gardens is home to popular seasonal events that sell out quickly.
In October the Carved Pumpkin event features a 1-mile pathway lined with 1,000 illuminated pumpkins decorated by skilled artisans.
In late November and December the Forest of Light transforms another 1-mile pathway into a magical, winter wonderland, and the illuminated trees are absolutely stunning. Purchase tickets.
Explore Descanso Gardens with kids.
Kids will love the 5-minute miniature railroad ride traversing a small section of the gardens near the Promenade. The yellow train is a 1/8th scale replica of a diesel train, and parents can even ride along too! Listen to the clank of the bells as the train approaches pathways. At one point the train even crosses a bridge and passes through a tunnel. Check here to see if the railroad is open.
The lake on the east side of Descanso Gardens also has slider turtles, swans and ducks for kids to see. The turtles were relocated from Swan Lake at the LA Zoo in 1991. This lake is where Boddy used to launch his boat and is a wonderful place for bird watching. There's also a Bird Observation Platform at the lake that is fun for kids to climb, and you can see an incredible variety of birds like finches, blackbirds, thrushes, warblers, jays, larks and crows. It was built in 1961 by the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society.
Kids can also check out the koi at the Mulberry Pond and Japanese Garden Pond.
What's blooming at the Descanso Gardens?
Call ahead to check if your favorite flower is blooming: 818-949-4200.
Here's a rough guide to what's likely to be blooming at this LA garden:
- Camellias: September thru May.
- Roses: May thru October.
- Cherry Trees: January thru February.
- Irises: March thru May.
- Azaleas: May.
- Daffodils: February thru March.
Know before you go
- Address: 1418 Descanso Drive, La Canada Flintridge, CA 91011.
- Descanso Gardens hours: check here.
- Admission: check here.
- Parking: free.
Things to do nearby
- Visit the incredible Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens 10-miles southeast.
- Enjoy upscale restaurants and shops at nearby Old Pasadena along Colorado Boulevard.
- Travel 9-miles southwest of the Descanso Gardens to the LA Zoo in Griffith Park.