Nestled within 40 hilly acres on the eastern edge of the University of California at Riverside campus, the UCR Botanic Gardens is one of the Inland region’s best-kept secrets.
With four miles of self-guided walking paths and over 3,500 plant species from around the world, the park contains a diverse mix of plants and scenery. Its semi-rugged slopes help create localized microclimates, partly explaining the ability to maintain a wide range of plants allowing for year-round blooming (with April usually being the most colorful).
Once inside the gardens, visitors can decide among various paved and unpaved paths winding their way among the arroyos, trees and foliage. As you stroll around the grounds, one can’t help but feel they’ve escaped the hustle and bustle of daily life. Scattered about the paths and trails are numerous secluded spots and park benches, each offering up opportunities for inner contemplation and picturesque scenery. Several built structures add to the scenic park-like grounds, including several bridges, gazebos, arbors and even a small pond.
The garden’s plant variety also attracts various forms of wildlife, with over 200 species of birds – from hummingbirds, mockingbirds, wrens and woodpeckers to ravens, hawks, crows, jays and herons – having been recorded. The occasional rare bird, such as the turkey vulture and golden eagle, has also been spotted. Also abundant are various insects, spiders, lizards and even snakes (with lizards being the most common creature spotted). During the morning and evening hours can be seen the usual mammals – squirrels, gophers, rats, rabbits, skunks and even the occasional bobcat.
Since most of the key features are easily viewed from the paved paths (which are wheelchair accessible), we suggest a clockwise direction beginning with the Deserts and Cactus sections. From there you can make your way through the Rose, Iris and Herb gardens before ending with a leisurely stroll through Alder Canyon as you head back toward the main entrance. For those more adventurous, several unpaved paths found along the way will get you closer to the action, particularly if photographing, as well as steer you to quaint secluded areas.
Among the Botanic Garden’s highlights are the eccentric forms and blossoms found in the Desert and Cactus sections. Indeed the most curious portion of the park, the area contains several exotic-looking succulents, including various species of aloe and cacti.
Another favorite is the Rose Garden, which contains over 300 selections – including miniatures – that blossom with color and fragrance during the springtime. For enthusiasts, the Botanic Gardens offers a free rose pruning demonstration, usually held each January.
One of the most unique sections of the park is the Herb Garden, where culinary and medicinal plants often fill the air with their distinct aromas. Nearby is the Geodesic Dome Lath house. Inside the redwood-built structure are several shade plants, ferns and exotic palms.
Probably the most-visited area of the park is the Alder Canyon section. Situated near the entrance, the park-like area features a grassy area with several benches and wooden bridges shaded by tall trees. Farther back, the pathway squeezes into a small arroyo flanked with pines, ficus, cypress and even palms and bamboo.
From Alder Canyon, those who wish to venture off the paved area will find several dirt paths leading up into more secluded spots as well as the Botanic Garden’s way-back areas. Relatively easy to reach are the Celebration of Life Memorial and Bobcat Rocks areas. Farther back are found the Sierra Foothills (chaparral, foothill pine, mountain mahogany, California buckeye) and Australia sections (eucalyptus, bottlebrushes, acacias).
But the Botanic Gardens is more than just a horticultural exhibition. Twice each year (Spring and Fall), volunteers prep and host the Inland region’s largest botanical plant and seed sale at the gardens. Nearly 10,000 plants and more than 600 varieties are available for purchase at very reasonable prices (with many under $10). The 2012 Spring Plant Sale takes place this weekend (March 31-April 1). Proceeds from the widely-attended event help fund continuing maintenance.
In May, the gardens host “Primavera in the Gardens,” a wine and food tasting event. Approaching its 14th year, the fundraiser usually attracts hundreds of attendees with food and drinks provided by various local entities. Past participants have included Cafe Sevilla, Mario’s Place, Simple Simon’s, Smokey Canyon BBQ as well as Callaway Vineyard & Winery, Falkner Winery, Galleano, Joseph Filippi Winery & Vineyard. Also on hand have been beers from Hangar 24 Craft Brewery and Inland Empire Brewery. This year’s event will be held Sunday May 20, 2012. Reservations are suggested ($60 reserved or $70 day of event).
Open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., UCR’s Botanic Gardens are open to everyone, with the primary portions being wheelchair accessible. Self-guided tours take anywhere from 1-4 hours. Bikes, pets and smoking are not allowed and children under 16 must be accompanied by an adult. Reservations for school tours are also available. The gardens are closed on New Year’s Day, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
To reach the gardens, enter UC Riverside at Campus Drive off either University Avenue or Canyon Crest Drive. Follow Campus Drive easterly around to Botanic Gardens Drive located near Parking Lot 10. Continue past Lot 10, turning right and following Botanic Gardens Drive until you reach the main entrance. Entry into the gardens is free. However, a small $4 donation is requested and a short-term parking permit ($1 for 4 hours) is required and can be purchased just inside the gate.