Top 15 Art & Nature Playgrounds

Take a weekend to scope out the most unique art and artful nature in the urban wild

More places to go this weekend:
Top 12 desert escapes
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Portland, ORPortland, OR
Nature's palette: Portland, OR
The hilly Japanese Garden has views of downtown. In fall, the Japanese maples are vibrant cinnamons and yellows. japanesegarden.com

Fort Bragg, CAFort Bragg, CA
Floral fantasia: Fort Bragg, CA
Canyons, wetlands, a pine forest, and more make up the 47-acre Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens overlooking the Pacific. See native species in their natural plant communities, and formal gardens filled with heaths and heathers. Stroll the trails along coastal bluffs for breathtaking ocean views, at their best on clearer autumn days. Don't miss dahlias in full bloom in the Dahlia Garden in summer and fall. gardenbythesea.org

Los Angeles, CALos Angeles, CA
Indoor & Outdoor masterpieces: Los Angeles, CA
This sprawling art museum is a destination unto itself, but you'd be remiss not to wander its refreshed Central Garden. The maze of clipped azaleas, blooming dahlias, and a stream form a lovely backdrop for the building and its staggering hilltop view. But don't miss the mod and marvelous bougainvillea "trees" trained up rebar arbors. They're absolutely awe-inspiring. getty.edu

Phoenix, AZPhoenix, AZ
Cactus as canvas: Phoenix, AZ
Rambling among red rock formations with vistas in nearly every direction, the Desert Botanical Garden will make you feel like you've left the city for the country. Show-offs are bristly headed barrel cactus like organpipe, senita, and totem pole, and native ornamental grasses. Don't miss the Desert Discovery Loop Trail (about 0.3 mile) along a yucca forest and the Sonoran Desert Nature Loop Trail (0.25 mile) through stands of organpipe cactus. dbg.org

Seattle, WASeattle, WA
Sculpture on the water: Seattle, WA
The West's greatest sculpture gallery without walls is Seattle Art Museum's Olympic Sculpture Park on downtown's waterfront. There are a whopping 21 sculptures, including an enormous typewriter eraser and rusted-steel waves. seattleartmuseum.org

San Francisco, CASan Francisco, CA
Art in a national park: San Francisco, CA
The Presidio, the city's urban forest, is a beautiful mashup of art and nature. Look for works among the trees by big-name artists like Andy Goldsworthy. You'll also catch animation fever at the Walt Disney Family Museum (waltdisney.com) and at Lucasfilm HQ, where you can pay your respects at the statue of Yoda. nps.gov/prsf

Seattle, WASeattle, WA
Curated plants: Seattle, WA

On the shores of Lake Washington, the Washington Park Arboretum is an oasis of trees and plants. depts.washington.edu/uwbg

Palm Desert, CAPalm Desert, CA
Eye candy in the desert: Palm Desert, CA
You know Palm Springs for its midcentury mod design, but this low-key neighboring town is also a destination for art. Check out Desert Art Collection & Sculpture Garden, a gallery with a large courtyard set with sculptures amid palm trees, cactus, and bougainvillea. Then get some natural art to spruce up your home at the onsite garden center.
Insider Guide: Desert Art Collection & Sculpture Garden

Costa Mesa, CACosta Mesa, CA
Secret (art) garden: Costa Mesa, CA
Music, theater, and dance make this Orange County town an art hot spot. What also puts it on the art map is California Scenario, the super-cool modern sculpture garden hidden between two office buildings. Created by famed artist Isamu Noguchi, the garden has areas devoted to the state's varying geography: There's a mini redwood forest, a tiny desert, and a little mountain stream. Though it was installed more than 30 years ago, few outsiders know about it, so it's usually quiet.
Insider Guide: California Scenario

Denver, CODenver, CO
Little Bohemia: Denver, CO
Don't let the Rocky Mountains steal the thunder from Denver's vibrant art scene. A pixelated blue steel rhino sculpture welcomes you to the River North Art District (aka RiNo), where 100+ artists are represented in galleries and studios within a mile-square area. rivernorthart.com

Near Santa Barbara, CANear Santa Barbara, CA
Artful gardens: Near Santa Barbara, CA
The grounds of opera lover Ganna Walska's 1940s estate, Lotusland, show off the entire world of plant palettes, from a bog garden to 450 species of cactus. lotusland.org


Tucson, AZTucson, AZ
Wild displays: Tucson, AZ
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum introduces you to wild desert creatures. desertmuseum.org

Sonoma, CASonoma, CA
Quirky landscaping: Sonoma CA
At the nine-acre Cornerstone Gardens, you'll find the quirky work of top landscape architects, including a "flying" picket fence that soars five feet above the ground, a tree encrusted in sky blue Christmas balls, and an orchard of plastic daisy pinwheels. These eye-poppingly unconventional landscapes make you really think.
Insider Guide: Cornerstone Gardens

Irvine, CAIrvine, CA
Park of the future: Irvine, CA
Part of a former Marine Corps air station has been transformed into Orange County Great Park, a sprawling green oasis in the middle of the burbs. Take a big orange helium-balloon ride with forever views from 400 feet up, and check out art galleries and the Farm + Food Lab garden with 12 demonstration plots. ocgp.org

San Marino, CASan Marino, CA
Triple threat: San Marino, CA
For fans of art, letters, and botany, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens has it all. Of the 207-acre property, 120 landscaped acres are open to visitors with their more than 14,000 different varieties of plants in more than a dozen principal garden areas, including the Children's Garden, Jungle Garden, and Desert Garden. Head indoors to the library to browse rare historical and literary books and manuscripts, and then check out American and European painting in the art wing.
Insider Guide: The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens