When you think “Phoenix,” you probably picture a city surrounded by desolate wilderness. Tourists rarely arrive with a list of gardens on their itinerary. However, you may be surprised to learn that the Valley of the Sun offers many gorgeous garden experiences! 

Desert Botanical Garden

It’s early on a Tuesday morning, but crowds are already lining up at the gate to Phoenix’s Desert Botanical Garden (DBG). In the summer, this garden opens at 7:00 am, allowing guests to wander through the grounds before the temperature spikes to triple digits by midmorning. 

Why would anyone get up so early to visit a botanical garden? For locals, it’s the appeal of being outside and amongst plants before the heat drives everyone into the air conditioning. For out-of-towners, it’s the chance to marvel at the beauty and variety of the desert landscape. 

  • Author and son at the DBG cactus garden. Photo credit Tricia Isbell
  • Butterfly at Desert Botanical Garden. Photo credit Breana Johnson
  • Cacti at Desert Botanical Garden. Photo credit Breana Johnson
  • Birds feasting on saguaro fruit at Desert Botanical Garden. Photo credit Breana Johnson
  • Author's friend in cactus garden at DBG. Photo credit Breana Johnson
  • Desert Botanical Garden. Photo credit Breana Johnson copy
  • Herbs at Desert Botanical Garden. Photo credit Breana Johnson
  • Butterfly Garden at DBG. Photo credit Breana Johnson
  • Sundial at Desert Botanical Garden. Photo credit Benjamin Johnson
  • Wikiup at DBG. Photo credit Tricia Isbell

Five meandering trails display the glory of the desert, from the shaded succulent patch to the Instagrammable cactus gardens to an exhibit showing how natives once survived in the harsh Sonoran climate. Art displays—this year’s featuring larger-than-life glass art by Dale Chihuly—accentuate the many shades of desert plant life. 

Hole in the Rock. Photo credit Breana Johnson
Hole in the Rock. Photo credit Breana Johnson

Phoenix’s Desert Botanical Garden is located near Sky Harbor Airport, making it the perfect spot to kick off a trip to Phoenix. I like to follow up my visits to the garden by taking the short hike up Hole in the Rock, a red geological formation next to the Desert Botanical Garden that once served as a Hohokam solar calendar and now offers a stunning view of sunsets over the Phoenix skyline.

Hole in the Rock. Photo credit Breana Johnson
Hole in the Rock. Photo credit Breana Johnson

Boyce Thompson Arboretum 

An hour away from downtown Phoenix and the Desert Botanical Garden, a few cars wind their way between the fabled Superstition Wilderness and desolate White Canyon toward the small town of Superior. Here, visitors find Boyce Thompson Arboretum, a sprawling collection of gardens and historic sites surrounding a desert oasis. 

It’s quiet here, aside from the gurgling of Queen Creek and the whooshing of the wind through the rugged hills and valleys. When the doors open, however, the miles of trails within the arboretum will be filled with tourists and regulars enjoying desert landscapes from around the globe. 

  • A good reason to stay on the path at Boyce Thompson Arboretum. Photo credit Breana Johnson
  • Statue at BTA. Photo credit Breana Johnson
  • Cactus at Boyce Thompson Arboretum. Photo credit Breana Johnson
  • Children's Garden at BTA. Photo credit Breana Johnson
  • Author in greenhouse at BTA. Photo credit Benjamin Johnson
  • Historic Picket Post House overlooking BTA. Photo credit Breana Johnson
  • Suspension Bridge over Queen Creek in BTA. Photo credit Breana Johnson
  • Queen Creek at BTA. Photo credit Benjamin Johnson

Step into the floral rainbows of the Children’s Garden, trek the outback in the Eucalyptus Forest, take a trail through cactus gardens modeled after arid zones from nearly every continent. When you’re done, peek at the cactus nursery, where you can take home your own spiky piece of the arboretum. 

If you’re up for it, you can finish your day with a hike up daunting Picketpost Mountain, a climb not for the faint of heart. Or, enjoy natural pools and petroglyphs on the easier Hieroglyphic Trail on your way back to Phoenix

Desert oasis at Boyce Thompson Arboretum. Photo credit Breana Johnson
Desert oasis at Boyce Thompson Arboretum. Photo credit Breana Johnson

Glendale Xeriscape Gardens

On the other side of Phoenix, in suburban Glendale, birds call and animals scamper in a nature-inspired habitat surrounding the main branch of the public library. Here, art, architecture, history, and ecology harmonize to display the community’s distinctive natural and cultural setting. 

When my three-year-old son and I arrive at the entrance to the library’s gardens, we’re greeted with the meow-like call of a peacock roosting in a tree. We look up to see three of the huge birds staring down at us—just a handful of the dozens that strut languidly in the shade of the foliage. My son’s eyes grow round as a peacock crosses our path, displaying a tail of iridescent feathers.

Peacock struts through Rain Garden at Glendale Xeriscape Garden. Photo credit Breana Johnson
Peacock struts through Rain Garden at Glendale Xeriscape Garden. Photo credit Breana Johnson

The Rain Garden near the front of the library is kept lush year-round thanks to a watering system that captures rain from the library’s roof and directs it into an irrigation channel. This garden serves to educate locals on xeriscape gardening—a landscape method that conserves water by using native plants that can survive in the desert’s arid weather. 

We continue around the library, passing the Veteran’s Memorial to reach the Habitat Garden. This space provides a wild animal sanctuary in the middle of the urban sprawl. It’s an ideal place to rest and read. 

Next, we come to the small gardens between rows of parking spaces. The Desert Food Forest shows edible desert plants—everything from mesquite trees to prickly pear cacti—that can be grown and harvested in backyard gardens. The Tree Trail offers a variety of desert trees along with signage showing how to plant and care for your own. Our favorite is The Cactus Garden—a rainbow of cactus blooms in the springtime. 

When you visit the Glendale Xeriscape Demonstration Garden, you can finish your experience by heading through the gate to historic Sahuaro Ranch Park. Here, visitors walk between 150-year-old ranch buildings toward the playground and sprawling lawns of the park. 

  • Spanish dagger and ocotillo at Glendale Xeriscape Garden. Photo credit Breana Johnson
  • Prickly pear blossom at Glendale Xeriscape Garden. Photo credit Breana Johnson
  • Pomegranate blossom at Glendale Xeriscape Garden. Photo credit Breana Johnson
  • Sahuaro Ranch Park near Glendale Xeriscape Garden. Photo credit Breana Johnson
  • Tree Trail at Glendale Xeriscape Garden. Photo credit Breana Johnson
  • Texas mountain laurel at Glendale Xeriscape Garden. Photo credit Breana Johnson
  • Black-spined agave at Glendale Xeriscape Garden. Photo credit Breana Johnson
  • Fairy duster at Glendale Xeriscape Garden. Photo credit Breana Johnson
  • Art at Glendale Xeriscape Garden. Photo credit Breana Johnson

Plant Life in the Desert

Whether you’re a cactus aficionado or have everything to learn about dry landscapes, come soak in the sights, sounds, and scents of these colorful desert gardens near Phoenix. Arizona’s natural world will leave you in awe of nature’s beauty and variety. 

Author's son at Glendale Xeriscape Garden. Photo credit Breana Johnson
Author’s son at Glendale Xeriscape Garden. Photo credit Breana Johnson

COVER: Chihuly art at DBG. Photo credit Breana Johnson