Secret Gardens of Balboa Park


Visitors to San Diego’s Balboa Park have much to thank the original planners early who worked tirelessly early in the last century to lay down the bones of today’s wonderful setting.  Visionaries like Kate Sessions, the “Mother of Balboa Park,” envisioned a broad urban park that rivaled the grand parks of Europe and the East Coast.  Throughout what is now Balboa Park they planted hundreds of trees, laid out stately gardens, and hidden alcoves that the public could enjoy year round.  They were known as “progressives” and how progressive they were!  Read on to discover a few of the many gardens you may have missed in your visits to Balboa Park.


Many visitors pass quickly through the park on the way to the Zoo or to a venue at the organ pavilion or perhaps to visit a museum.  A longer visit can uncover some of the secret gardens of this wonderful urban park.  Now, these aren’t really secret gardens.  There’s no hidden codebook that only insiders have access to.  Anyone can find these gardens if they take the time to explore just a few steps beyond the main attractions.

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The Old Cactus Garden was planted in 1935 by Kate Sessions.  As you wander along the trails overlooking Florida Canyon you can see a wide variety of very large cacti and succulents from the American Southwest, Africa, and Australia.  This garden ties in with the  5-acre California Native Plant Garden which is adjacent to the 150-acre Florida Canyon Nature Preserve.  This garden has more than 150 featured plants.  Access these gardens via the pedestrian bridge over Park Boulevard which is adjacent to the large fountain at the end of the Prado and the Natural History Museum.

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The three-acre Inez Parker Rose Garden contains more than 200 varieties of roses and more than 2,000 individual plants.  It is a popular spot for weddings.  The fragrance in this wonderful setting is intoxicating.  You can’t have a bad day if you can smell the roses!  Get to this garden across the footbridge described above.  It’s also adjacent to the Old Cactus Garden.


The very small Zoro garden is a sunken grotto just west of the Reuben Fleet building on the south side of the Prado.  It was designed in 1935 as a nudist colony for the California – Pacific Exposition.  Who knew?  Today it is home to butterflies and hummingbirds and contains the nectar plants and other amenities necessary for the complete life cycle of monarch, sulphur, and swallowtail butterflies.

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The Alacazar Gardens were inspired by the gardens of Alacazar Castle in Seville, Spain and built in 1935.  There are fountains, Moorish tiles, and pergolas.  In between boxwood hedges are ever changing annuals that are replenished frequently to provide visitors amazing splashes of color.  The garden is located between the Art Institute and the Mingei Museum.

There are actually 19 individual gardens within the park.  In previous posts Kongo has posted about the Japanese Friendship Garden, the Botanical Building, and the gardens at Marston House.

Travel safe.  Have fun.


12 thoughts on “Secret Gardens of Balboa Park

  1. I LOVE Balboa Park! And you’re so right that so much isn’t hidden, just not as sought out as it could be! I love introducing friends to the gardens over the footbridge, especially the cactus garden. Hope you don’t mind, but I have to share a fave photo I took of one of my dear friends (who happens to also be a fellow photographer):
    Thanks for all the fantastic history and tidbits! Still hoping to bump into Kongo around town : )

  2. What beautiful pictures of the gardens! We passed through fairly quickly years ago, but did find the cactus garden – it was so exotic for us at the time! Love the Monarch at the top of the page.