San Franciso's Golden Gate Park

San Francisco's Strybing Arboretum & Botanical Gardens in Golden Gate Park is a relatively little-known but wonderful attraction for tourists and residents alike.

The Arboretum in Golden Gate Park is not as well known as the nearby Japanese Tea Garden, but it is just as beautiful. It is also larger, less crowded, and free of charge (contributions welcomed, but not required).

It is the most peaceful place in Golden Gate Park. Dogs, bicycles, and skating are not allowed. You won't even see very many joggers -- most people stroll slowly, stopping often to look at the exotic flowers and plants. Everybody appears ultra-relaxed.

San Francisco has a specific type of micro-climate that is different from most of the rest of the United States, but is similar to some other coastal regions around the world. The Arboretum's gardens display trees and plants and flowers from those regions to inspire San Francisco gardeners with new ideas about the kinds of plants that can be grown here. There is also a library on the grounds with a wealth of information for gardeners.

But the Arboretum is not just for serious gardeners. In fact, they are probably a small minority of the visitors. Many people come to relax on the spacious lawns. On sunny weekend days, the main lawn near the 9th Avenue entrance is dotted with blankets. Another popular lawn is near the Friend's Gate entrance, by a small lake filled with ducks, turtles, and darting fish. This is an exceptionally beautiful spot -- so much so that wedding parties come here often to pose for pictures. And back amidst the international gardens west of the entrances are more lawns, perfect for people seeking more seclusion.

To best appreciate the full beauty of the Arboretum, you should walk around. There is a map displayed by the Friend's Gate entrance, and you can also purchase a copy in the store by the 9th Avenue entrance, but perhaps the best way to experience the gardens is to walk at random. The paths are curved and go up and over gentle hills in such a way that you don't know, as you're walking, what you're going to see next. So the view at the crest of every rise and around every bend is a delightful surprise, a new discovery.

Some highlights: On the west side, a miniature redwood forest. A Japanese-style pond -- walk out on the wooden deck and look down in the water and see if you can spot the brightly-colored carp. A succulent garden. A flower-covered trellis, where you can catch a glimpse of the intelligence and harmony of the garden's overall design -- looking out from that spot, you can see all the way into the distance, across one meadow lined up behind another, and far off, centered perfectly behind them, a fountain. On the east side, a fragrance garden (smelling encouraged!) and a garden of biblical plants. Near the Friend's Gate, a boardwalk that will take you through a display of plants from prehistoric times.

Directions: The Arboretum is enclosed by a fence and there are only two entrances. The Friend's Gate is on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, near the museums. The 9th Avenue entrance will be on your left if you enter from Lincoln Way, past the County Fair Building. Posted hours are 8 - 4:30 Monday to Friday, and 10 - 5 weekends and holidays, but sometimes, especially on nice summer days, they leave the gates open longer. Also, if you're already inside, they'll usually let you stay past closing time. There are one-way revolving doors for exits: it's like the opposite of a Roach Motel -- you can get out, but you can't get in.

There are also free volunteer-led tours. Check the info board near the 9th Avenue entrance for times. In the same area, there's a small bookstore selling garden-related material, and at peak times, there's a coffee and hot dog stand. The Arboretum also sponsors several plant sales a year.

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