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Top 13 public gardens

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    Harriet K. Maxwell Desert Wildflower Loop TrailDesert Botanical Garden

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    Las Noches de las LuminariasAdam Rodriguez/Desert Botanical Garden

You don’t have to know a zinnia from zoysia to be wowed by the these dazzling gardens.

Portland Japanese Garden
Portland, OR.
Japanese maples are at their most vivid in autumn at the Portland Japanese Garden, set on a hilly 5.5 acres among tall cedars, Douglas firs, and hemlocks. Enjoy the views of downtown and Mt. Hood from the Pavilion’s lookout, then meander the trails through five garden areas. In the Natural Garden, 12 varieties of Japanese maples are showing their true late-season colors. Scattered throughout the grounds are crimson burning bushes and yellow, orange, and red deciduous azaleas. Don’t miss: The star of the show, a 100-year-old specimen known as That Maple, in the Flat Garden, just inside the entrance. Its leaves turn brilliant orange in autumn. $10; 611 S.W. Kingston Ave.; japanesegarden.com 

Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens
Fort Bragg, CA.
Canyons, wetlands, a pine forest, and more make up this 47-acre site 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. $14 ($7/Mendocino Coast Recreation & Park District residents); 18220 N. State 1; gardenbythesea.org

Denver Botanic Gardens
Denver, CO.
With the Rocky Mountains as backdrop, the 24 acres here include idea-filled theme landscapes such as Plains Garden and Rock Garden. The kids will go nuts for a 19th-century working farm that has chickens and sheep, plus the rough-hewn wooden treehouse in the new Deer Creek Discovery Children’s Area. The Japanese Garden is awash in fiery color come fall. If the air turns chilly, duck into the Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory, kept at a balmy 70°, to see banana palms and coffee plants. Don’t miss: Autumn crocus blooming along Shady Lane. $13; 1007 York St.; botanicgardens.org

The Getty Center
Los Angeles, CA.
Fall is an ideal time to wander the Getty Center’s newly refreshed Central Garden amid the maze of clipped azaleas, blooming dahlias, and a stream. Don’t miss: Mod and marvelous bougainvillea “trees” trained up rebar arbors—they’re absolutely awe-inspiring. $15/vehicle; 1200 Getty Center Dr.; getty.edu

Rancho Los Alamitos
Long Beach, CA.
This former estate of the pioneering Bixby family has new features, including a restored barn, farm animals, and, occasionally, a visiting working blacksmith. Paths lead through the oak- and pine-shaded Native Garden, the Cactus Garden, and the Cutting Garden. Don’t miss: The Oleander Walk, which is lined with crape myrtle trees whose leaves are turning bright orange. Free; 6400 E. Bixby Hill Rd.; rancholosalamitos.org

Desert Botanical Garden
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 and 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. $18; 1201 N. Galvin Pkwy.; dbg.org

The Water Conservation Garden
El Cajon, CA.
Go for the exhibits and classes on how to keep your water bill from breaking the bank. Bring the kids along as you learn how to grow veggies in a raised bed or check out dollhouse-size models of fire-safe landscaping. Have a lawn you love to neglect? Find smart solutions at the new meadow of drought-tolerant ornamental grasses. Don't miss: Fleshy succulents in pink, yellow, green, burgundy, and blue, plus cactus blooming with magenta flowers. Free; 12122 Cuyamaca College Dr. W.; 619/660-0614 ext. 10; www.thegarden.org

Norton Simon Museum
Pasadena, CA.
At this garden-gallery combo, you'll see Rembrandt portraits, Degas dancers, and Matisse prints.

Don't miss: The sculpture garden outside, where the Maillol nudes nestled in reeds at the lily pond’s edge look as inviting as mermaids. Beyond the daylilies, lavender, and bamboo, Gwynn Murrill’s Sitting Cheetah seems so at home under the trees, you expect its tail to twitch. A cafe tucked into one corner is a pleasant spot for a break before you head back to the galleries. Closed Tue; $8; 411 W. Colorado Blvd.; 626/449-6840; www.nortonsimon.org

Earthbound Farm
Carmel Valley, CA.
Enjoy a hands-on experience at Earthbound’s 30-acre research garden. Get dirt under your fingernails with a harvest-your-own-flowers walk or a pick-your-own-vegetables chef demo, or visit the snip-your-own-herbs garden. For a full-on sensory experience, wander barefoot through a low-growing chamomile labyrinth. Involve your kids in farm life at the children’s garden, which has a tipi, tunnels, and peanut butter–scented plants that could be straight out of Dr. Seuss. Don't miss: The loaded salad bar (and excellent veggie lasagna) at the farmstand run by Earthbound, the organic farm that pioneered pre-washed lettuce. $20; 7250 Carmel Valley Rd.; 831/625-6219; www.ebfarm.com

Market by Jean-Georges
Vancouver, B.C.
Indulge in a meal at the buzzy restaurant set in the Shangri-La, a luxe hotel in British Columbia’s tallest (61-story) building. Don't miss: The view from Market’s terrace. Peer down at a Mondrian-inspired pattern of red, blue, and black plants carpeting a nearby rooftop. The terrace’s bamboo grove is a peaceful place to soak in the scene. $$$; 1128 W. Georgia St.; 604/689-1120; www.shangri-la.com/vancouver

Kahanu Garden
Hana, Maui, HI.
This tropical temple set on Maui's famous road to Hana offers black lava rock landscapes and awesome views of the jagged coastline. Don't miss: Pi‘ilanihale heiau, built out of lava rock in the late 13th century. One of the largest Hawaiian temples, it’s as big as two football fields. Near its base, get a quick history lesson at the Canoe Garden, where you can see plants the first Hawaiians brought to the islands by canoe, including Niu (coconut), Ko (sugarcane), Kalo (taro), and Ki (ti leaves). Closed Sun; $10; 650 ‘Ula‘ino Rd.; 808/248-8912; www.kahanu.ntbg.org

Cornerstone Gardens
Sonoma, CA.
Here you'll find good browsing in design shops and a boutique-wine collective, but you'll truly fall for the whole concept of gardens as art. Don't miss: The quirky work of top landscape architects in this nine-acre complex, including a “flying” picket fence that soars 5 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. Free; 23570 State 121; 707/933-3010; www.cornerstonegardens.com

Red Butte Garden and Arboretum
Salt Lake City, UT.
Hiking trails, walking paths, and primo picnic sites abound in Red Butte Canyon, which in summer swirls with butterflies and hummingbirds. Don't miss: Classes on herbs and native plants. Talk about an education; these workshops are offered by the University of Utah. And take in the carpets of 96 types of daffodils, blooming through late April. $6; at the University of Utah, 300 Wakara Way; 801/581-4747; www.redbuttegarden.org

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