Garden Variety

Pay a visit to these high-country oases and find a feast for the senses

In Banff National Park, where the Rocky Mountains are larger than life, it’s easy to overlook the area’s hidden treasures. Tucked behind Banff Village’s grand administration building is one of them: a quiet 12-acre idyll carpeted with 50,000 colorful blooms. Architect Harold C. Beckett, who designed the administration building and its gardens in the 1930s, specified a broad plant palette that included non-native annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees, to ensure beautiful blooms throughout the warm-weather months. And while some specific plantings have evolved from Beckett's original design, his creative vision remains intact to this day.  

When To Visit July and early August, when the skies are sunny, the temperatures are just right and the blooms are at their peak. 

Don’t Miss Stroll over burled-wood bridges, under archways and past cascading fountains as you explore the gardens’ flower-studded lawns, forest and ornamental rock gardens. Historic pavilions and shaded benches built for two are perfect spots to picnic and enjoy the views of Mt. Rundle. Pause a moment on the front lawn to take in great views down Banff Avenue, the village’s main street. 

Info Guides and interpretive tours are available in summer; admission is free. 101 Mountain Avenue, Banff, Alberta. 



While thousands enjoy this Rocky Mountain mainstay each year, those who have tried to nurture plant life in a dry, high climate will really respect this garden. Sitting at an elevation of 8,200 feet, Betty Ford Alpine Gardens not only stakes its claim as the country’s highest botanic garden but also is considered an authority on high-altitude plants. The five acres are divided into four areas—perennial, meditation, rock and children’s gardens—that contain more than 3,000 species, some of them exotic or endangered. The garden takes conservation seriously, and its efforts include tracking rare plant species and educating guests about why biodiversity matters. Fun events that bring music, food and art into the garden make the space accessible for all.  

When To Go September, when the distant Gore Range is tinged with the yellow of aspen leaves and the white of first snow dustings. The garden’s late-blooming flowers and grasses will still be very much alive.  

Don’t Miss The children’s garden, which offers a mini hike up the Gore Range, with interpretive signage and animal footprints in the pavers along the way.

Info Admission is free, though donations are welcome. Don’t forget sunscreen, a hat and plenty of water.183 Gore Creek Drive, Vail, 


This out-of-the-way spot may be one of the biggest surprises in the West. Located off a lonely stretch of highway that winds through stark hillsides studded with saguaros, this desert oasis is remarkably lush and green. When it was conceived in the 1920s, the arboretum’s mission was to study and share the plants of desert countries. Today the species showcased number 3,200, and come from arid lands in Africa, South America, Asia, the Mediterranean and, of course, the Sonoran Desert. Two miles of trails wind among the arboretum’s varied landscapes: groves of eucalyptus and palms; a fragrant herb garden bordered by pomegranate hedges; and Queen Creek Canyon, shaded by an unexpected mix of cottonwood, ash, willow and walnut trees. In the otherworldly cactus garden, more than 800 varieties are on display, from towering saguaros to gnarly chollas and flowering prickly pears. 

When To Go Early April, when the cacti are crowned with bright flowers and the herb garden’s curtains of Lady Banks roses are in full bloom.  

Don’t Miss A hike on the High Trail, which winds up and along a north-facing slope and affords views of Queen Creek Canyon below. Go slowly and explore the native plants that line the path. 

Info Adult admission is $9, kids ages 5-12 are $4.50 and kids under age 5 are free 37615 U.S. Highway 60, Superior, AZ 

Throughout the past decade, this Pacific Northwest treasure has steadily appeared on the best garden lists of top horticultural publications. But the accolades haven’t caused the garden to stray from its founder’s quiet, purposeful mission: to offer guests refreshment in nature.  The owner and cultivator of the gardens from 1951 to 1986, and a forward thinker when it came to sustainability, Prentice Bloedel understood the power of connecting people with plants. Today, visitors enjoy the 150 acres he nurtured, a blend of undisturbed forests and groomed gardens (including a top-notch, nontraditional Japanese garden). Plus, the Bloedels’ estate is as picturesque as the grounds, and the short ferry ride from Seattle to Bainbridge Island helps quiet—and prepare—the mind. 

When To Go During May or June, when the spring flowers (and the rhododendrons) are peaking. 

Don’t Miss The moss garden, the closest experience you’ll find to the Northwest rainforest without having to throw on boots and trek to the mountains.

Info A two-hour, self-guided tour is recommended for first-time guests; docents are available for groups. Admission is $13 for adults; kids enter free. No reservations needed, except for guided tours.7571 N.E. Dolphin Drive, Bainbridge Island, WA, 


Red Butte Garden and Arboretum 100 acres of natural and display gardens, connected by walking paths and hiking trails. 300 Wakara Way, Salt Lake City, UT, 

Kubota Garden Rolling terrain that showcases Japanese garden concepts, native Northwest plants, streams, waterfalls and ponds. 9817 55th Avenue S., Seattle, 

Alaska Botanical Garden Open June through August, with 110 acres of boreal forest and 11 acres of cultivated gardens and trails. 4601 Campbell Airstrip Road, Anchorage, 

University of Idaho Arboretum Groves of flowering trees and shrubs from around the world are lovely year-round.1200 West Palouse Drive, Moscow, ID,   

Photos courtesy of gardens. Boyce Arboretum photos courtesy John Aho.  

Categories: Mountain Travel