These gardens showcase the beauty and variety of plants hardy enough to live in the deserts of the Southwest.

Best Desert Botanical Gardens to Visit in 2022
Dave Lauridsen

The Southwest United States is home to four major deserts: the Great Basin in Nevada, the Chihuahuan in New Mexico and west Texas, the Sonoran in southern Arizona and California, and the Mojave in southern Nevada and eastern California. Hundreds of native plants, specially adapted to survive in the arid climate, span these landscapes with incredible biodiversity, many in remote areas that can reach triple-digit temperatures. Luckily, a number of botanical gardens in the Southwest region offer a bit more controlled respite where you can go to marvel and appreciate the wide spectrum of desert plants. 

If you live near one of these gardens, they’re a great day trip. Taking an afternoon to wander through the natural environment can be good for the soul and a calming way to take your mind off daily stressors. For those who don’t live in the Southwest, many of these gardens are near or on the way to other attractions, making them a sedate outdoor stop if you’re already out on a road trip. 

Looking for holiday entertainment? Many of the gardens also hold holiday light events, covering the paths and trees with decorations and transforming the gardens into otherworldly realms of colored lights. 

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It’s might be tempting to think of deserts as landscapes of heat and sand with no life. But a trip to any of these gardens will quickly show you that deserts are incredible collections of unbelievably hardy plants and animals with impressive evolutions and adaptations in order to be able to call the desert home.

Desert Botanical Garden

The Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix covers 140 acres and features almost 4,500 different species of desert plants, of which about 500 are rare or endangered. Until Dec. 31, 2021, the garden is holding its annual Las Noches de Luminarias event, decorating the garden in thousands of colorful lights.

Tucson Botanical Garden

The Tucson Botanical Garden is known as the city’s urban oasis. It includes 17 individual gardens, each with their own focus and varieties of plants, including a cactus and succulent garden, plus two gardens centered on plants native to the area and their relationship with Indigenous people of the Sonoran Desert. Until Jan. 2, 2022, the garden will be lit nightly by thousands of lights and traditional lanterns as part of its Wanderland event.

The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens

The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens has been an important site in the Palm Springs area for 50 years. It was originally founded to educate the public about conservation and about the plants and animals of the desert. That mission continues today, with the garden home to 24 species of plants native to the local desert. Plus, on select nights until Dec. 30, 2021, the Living Desert will be holding its 29th annual Wildlights, covering the zoo and garden in more than one million colorful holiday lights.

Moorten Botanical Gardens

The Moorten Botanical Garden in Palm Springs was created by the Moortens, successful landscapers who were hired by Walt Disney to assist in the creation of Frontierland in Disneyland. Additionally, they transformed the grounds of their family home into a 1-acre botanical garden focused on 12 arid biomes, from the Mojave Desert to South Africa’s Succulent Karoo and the Baja California Peninsula. These biomes feature more than 3,000 species of desert plants, as well as the world’s first cactarium.

Botanical Cactus Garden

The Botanical Cactus Garden in Henderson, Nevada, is owned and operated by Ethel M Chocolates. The 3-acre garden is the largest of its type in the state and home to over 300 species of cacti, succulents, desert trees, and shrubs, half of which are native to the Southwest. The garden is on the same grounds as the Ethel M factory, providing a perfect alternative should you grow tired of the cacti—or the heat.

Botanical Garden at the Springs Preserve

The Botanical Garden at Springs Preserve in Las Vegas hosts a collection of 12 themed gardens. These include the Mojave Collection, a nationally accredited garden of cacti and succulents native to the Mojave Desert outside Las Vegas; Cactus Alley, a collection of cacti from the deserts and arid regions of the Americas; and the Deserts of the World, which features succulents and other plants that live in the world’s five major deserts, which comprise the Saharan, the Arabian, the Gobi, the Patagonian, and the Great Victorian.

ABQ BioPark Botanical Garden

The ABQ BioPark’s Botanic Garden in Albuquerque features 13 exhibits that showcase different plants, garden styles, and human-plant relationships. The Desert Conservatory has plants from all of the Southwest’s deserts, like saguaro from the Sonoran, yucca from the Chihuahuan, and elephant trees from Baja. The Spanish Moorish Garden is a tiled oasis in the style of the Moors of North Africa. And the Curandera Garden chronicles the 300-year history of folk healers in New Mexico and features some of the plants they use.

Tohono Chul Gardens

Tohono Chul in Tucson seeks to teach people that the Sonoran Desert is home to more than just saguaro and prickly pear cacti. The 49-acre garden features a number of themed gardens, each with their own focus, like the Desert Palm Oasis or Penstemon Garden. Some of these themes comprise more than just one type of plant, like the Sin Agua Garden, which showcases desert plants in a unique way by using only rainwater harvesting landscaping, meaning little man-made irrigation.