Plant species: 2,000. Miles of hiking trails: 34. Acres of land: 18. Days open per week: 7. Entry Fee: $0. Experiencing a secret garden of tranquility in the middle of Orange County: priceless.
Niguel Botanical Preserve in Laguna Nigel is indeed a delightful find—full of beauty, as well as inspiration for any home gardener. It’s a “Mediterranean climate demonstration garden,” meaning everything you see can theoretically be grown at home. Not that the preserve is limited to natives. It also features vegetation from the similar climates of Australia, Chile, South Africa, and Baja California.
Start at the Children’s Garden to the southwest of the beautiful new amphitheater. You’ll find a majestic, acacia-shaded butterfly bench next to a butterfly statue in the center of a manicured hedge display. There’s a rose garden here too, flanked by the dense Australian Forest full of fascinating flora such as grevillea, also known as the spider flower or toothbrush plant due to its orange-bristled buds. Here too is the firewheel tree with its alien-like red ornamental umbel flowers. Continue up the steep path to the highest point of the preserve (about a mile’s walk), where there’s a formal garden and plenty of benches surrounding a beautifully designed labyrinth. A “meditative tool for reflection and growth,” the sign says. It also doubles as an epic panoramic viewpoint that includes a head-on vista of Saddleback Mountain, the apex of Orange County.
From there, it’s up to you to explore the countless tangling trails. You’ll pass by aloe, agave, and bougainvillea and stroll beneath oaks, palms, and eucalyptus. You can’t actually get lost, but it’s fun to lose yourself in the maze of paths. Eventually they all go down-canyon toward the preserve entrance, and the end of a priceless day.
Take the I-5 to the Crown Valley Parkway exit and head west. After 3 miles, you’ll see the Laguna Niguel Parks and Recreation Center, which includes the preserve, on your right. Park and pick up a map at the Crown Valley Park entrance. Dog-friendly!