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7 enchanting places to see holiday lights in Southern California

A neon light display at the Los Angeles County Arboretum Lightscape at the Los Angeles County Arboretum features themed experiences designed especially for the gardens. Photo courtesy Sony Music

Southern California abounds with beautiful gardens worthy of a visit any time of year, but if you need an extra excuse to tour one of these pretty plant-laden properties, the holidays are it. During this season, many gardens deck themselves in festive, often over-the-top light displays you can tour after dark, with extras from live music to Santa appearances. Check out these 7 places that will literally brighten your holidays.

1. San Diego Botanic Garden, Encinitas

The Fire Garden Globe display at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden

Photo by Rikard Osterlund

After a decade of hosting holiday light shows, the 37-acre San Diego Botanic Garden will unveil a new artistic light display: Lightscape. Guests can meander a 1-mile-long pathway that passes elaborate installations such as a tunnel of lights, lantern trees, and a cathedral of lights.

“The Lightscape artists really understand botanic gardens and design the installations to integrate and highlight our plants,” says garden President and CEO Ari Novy. “Everything has been designed specifically for our garden, and it changes in different parts.” This means visitors will journey through a variety of light-installation vignettes, many with their own music or sound effects. Visitors can also roast marshmallows and sip hot chocolate. Select days, November 18­–January 1. Adults, $29; parking, $10 in advance.

Read more: 10 'secret' must-visit gardens in Southern California

2. Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, Arcadia

Four people walking arm in arm through the San Diego Botanic Garden Lightscape Cathedral

Photo courtesy Sony Music

Lightscape will also brighten the grounds at the Los Angeles County Arboretum. The 1.25-mile trail contains a million lights and is heavy on new elements this year, including 15 or so themed experiences designed especially for the gardens. Many of the installations are inspired by the arboretum’s Hollywood history: For nearly a century, the venue has served as the backdrop for dozens of TV shows and movies, including many of the original Tarzan films.

“We’re in the entertainment capital of America, so we’re bringing some of that movie-making environment to Lightscape,” says arboretum CEO Richard Schulhof. One experience will center around the waterfall where Katy Perry shot her “Roar” video; another will be themed around the ’80s television series Fantasy Island (“The plane! The plane!”).

Other highlights include light displays in the tropical forest and on the lakeside of the gingerbread-style Queen Anne cottage. Guests will also find interactive snow globes—perfect for selfies. “It’s a great family gathering place to create wonderful new holiday memories,” says Schulhof. Select days, November 11–January 8. Admission starts at $34 for members; $37 for non-members.

3. California Botanic Garden, Claremont

A performer sings while playing an acoustic guitar at the California Botanic Garden: Luminaria Nights

Photo courtesy of California Botanic Garden

Traditional luminaria guide visitors through 35 walkable acres of the California Botanic Garden during Luminaria Nights. The event, which began more than 13 years ago, was inspired by a similar display at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.

“It started as a little loop, but over the years we’ve grown it to encompass a larger part of our garden,” says Executive Director Lucinda McDade. “It’s a shout-out to our presence in the Southwestern U.S. and our region’s Mexican-American heritage.”

Expect well-known local musical acts to put on festive performances at the new indoor-outdoor Lewis Family Forest Pavilion and the open-air Sage Gallery. String lights will decorate portions of the garden, including a pond where they can be seen in the water’s reflection. Visitors can warm up at a fire ring (weather permitting) while enjoying adult beverages (be sure to designate a driver if you plan to drink alcohol), hot chocolate, and snacks.

“What I really love,” adds McDade, “is that you can be quite social at one of the music venues, but then stroll to another part of the garden and essentially be alone enjoying the garden after dark.” December 9–10 and 16–17. Adults, $16.

4. Descanso Gardens, La Cañada Flintridge

Globe-shaped lights illuminate Mulberry Pond in Descanso Gardens

Photo by Jake Fabricius

The Enchanted Forest of Light features a 1-mile walk through some of Descanso Gardens’ most beloved areas. Wow-worthy displays include a small village in the Rose Garden of what appears to be “stained-glass” houses created by sculptor Tom Fruin. The houses are illuminated by the sun during the day and transform into kaleidoscopes of motion and light come nightfall.

In another display, “Flower Power on the Promenade,” 3,000 electric tulips generate waves of colors and patterns that change every 10 minutes. And in the Ancient Forest, music and dazzling lights highlight the plants, making them appear “otherworldly,” says Descanso Chief Operations Officer David Stork of his favorite part of the holiday experience. “The movement of light is mesmerizing.”

A visit to Enchanted has become an annual tradition for Stork’s family: “We love the lanterns placed in the Japanese Garden. The bright red orbs give a magical feel to the normally introspective space.” November 20­–January 8. Closed November 23 and December 24-25. Admission starts at $22 for members; $34 for non-members.

5. The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, Palm Desert

Guests wander The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens during WildLights

Photo by Tara Howard

The conservation-focused Living Desert Zoo and Gardens is home to more than 600 animals and 50 immersive gardens. Come the holidays, the desert property is transformed into WildLights, which surrounds visitors with more than a million colorful, twinkling lights and decorative light displays.

Curator of Gardens Paul Sturwold says the displays are being designed to highlight the Living Desert’s native plants and pathways to create especially whimsical installations for its 30th year. Visitors can enjoy a tunnel of lights set to holiday music, model trains on thousands of feet of track, and photo ops with Santa. November 23 and 25­–26, December 2–3, 9–10, 16–24, and 26–30. Adults, $16.

6. 123 Farm, Cherry Valley

A woman and child stand underneath a large tree draped with strings of lights

Photo by Joyce Park; 123 Farm

What’s better than touring a fragrant lavender farm and a historic olive grove? Roaming the property after dark when it’s aglow with lovely lights during the holiday-themed Christmas Nights. The 123 Farm—set within the historic 1884 Highland Springs Ranch & Inn—uses organic practices to create its lavender products, including essential oils, lotions, and soaps, along with as culinary lavender, olive oil, honey, and teas that are sold at the farm and online. 

Fields dotted with lights glow at 123 Farm

Photo by Joyce Park; 123 Farm

During the holidays, guests can enjoy plenty of activities beyond light-gawking: horse-drawn carriage rides, s’mores stations (plus other festive food and drink options), a holiday maze, a gingerbread village, and Santa’s Workshop with appearances by St. Nick himself. Don’t leave without picking out a few handcrafted gifts made by local artisans at the 12 Days of Christmas shops. November 4–January 8. Adults, $5–$22.

7. Sensorio, Paso Robles

Thousands of spheres glow in various colors at Sensorio Field of Light

Photo by Serena Munro

While not a true garden, Sensorio, set against the rolling hills of the Central Coast, resembles one—on a massive scale.

While traveling in Australia’s Outback, Sensorio owners Ken and Bobbi Hunter came across an LED-powered exhibit by Bruce Munro, an internationally acclaimed artist, and decided they wanted to do something similar on their 350-acre property in Paso Robles. They got in touch with Munro, who agreed to create the stunning 15-acre Field of Light outdoor exhibit.

The immersive walk-through experience featuring more than 100,000 stemmed spheres gently illuminates the landscape with subtle blooms of morphing colors. It is entirely solar-powered.

Bottles filled with light strings make up the illuminated Sensorio Light Towers

Photo by Chris Hardy

“I always had this idea for a playground for the mind—an amusement park with no rides, if you will. This fit fantastically,” says Ken. “The word ‘immersive’ is the key. You’re very enveloped by the experience. It’s so 3-dimensional.” Recently, Munro added another exhibit called Light Towers: 69 towers comprised of 17,000 illuminated wine bottles (pictured).

While the venue is open year-round, the holiday season is one of the most magical times to visit. “Sometimes I’ll hang out at the exit at the end of the night and eavesdrop, and it gives me such pleasure,” says Ken. “People just leave happy.” The best part of this display is that it doesn’t end with the holidays; the exhibits will continue in 2023. Open Thursday­s–Sundays. Adults, $41­–$43.

Lizbeth Scordo is a food and travel writer based in Southern California. 

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AAA travel alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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