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Niguel Botanical Preserve

Location: Laguna Niguel: 29751 Crown Valley Parkway (in Crown Valley Community Park)
Hours: Dawn to dusk daily
Cost: Free!
For ages: All

This botanical park is one of south county’s true hidden gems. Bring the kids and a picnic lunch and spend a quiet afternoon in this 18-acre preserve. You can start your afternoon with a picnic – go ahead and spread out your blanket on one of the enormous grassy hills, or use one of several well-kept picnic tables that are rarely taken. Since the parking lot is so convenient, it’s easy to bring your basket or cooler back to the car when you’re finished, so you can set off on your botanical hike without a lot of extra stuff in tow.

There are numerous paths to follow – some are paved, but once you get to the higher elevations, the paths are dirt, and not stroller-friendly. There are several steps, and most of the paths are quite steep, so be forewarned that this can be a difficult workout for small kids or for grandparents. But all the paths wind back onto each other, so if part of your party gets tired, you can always cut your stroll short and get back to the car fairly simply.

And what will you see? Well, there is such a variety of flora and fauna – you can point out to your kids all the different types of plants (and tiny animals) that live in different regions. There are areas representing Western Australia, Chile, Mexico and the Mediterranean (some are marked with signage, but some you have to guess). There’s a children’s garden with a maze, and a butterfly garden filled with lavendar and butterfly sculptures.

There’s a gated rose garden (often with a curious rabbit inside); a Boy Scout area with wooden bridge, various benches and a bougainvillea-framed compass made by local troops; a Girl Scout project with planted “flag” tiles; and a “southwestern” garden with cactus and succulents.

A Japanese arbor marks the entry to a Japanese garden, and a natural arbor of branches serves as an entryway to an “African” area. (My kids said the fruity vegetation smelled like Hawaiian Punch — wonder what that was? Pineapple?)

Several look-out benches are perched under shady trees if you want to sit and take in the scenery. And added bonus is the aromatherapy – lavender, rosemary, and wild sage all create an intoxicating aroma, especially in the spring. Have your kids bring notebooks and they can keep track of all the wild rabbits they spot, or count the lizards on the paths. (Hint: There are lots!)

If you have small-fries that like playgrounds, there is a play place on the north end of the reserve, in front of the entrance to the YMCA. Restrooms are in the YMCA.

Around Halloween, the park hosts “Haunted Trails.”

Where to park: There is plenty of free parking in the lot for Crown Valley Community Park.

What to bring: Water bottles, sunscreen, picnic if you wish. The botanical stroll isn’t very stroller-friendly, so if you have a baby, a backpack-carrier would be easier.

Best time to go: Any time

For more information: 949-425-5126 or the Niguel Botanical Preserve website

Do you enjoy the trails of the Niguel Botanical Preserve? Do you have any special tips or plants to look for?

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