Backcountry Garden: An Immersive Nature Experience


As part of the beloved Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, The Backcountry Garden provides influential, outdoor experiences that create formative connections between visitors and the natural world.  This adventurous portion of the garden provides a stimulating space where children, families and visitors can manipulate, create, climb and interact with the natural environment around them.  The Backcountry Garden activates sight, touch, sound, smell and taste to create deeper emotional connections to the great outdoors. The space celebrates the natural ecology by allowing the environment to direct the programming and design of the spaces. This site pays homage to the historical structures, cultural influences and donor groups that have helped shaped the garden. BrightView Design Group worked closely with the Botanic Garden staff and local stakeholders to provide a whimsical design that promotes a sense of curiosity, risk-taking and joy in uncovering the lessons the backcountry experience has to offer.


Backcountry Garden is tucked away within the beloved Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, located within Mission Canyon in Santa Barbara, California. The site is a heavily vegetated space with dramatic grade change going up from Mission Creek, which cuts through the base of the Garden. This results in a natural landscape uniquely awe-inspiring in an otherwise beach-centered city. Santa Barbara Botanic Garden had a longstanding vision to develop a section of the 78-acre garden into a separate space that would introduce children to nature, build confidence through risk-taking and incorporate evolving, changing spaces that encourage repeat journeys into the backcountry. Here, visitors are encouraged to take the path less traveled and discover something new.

Mission Canyon sits along the southern facing slopes of the Santa Ynez Mountains and consists mainly of residential, recreational, and open natural spaces. Historic preservation was pertinent to the 4-acre Backcountry Garden project site which included protection of the historic Mission Aqueduct. Constructed in 1806, the aqueduct runs through the site and is partially submerged under the landscape. Sensitivity to the historic architectural feature was paramount. The team also showed deference to the sensitive habitat of Mission Creek, a NOAA Fisheries recognized spawning and rearing habitat for steelhead trout. The design solution was sensitive to the Mission Creek habitat by reimagining the historic user pattern of a creekside journey and instead pulling interest upwards into intriguing new spaces on the hillside. In turn, this design allows users to view the creek habitat from above without interfering with its wildlife and vegetation.

Backcountry Garden is split into eleven unique areas including Sycamore Grove, Basecamp, Raptors Perch, Fallen Forest, and the Casitas. Each of these spaces is designed to individually foster and create a sense of autonomy, ownership, and pride. Backcountry Garden allows guests to escape, explore, and discover a variety of spaces by encouraging contemplation, close observation, physical challenge, and novel experiences. The garden aims to inspire guests to linger, explore, and experiment. Children roam and discover self-directed free play with loose, natural components, and practice the essential development experience of risk taking while their parents practice allowing it to happen! Backcountry allows kids to develop an emotional connection to the natural world and to become stewards of our environment for the future. “It is the work of childhood to build responsible and healthy adults. In the Backcountry, they have opportunities to use imagination, practice self-direction, and learn to take responsible risks in ways that also build a connection with nature. We think this will help create the next generation to work to heal our planet,” said Steve Windhager, Executive Director of Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.

As visitors cross the entry bridge, they are greeted by a stone wall winding through the peaceful Sycamore Grove. This wall is adorned with Corten panels recognizing the generous donors and stakeholders that helped to make this project possible. The Fallen Forest is comprised of re-used, downed tree limbs laid along a steep slope with ropes so kids can experience climbing trees in a safe manner. This is connected by a series of trails that can be explored before meeting up with the main route. Wayfarers then emerge through a clearing at Basecamp, which serves as the main gathering space for visitors and educational programs. Basecamp accommodates a large canvas tent and boulder wall seating for visitors. This is a popular spot for parents to relax, and families or groups to convene after exploring the backcountry. The Raptor’s Perch is the highest feature, providing an elevated platform carefully nested in the tree canopy to overlook the gardens. Kids can climb the rope bridges to peer out over the backcountry and scope out their next adventure. Each space being interactive in their own way allows children to write their own story about their backcountry adventure. “Through decades of nature education work here at the Garden, we know that getting kids excited about nature isn’t about presenting a set of facts or charts or even cool maps, it’s about connecting with their instinct for story and play, igniting their imaginations and stimulating their senses,” Windhager said. The garden inspires families and children of all abilities and perspectives to explore environmental concepts, use their hands to build structures with raw materials and to “crave nature.”

From beginning to end, it was a staple of the design to have minimal impact on the environment. Staying true to the existing natural landscape, the majority of materials used in the backcountry are reused from the canyon or surrounding areas. Existing fallen trees were reused throughout the site and twenty-eight truckloads of additional boulders were brought in from the drainage basins that were filled by the 2018 Montecito debris flow. Trees that were damaged during the 2009 Jesusita fire were removed, and local horticultural partners donated multiple California-native trees, shrubs, and foliage, all keeping consistent with the native habitat that makes up Mission Canyon. Many Santa Barbara Botanic Garden staff members, volunteers, and community members participated in an organized “Planting Day” to plant the shrubs and foliage that enhance the backcountry experience today. Backcountry construction was careful to protect and preserve the existing vegetation, habitats, and watersheds in effort to have minimal disruption to the site during construction. A “Leave No Trace” stewardship program was established to encourage users to engage with the space while respecting nature and protecting it for generations to come.

The Backcountry Casitas are structures intended to be moved or added onto as time goes by. They have been selectively placed throughout the garden and serve as highlight spaces to promote imaginative interaction. These elements were designed and installed with the help of educational partners from school programs and other local organizations excited about the development of the Backcountry Garden. A collaborative visioning process gathered input, goals, and desired outcomes from Santa Barbara Botanic Garden staff members and valued, trusted stakeholders who guided and encouraged the program and design with their local area knowledge and interactive ideas. It was important to have these stakeholders and community members as a part of this process as they are—and will continue to be—the users, visitors, and stewards of the landscape.

The beauty of Backcountry Garden is that it is an ever-changing natural space. The character will evolve over time due to its natural features, the historic Mission Creek habitat, and now the exciting, new backcountry experiences as a variety of individuals make their mark on Backcountry Garden.

Plant List

  • Southern Live Oak – Quercus virginiana
  • California Sycamore – Platanus racemosa
  • Western Redbud – Cercis occidentalis
  • Holly Leaf Cherry – Prunus ilicifolia
  • Lemonadeberry – Rhus integrifolia
  • Blue Elderberry – Sambucus nigra caerulea
  • Blue Gramma Grass – Bouteloua gracilis
  • California Buckthorn – Frangula californica
  • Giant Wild Rye – Leymus condensatus
  • Evergreen Currant – Ribes viburnifolium
  • Hummingbird Sage – Salvia spathacea
  • California Sagebrush – Artemisia californica
  • Big Saltbrush – Atriplex lentiformis
  • Little Rascal Buckwheat – Eriogonum fasciculatum ‘Little Rascal’
  • Compact Saint Catherine’s Lace – Eriogonum giganteum compactum
  • Gran Canon Baja Snapdragon – Galvezia juncea ‘Gran Canon’
  • Chaparral Yucca – Hesperoyucca whipplei
  • White Sage – Salvia apiana
  • Black Sage – Salvia mellifera
  • Roger’s Red Grape – Vitis californica x Vinifera ‘Roger’s Red’
  • Box Elder – Acer negundo
  • Indian Hemp – Apocynum cannabinum
  • Creek Red Twig Dogwood – Cornus sericea
  • Sandbar Willow – Salix exigua
  • Common Elderberry – Sambucus nigra ‘Aurea’

Documents and Media

Planning Docs (if applicable):