Base Camp at the Backcountry features a sunny meadow with scattered seating where kids can “park” their parents in the shade and go adventuring while staying in earshot. | Credit: Courtesy

Gone are the days where a visit to the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden means simply strolling along a well-defined path. The Garden’s newest addition ― the Backcountry ― will be an immersive area where young people (and the young at heart) can roam free. The $4 million project has been in the works for the last couple of years and is set to open in June 2022.

The Garden was historically a place where children came to play. But after receiving its accreditation in the 1990s, it started to gain a reputation as a place where one could look, but not touch.

“When I got here 11 years ago, I started talking to members and folks in the community that have been coming to the Garden for 50-plus years,” said Executive Director Steve Windhager. “Their memory of it was spending the day exploring the creek, running around, and enjoying play. We had lost some of that. We let the protection of the plants get in the way of building a connection with the natural world. But now we have found a way to do both.”

The Backcountry takes after the Backyard, a play area for kids up to age 6 at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Elaine Gibson, a trustee at both the Garden and the Museum, contributed many ideas for the new space, which will cater to the next age group of children between 5 and 13.

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The Backcountry, explained Windhager, will be a place where visitors can learn important lessons and test their boundaries in a healthy way, which is especially important in today’s increasingly digital way of life. “We have found that kids who play outside in a self-directed way are much better at assessing what is a reasonable or unreasonable risk,” he said. “And that translates as they grow into adults.”

The four-acre zone next to Mission Creek is full of fun trails, interesting topography, and unique features, including a Base Camp, Sycamore Grove, and Raptor’s Perch. Native shrubs and foliage are being planted to enhance the natural character of the area and replace some of what was lost in the 2009 Jesusita fire. The site will also open with five “casitas,” temporary structures each with unique attractions like climbing elements, forts, and even a small lending library and reading nook.

During development, the Garden put out a call to local artists and designers to submit ideas for the casitas. After a jury selection process, each winner received a $5,000 stipend to build their vision. They are designed to last for six months to two years, after which another round of selections will take place. “Part of the fun is that it is not static,” said Windhager. “Beloved features will disappear, but that is part of life. We want to keep it novel, new, and different.”

Though more than 65 percent of the Backcountry’s budget has been raised to date, the fundraising campaign is still underway. For more information about supporting the project, visit

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