Kids will get to climb, jump, run and explore safely in Santa Barbara Botanic Garden’s new Backcountry
Many adults remember when they were kids and played in the woods, where their imagination could roam free.
The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is working to recreate that experience through a new immersive Backcountry, where kids ages 5-13 can safely jump, climb, run, explore and play.
Landscaping efforts for the site started recently on the $4 million project, which is set to open in June. It’s the culmination of design efforts that began almost seven years ago.
Executive Director Steve Windhager said the four-acre-plus Backcountry will be the garden’s largest space ever devoted to a single display.
“You can’t imagine how excited I am,” Mr. Windhager said. “This is the garden I’ve been wanting to build for over six years.”
He noted that 50 years ago, most of the garden consisted of the backcountry.
“I talked with people who grew up here in Santa Barbara, and they talked to me about how they rode their bikes to the botanic garden and spent the day exploring,” Mr. Windhager said. “They would climb trees and rocks.”
He explained that the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden has found a way to safely recreate that experience with secure structures and a lot of mulch for soft landings from short falls.
“Part of being a kid is occasionally falling. We have to let kids take some risks, or it’s not fun and they can’t grow and develop,” Mr. Windhager said.
He added that the area will be staffed with full-time rangers who will serve as “lifeguards” to keep kids safe.
What’s more, kids will engage with nature.
“At the end of the day, we want to inspire the next generation of conservationists,” Mr. Windhager said, noting that today’s kids are tomorrow’s parents. “We need people who love native plants and who want to bring their kids back in 20, 30 years and reconnect with the natural world.”
There will be several entrances to the Backcountry. The main jumping off point will be at Campbell Bridge in the Sycamore Grove. From there, families will walk into the Backcountry, which consists of Upper Creek Walk, Basecamp, Raptor’s Perch and Quail Grove.
At Upper Creek Walk, a trail will lead families under a canopy of coast oaks, California bay laurels, sycamores and other native plants. Kids and their parents will see the beautiful areas along Mission Creek as they hike into interactive areas.
“The main trail will be easy to navigate for people of all ages,” Mr. Windhager said, noting it will be wide and will feature ramps instead of steps.“Smaller spur trails will go off the main trail. The trails will be opportunities for kids in particular to learn a little independence, but they will be in earshot of parents.
“One of the first things you’ll discover is our Fallen Forest,” Mr. Windhager said. “This is quite frankly my favorite spot.”
The Fallen Forest will consist of trees, including pines and oaks, which have fallen in the garden or other places.
They will be anchored onto a hillside to create “the experience of climbing a tree without having to run the risk of falling 20 feet to the ground,” Mr. Windhager said. “If you fall off these trees, you’ll probably fall four or five feet and land in a nice cushion of 20 inches of mulch, which meets guidelines from the state of California for appropriate play space.”
He said the trees will be anchored by rebar and bolted concrete anchors.
“Maintenance is going to be a major part of this exhibit,” Mr. Windhager said. “We are going to have to replace it over time.
“Everything is going to change and evolve over time,” he said. “We’re never going to let the trees rot to the point that they become unsafe. We’ll have some staff there on a daily basis. At some point, they’ll be removing logs and adding others.”
Mr. Windhager explained the Fallen Forest will feature novice and more advanced routes for varying skills. “There’ll be something for everybody. We’ll have boulders you can climb over and around.”
Kids will need to use one arm and probably both arms to climb up what’s essentially a steep hill made from fallen trees, Mr. Windhager said. “There will be ropes to help if you want them.”
The routes, which include a series of shallow stone waterfalls, will bring kids back to the main trail.
From there, they’ll go to the Salamander Snag, where kids can flip over boards and logs to see bugs.
The garden’s existing Hidden Centennial Maze, which was created in partnership with the Garden Club of Santa Barbara, will be there as well and will have a new secret entrance.
Families can go on to explore Basecamp, a meadow with scattered seating. It’ll be a place to fill a water bottle and enjoy a sack lunch.
“We joke that this is a safe place for kids to park their parents and know they’ll be well cared for,” Mr. Windhager said. “There will be comfortable seating, shade and a little bit-of Wi-Fi. You can bring your newspaper or your Kindle or whatever and hang out. Kids can go do whatever they want.”
Families also can stop at the compositing bathroom.
Nearby is the Lower Meadow and a Casitas playhouse.
After Basecamp, families can take a short hike to the highest point of The Backcountry: the Raptor’s Perch. It’ll be similar to a tree house.
“What we’re building is a flat area, elevated between these two really large areas,” he said. “The platform allows for a new Casitas (playhouse).
“Because it’s a on hillside, it will be only five to 10 feet off the ground,” Mr. Windhager said, adding that there will be soft mulch on the ground and likely some railings. “Because of where it sits, it will give a sense of being much higher.”
Near the Raptor’s Perch will be the Coyote Bramble, which will feature 20 truckloads of rocks that came from cleanup efforts for areas affected by the 2018 Montecito debris flow. Kids will get to climb over the boulders.
The Backcountry ends with the Quail Grove, a space just above Mission Creek where kids can go exploring. The area features boulders, piles of leaves and woody debris. A Casitas playhouse will be there as well, and trees have been shaped to create Living Structures.
Kids also will discover fossils near the Fossil View Crossing over Mission Creek, which is another entrance and exit from the Backcountry.
Mr. Windhager emphasized how much he’s looking forward to the Backcountry.
“I’d like to think of myself as a big kid at heart,” he said. “If you can’t find me in my office, I’ll probably be at the top of the Fallen Forest.”