The Botanical Gardens of Golden Gate Park are a gem of San Francisco. Encompassing 55 acres and 10 geographic ecosystems, you will find everything from spacious lawns to deep redwood forest. This makes for a great place to wander and meditate, and it is also a great place for kids to play and explore.
As a family photographer, the San Francisco Botanical Gardens never let me down. No matter the weather, the time of day, or the mood of the kids I’m photographing, we can always find a space or an activity to help us make artful and meaningful pictures.
Location & Logistics
1199 9th Ave, San Francisco, CA 94122
SF Botanical Garden Tickets:
Free admission for San Francisco residents with proof of residency (driver’s license, utility bill or lease)
For non-residents – $11-15 for adults. See the SF Botanical Gardens Information page for toddler, child, senior, and family group pricing.
On weekdays you will find ample free street parking along Martin Luther King Jr Drive, within Golden Gate Park. On weekends street parking gets harder to find, so be prepared to walk a ways or use the Music Concourse Garage. For current parking prices, click here.
SF Botanical Garden Hours:
As of October 2023, the SF Botanical Gardens hours are –
Main Gate opens at 7:30am and the Friend (North) Gate opens 9am. The last entry varies seasonally and can be as early as 4pm. The park closes 1 hour after the last entry.
Pets are not allowed in the SF Botanical Gardens.
SF Botanical Garden Photo Spots
This is the real reason why I wanted to write this guide!
The SF Botanical Gardens are huge and extremely varied, and when planning a photoshoot it’s really important to be specific. What time of day are you visiting? What do you expect the weather to be like? What environment are you looking for?
Hopefully the following favorite photo spots within the SF Botanical Gardens will give you some inspiration and help you plan. They are ordered intentionally and flow from the main entrance to the west end of the gardens.
As a family photographer, I often meet clients at the North Gate, begin our photo session at the Waterfowl Pond, continue through the Gondwana Tree Tunnel, throw out a blanket on the Kellerbach lawn, then end at the Moon Viewing Platform. For maternity photo sessions, I love the Redwood Grove!
The Great Meadow
Not far from the main entrance, the Great Meadow is a huge, manicured lawn that invites children and adults from all walks of life to sit, play, and relax. As a photographer, it is the giant Monterey Cypress that makes this space worth visiting. The mix of green grass, open sky, and singular, towering trees create a unique aesthetic. I love coming here with families that have kids who just want to play!
There is very little shade in the Great Meadow (although there is plenty along the periphery), and the reflections from the grass can make anyone look green, so avoid this location during the middle of the day. Start your morning session at the Great Meadow, or make it your last stop before sunset.
Garden of Fragrance
The Garden of Fragrance is a quiet corner, right on the edge of the Great Meadow. There is a terraced area and a small oval lawn enclosed by trees and flowers.
While I have not photographed any families here, it was a great location for some branding photography with a local meditation instructor. By moving around, a photographer can easily find foregrounds and backdrops that vary from shaded woods to vibrant flowers.
Due to the green light reflecting from the grass, I prefer this location for a cloudy day, or I would stick to the paved terraces if it is sunny.
Waterfowl Pond and Bridge
This central location is probably the most iconic spot in the San Francisco Botanical Gardens. It is also really close to the North Gate, making it a logical place to start a photo session.
I love it as a starting point for family sessions because it also provides a natural activity for a group – looking for fish from the beach and the bridge. This is a great way to break the ice and get everyone involved, and it also makes for some unique documentary-style images.
There is no shade at the pond, so on sunny days, I would structure your photo session to make sure that you arrive here as close to sunrise or sunset as possible.
Gondwana Tree Tunnel
Really just a path between regions of the SF Botanical Gardens, the Gondwona Tree Tunnel is cozy and intimate. The trees are mostly hardwoods, different from our usual West Coast cypress and pine, giving the tunnel a more southern vibe. I find that the mood is always quiet and curious as families walk through the tunnel, so it makes a great transition from the Waterfowl Pond to the Zellerbach Garden or Moon Viewing Platform.
As a photographer, I stay ahead of the family as they walk west, framing them in the tree tunnel and using the entrance for a bit of soft backlight. As they approach the exit, the light starts to fill in from the front. It’s dark in the tunnel, so expect to use high ISO!
Zellerbach Garden and Lawns
The stairs at the Zellerback Garden of Perennials are a natural place for a proposal or a wedding. A white trellis covered in flowering vines, framing the expansive manicured lawns behind – it feels like it came right out of a fairytale.
While the perennial garden is a destination in its own right, when photographing families I tend to use the lawns as an ending point for my sessions. The terraced garden feels a little too staged for my lifestyle approach, but the lawns offer a chance to throw down a blanket and let the kids play. The Zellerbach lawn also tends to be fairly uncrowded.
While you have to be cognizant of the green light reflected by the grass, multiple large trees on the edge of the lawn create great open shade for photographing in harsh light conditions.
Moon Viewing Platform
If there is one location that I always visit when at the SF Botanical Gardens, it is the Moon Viewing Platform!
Nestled between the Camelia Walk and the Southeast Asian Cloud Forest, the Moon Viewing Garden is an incredible mix of shading canopy trees, deep green ferns, and splashes of vibrant color. The platform itself sits right in the middle of the pond, which creates an opening for light through the trees. It is a great place to meditate, to find inspiration, to explore with kids.
I love photographing people on the Moon Viewing Platform – it’s almost too easy. You can stand across the pond and frame a subject between the overhead trees and the platform, or you can stand on the platform entrance to put the pond in the background. No matter the time of day, the weather, or the needs of the client you are photographing, there is a creative and beautiful way to utilize the Moon Viewing Platform.
Redwood Grove Garden
Not surprisingly, the Botanical Gardens are home to the best redwood grove in San Francisco. Light filters through the towering giants for a completely serene and ethereal experience. Whether you are looking for a place to meditate or a place to bring your kids to stare in wonder at the big trees, you will find it here.
The paths roll gently up and down and are easily accessible for anyone able to walk. They are generally kept covered in a thick layer of mulch, minimizing mud even during the rainy season. You will find a few benches, with a large open area in the middle of the grove. Throw down a blanket on the soft forest floor for an intimate experience.
Photographing people in the Redwood Grove is tricky. The challenges include low light, a huge dynamic range between spots of light and shadow, and the compositional fact that people are so tiny amidst these huge redwood trees. Bring a wide lens, and I suggest practicing in the Redwood Grove before bringing paid clients here.
Golden Gate Park Weather
One of the great things about the SF Botanical Gardens is that they are great no matter the weather. Sunny days, foggy days, rainy days…they all create a unique experience and beautiful images. That said, knowing what to expect will ensure that you are prepared!
Because the Botanical Gardens are great in any weather, there’s no “best” season to visit. But each season does have unique characteristics, so here’s what you can expect –
Summer. The foggiest season in San Francisco. While the temperatures are mild, there is a lot of variability near the edge of the “fog line” which often lies somewhere around the Botanical Gardens. Depending on the fog, conditions will vary widely from sunny and warm to cool and cloudy (even wet).
Fall. This is the sunniest season in San Francisco. Temperatures tend to be warm, although the nights can start getting down into the 40s.
Winter. The weather oscillates between wet storms and sunshine. Often the days right after storms are crystal clear and quite cold. While it is occasionally overcast, there is very little low-level fog during the Winter.
Spring. The most consistent thing about Spring in San Francisco is afternoon winds. Fortunately, the Botanical Gardens are a great place to escape them! Spring also brings more sunshine and less fog than the Winter or Summer months.
Tips for a Memorable Experience
The best time to visit SF Botanical Gardens
To be sure, the gardens are beautiful year-round, every hour of the day. If you are looking for an intimate experience, mornings are quieter than afternoons, and weekdays are quieter than weekends. Summer, when kids are out of school, is the busiest season.
On a weekday morning in the Winter, you will find yourself nearly alone!
Wheelchairs and strollers are allowed in the Botanical Gardens, and accessible, paved pathways are found throughout. There are wheelchair-accessible bathrooms at the North Gate. There are even a few wheelchairs available to borrow on a first come, first serve basis.
Extend the Adventure
The SF Botanical Gardens are a great place to center your plans for the day, as the list of great activities and experiences within a small radius is endless.
The Japanese Tea Garden is just across the street from the North Gate, as is the Music Concourse, which has lots of family-friendly events. Also known as the Golden Gate Bandshell, this historic venue has emerged post-pandemic as a place for free, live, community music events. Regular weekend events are scheduled for most months of the year, and periodic concerts pop up all the time. Click here for the Bandshell event calendar.
Also within a short walk are the DeYoung Museum, the California Academy of Sciences, and Stow Lake. If you are looking for food, the thriving Inner Sunset restaurant district is on Irving Street, just a few blocks away.
Thanks for being here. I’m David Enloe, a San Francisco family photographer. I make soul-stirring pictures for families that find adventure around every corner. Want to learn more about the person behind the camera?