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Queen Califia's Magical Circle Garden.
Queen Califia astride her eagle.

Queen Califia's Magical Circle Garden

Field review by the editors.

Escondido, California

Is it fine art, or nightmare playland? We have to wonder whenever we see a circle of stone snakes, a demented mirrored tile "maze," and a warrior queen riding a crystalline egg-laying bird.

Entrance through the Snake Gate.

Kit Carson Park, north of Escondido, is home to a circular knot of arty phantasma and childhood fever dream -- Queen Califia's Magical Circle Garden. It's a place to delight or traumatize kids, depending on their capacity for giant reptiles, mythic creatures, angled spaces, and broken glass.

"New Realist" sculptor and painter Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002) designed and self-financed Queen Califia's Magical Circle Garden, which opened to the public in 2003.

The artist found inspiration in a number of California's mythic tales and legends, as well as the state's "historical and cultural roots." Queen Califia was, according to official press notes on the Garden, a "legendary Black Amazon Warrior Queen believed to rule a terrestrial island paradise of gold and riches."

Bird totem.

Set back on a short dog-walking trail in a public park, Queen Califia's Magical Circle Garden is a 120-diameter walled art space. Outside the walls are trees, plantings and walkways, surrounded by an outer ring security fence.

We discovered Queen Califia can be a cruel, seemingly arbitrary ruler. Locked gates barred our first visit attempt ("Closed Mondays for maintenance."); our next visit a year later was thwarted by the same barrier ("Closed when Rainy'). Finally, a sunny non-Monday, we entered the Magical Garden.

The walls are topped with long cartoonish snake sculptures covered by reflective color tile and stone, running 400 feet around. Nothing actually grows within the inner Garden (or what does is probably quickly dispensed with Round-Up. On Mondays!).

Visitors first encounter a maze-like section. Black and white checkerboard and odd-shaped, hand-cut mirrored and iridized glass tiles form low walls and flooring -- like a schizo's dream kitchen. In the highest foot-traffic spots, some of the glass is cracked and loose.

Inside the celestial egg vault.

Out of the maze, the Magic Garden opens up to a plaza, its centerpiece a 13-ft. tall rainbow bird creature (officially referred to as an "eagle") with 11-ft. tall Queen Califia astride. Underneath the bird, beneath a hollow celestial vault ceiling, is an egg -- a fountain with a solar pump (not running).

Arrayed around the plaza are eight tall figure totems -- monsters, "protective deities," people and animals. Whatever Saint Phalle felt like -- Cathead, Birdhead, Yelling Man, Bullhead... Almost any vantage point and angle in the Magic Circle Garden provides photo possibilities and colorful sculptures to admire -- ceramic mosaics and arrangements of tumbled stones, painted faces and figures.

At first we had the place to ourselves; then a couple of families arrived. The kids managed to avoid the glass hazards and immediately divined all of the Queen's cool crawling and hiding spots.

It's not all about the art!

Queen Califia's Magical Circle Garden

Mary Lane, Escondido, CA
Within a 12-acre natural habitat in the Iris Sankey Arboretum in Kit Carson Park. The park's entrance is five minutes from I-15 (via Rancho Pkwy exit) at the corner of Bear Valley Pkwy and Mary Lane. Follow the signs in the park to Queen Califia.
Weather permitting, Tu,Th 9-12, also 2nd Sa each month 9-12, and 4th Sa 9-2. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
RA Rates:
The Best
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