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Washington Oaks Gardens State Park

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Garden Gate

The iron gate is open, inviting us to see what lies ahead in Washington Oaks Gardens State Park.

Photo © Lynn Wettach
I love our Florida State Parks. I can think of nothing I would rather do than spend time wandering along a wooded trail or listening to the waves as they crash over the rocks or inhale the sweet scent of orange blossoms and roses. Sounds wonderful, doesn't it? Well, sit back and relax, let me share my favorite state park with you, Washington Oaks Gardens State Park; a park where you will find all of this and more.

Washington Oaks Gardens State Park is located 20 miles south of St. Augustine in the northeast corner of the state. This 389 acre park stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Intracoastal Waterway. Each of the three main areas, the beach, coastal hammock, and formal gardens, have their own unique and diverse landscape that draws you in, begging for further exploration.

The Formal Gardens

Exotic and natural vegetation thrive in these lush gardens. Soft paths, lined with monkey grass, make for pleasant walking. As you enter the gardens you will be greeted by the sound of bubbling water. An artesian well is the source of this delightful gurgle as it feeds the stream and reflecting pools that meander throughout the gardens.

Magnificent, moss laden live oaks loom overhead, their branches offering shade and solace on a hot summers day. Further along are the herb beds, then several reflecting pools. The pools are lined with coquina, a unique local rock made from compressed limestone and shell.

Citrus trees can be found over the footbridge on the north side of the gardens. During spring, the air is filled with the heavenly scent of citrus blossoms. The hot, humid days of summer encourage the little green "oranges" to flourish and mature. Finally, in winter, the citrus are ready to harvest.

Back into the gardens, you'll find another pool hidden behind massive clumps of plumbago and woodland ferns. Large carp gently swirl around under the fountain. Flanking the path on the left are huge banana trees towering 15 feet overhead. Large bunches of bananas hang just out of reach.

Many of the plants are notated with markers for helpful identification. You'll find bromeliads, shrimp plants, camellias, azaleas, spider lily, bird of paradise and a host of others. Great care is taken to maintain the gardens much like they were 50 years ago.

The Rose Garden

The circular rose garden features many special varieties including Mr. Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Flo Nelson, Sweet Surrender, Lagerelo and the ever popular Don Juan. My favorite time of day to visit this garden is in the early morning while the dew is still on the petals. The hill at the top of the rose garden is a midden, a mound of oyster shell and other debris left by generations of Native Americans who once inhabited this land. Fascinating!

The trail winds its way out to the seawall along the Intracoastal Waterway. Sit on one of the wooden benches for a short while and I guarantee you will see a Pelican or two flying gracefully overhead. Along the shore you're likely to see a variety of wading birds that frequent this area.

The Visitor's Center

Perched on the bank, overlooking the water, is the Visitor's Center. Originally, this was the winter retreat of Owen and Louise Young. After purchasing the property in 1937, they began developing the gardens and designing the house. Mrs. Young donated the property to the State of Florida shortly before her death in 1965. Her desire was to see the gardens maintained and expanded as funds became available.

The Visitor's Center offers an interesting glimpse into the history of the park. Clean restrooms can be found here and in the picnic area.

The Coastal Hammock

The Mala Compra Trail runs from the Visitors Center to the picnic area. It's a lovely 1/2 mile walk among live Oak, hickory and magnolia trees, the foundation of the Coastal Hammock. A thick understory of palmettos is the perfect hiding place for deer, rabbits, armadillos and other wildlife. Every so often a secondary trail will lead out to the tidal marsh along the river. The large picnic area has several tables, grills, and a fun playground for the children.

Several other hiking trails are located on the north side of the gardens. A dramatic change in vegetation can be seen as you hike from the lush coastal hammock out to the edge of a sparse coastal scrub. Be on the lookout as you hike, and you may spot several of the 100 birds species found in the park including the endangered Scrub Jay. Spring and fall are best for birding.

The Beach

Just across Scenic Byway A1A from the gardens, is the beach, strewn with rocks. A very unusual site in Florida. These coquina rocks were formed from compressed sediment and shell. Over the years, the prevailing winds and crashing waves have eroded the rock to expose the beautiful formations we see today.

Relax, rejuvenate and unwind; spend a day at Washington Oaks Gardens State Park. Maybe we'll see you there.

Information and Directions

Washington Oaks Gardens State Park is located at 6400 North Oceanshore Boulevard, Palm Coast (two miles south of Marineland, off A1A).

There are a number of special events at the park throughout the year. Rangers offer weekly garden tours and monthly bird and themed nature walks. In February - the Citrus Harvest Festival, April - Earth Day Celebration, October - Herbs in the Garden, and December - Holiday in the Gardens. If you happen to catch one of the plant sales you're sure to bring home a treasure.

Admission is $5.00 per vehicle (up to eight people) and single-occupant vehicles, motorcycles are $4.00 and pedestrians, bicyclists, extra passengers are $2.00 each. Reserved pavilions are $40.00 per day. For more information or to reserve a pavilion call 386-446-6780.

From downtown St. Augustine - take Scenic Byway A1A south across the Bridge of Lions for 19.8 miles. Park entrance will be on the right.

From I-95 traveling north - take exit 289. Turn right and head east on Palm Coast Parkway, (this will change to Hammock Dunes Parkway) continue on over the Intracoastal Waterway bridge. Turn left at Camino Del Mar. Turn right and head north on N. Oceanshore Blvd, also known as Scenic Byway A1A. Park entrance is 4.1 miles on the right.

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