Washington Oaks Gardens State Park holds my earliest sensory memories from childhood travels in Florida: the bloom of the rose garden, the stinky sulfur spring, the live oak canopy blotting out the Florida sun. It’s the northernmost point for mangroves along the Atlantic coast, a great place to spot manatee and dolphins, and one of the rare places you’ll find a rocky shoreline in Florida.
Fees: $4-5 per vehicle
Open: 8 AM until sunset daily
Leashed pets welcome
It’s mesmerizing to watch the waves carve the coquina beach into unusual patterns, emerging over time. A natural arch. A tidal pool. A narrow channel to walk through. As grand as the gardens get in the formal side of this sliver of barrier island, I’m always drawn to the oceanfront, one of the weirdest beaches in Florida.
You can’t swim here, of course. Just appreciate the geology. Then head across the street and see what’s become of one of Florida’s original Spanish land grants. The Bella Vista Plantation, the homestead of General Joseph Hernandez, passed into the hands of Owen D. Young, the chairman of the board of General Electric, in 1936.
Young and his wife expanded on the centuries-old citrus groves, adding formal gardens between their riverside retreat (now the Visitor’s Center) and old A1A (now the entrance road). After Young’s death in 1964, his wife donated the property to the state to become a state park. In 2009, the complex of gardens and historic buildings formally became the Washington Oaks Historic District.
Explore the park
- Bella Vista Trail - A 1.8-mile loop through the uplands of Washington Oaks Gardens State Park, the Bella Vista Trail walks you through most of the habitats found on this barrier island.