A place of pilgrimage and restoration, Bok Tower Gardens were Edward Bok’s gift to America in his retirement.
A Dutch immigrant, Bok enjoyed the classic “American success story.” In The Americanization of Edward Bok, he recounts his rise from office boy to publisher.
While a columnist, Bok sought out and interviewed prominent men, making contacts and friends. Taking on The Ladies’ Home Journal in 1889, he grew it to a million subscribers.
Bok was friends with Colonel Roosevelt before Teddy became President. They shared the same sensibilities about preserving landscapes and urging the public outdoors.
But where Bok was his happiest was his garden. Purchasing this promontory and other land around Lake Wales, he directed a group of architects and artisans to create this sanctuary.
Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. was integral to the project. The Olmstead Gardens provide a gentle flow uphill to the Singing Tower, revealing it slowly.
Plantings began in 1923. Opened to the public on February 1, 1929, Mountain Lake Sanctuary was dedicated by President Calvin Coolidge.
Edward Bok died the next year. But the legacy he left reverberates to our time, from the tones of the carillon carrying across the hills to the lush gardens in place today.
Resources for exploring the area
Disclosure: As authors and affiliates, we receive earnings when you buy these through our links. This helps us provide public information on this website.
Location: Lake Wales
Length: More than four miles of paths and trails
Trailhead: 27.93721, -81.57556
Address: 1151 Tower Blvd, Lake Wales
Fees: $17 adult, $5 ages 5-12. Reciprocal admission for participating garden passholders honored. Annual passes available.
Restroom: At the main entrance pavilion complex
Land manager: Bok Tower Gardens
Open 8 AM to 6 PM with last admission at 5. Opens noon on Christmas day. Visitor center, shops and cafe open 9-5.
Leashed dogs welcome except during certain public events.
From US 27 heading south towards Lake Wales, take Chalet Suzanne Rd east to meet Scenic 17. Turn right and drive 3.4 miles. Turn left on Burns Ave, passing Spook Hill, a “gravity challenge” attraction from yesteryear. In 1.8 miles, Tower Blvd is on the left, leading up Iron Mountain to Bok Tower Gardens.
About the Gardens
Inspired after a visit to Highlands Hammock in Sebring, Bok commissioned Olmstead to create a garden that fit the landscape above Mountain Lake Colony in Lake Wales.
Atop the highest point in the Florida peninsula, the gardens emerged under a careful master plan designed by Olmstead and approved by Bok.
Groups of plantings – including spectacular old George Tabor azaleas from Glen St. Mary – guide visitors up the hill to the breathtaking view.
The gardens have re-interpreted Olmstead’s original vision for a languid, natural approach to the tower along the “Main Trail” route.
The path leads slowly and gently to the peak of the second highest elevation in the Florida Peninsula, a major promontory on the Lake Wales Ridge.
Paths both accessible and wild access portals along the mirror pool that reflects the carillon tower known as the Singing Tower.
A masterful and functional piece of landscape art, the tower is sculpted of 4 million tons of Georgia marble and topped with statuary.
Faced with ceramics from Enfield Pottery, the tower contains 60 bells weighing 61.5 tons. Masterful carilloners perform daily.
On the lower slopes of Iron Mountain is El Retiro, a restored 1930s Mediterranean mansion built in Mountain Lakes Sanctuary for an executive of Bethlehem Steel.
Called Pinewood for many years, it is distinctive architecturally and contains period furnishings and an art collection. Guided tours are a separate fee from the gardens.
Beyond the Olmstead Gardens legacy, modern conservation efforts led to Director of Horticulture David Price establishing the Endangered Plant Program in 1986.
Part of the National Collection of Endangered Plants, it utilizes the sanctuary’s location on the biodiverse Lake Wales Ridge to conserve, propagate, and re-establish rare species.
Among the many species propogated are Lakela’s Mint (Dicerandra immaculate) and Four-petal Pawpaw (Asimina tetramera), which can be seen in the Endangered Plant Garden.
While the Kitchen Garden and the Hammock Hollow Children’s Garden are popular draws, hikers will appreciate two trails into the surrounding Pine Ridge Preserve.
Both can be accessed from the opposite side of the parking lot from the visitor center, but the Pine Ridge Trail also branches off the paved Main Trail of the Garden.
A mile loop along the rim of the ridge, it provides scenic views and is home to listed species like wide-leaf pinelandcress (Warea amplexifolia) and Lewton’s polygala (Polygala lewtonii).
Branching off the Pine Ridge Trail just west of the flagpole along the entrance road is the Preserve Trail.
It rambles down the mountain through a patchwork of longleaf pine savanna restoration, a 1.5 mile linear route to a small trailhead inside the entrance gate.
A walk through the historic gardens
See our photos of Bok Tower Gardens
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
Tiger Creek Preserve
Edward Bok’s “Jungle,” a deeply folded landscape between Tiger Creek and Patrick Creek south of Lake Wales, is protected by The Nature Conservancy as Tiger Creek Preserve.
Lake Kissimmee State Park
Discover the beauty of the land between the lakes east of Lake Wales while exploring the vast prairies and fern-laden hammocks of Lake Kissimmee State Park
Catfish Creek Preserve State Park
At Catfish Creek Preserve State Park, the steep ridges of blinding white sand are some of Florida’s most ancient landscapes, an unusual and unique natural area for Central Florida
Lake Wales Ridge State Forest
Atop the ancient sands of the Lake Wales Ridge, this massive state forest offers provides hikers and equestrians an expansive network of trails.