Encompassing 168 acres in the city of Lakeland, Bonnet Springs Park was seven years in the making.
It was a surprise for us to learn about it, since we couldn’t imagine how a park this size appeared so close to downtown.
Blending nature with learning centers and event venues, the park emerged from a public-private partnership to clean up a city eyesore, an abandoned former railyard.
Dating to the era of steam trains and the big boom of Florida’s citrus industry, the railyard became an urban jungle filled with trash and stormwater.
The massive cleanup effort included remediating dangerous industrial chemicals used at the railyard that contaminated the soil.
The unusually sloped and lumpy landscape safely encapsulates scraped-up soil permanently sealed into vaults topped with earth and grass.
The ravine inside the former railyard was widened by nearly a century of sluicing city stormwater into the abandoned property.
Natural springs were unearthed by this erosional process, and now feed the stream flowing into Bonnet Lake.
Developed and maintained by a private foundation, Bonnet Springs Park is a rarity for Florida, a private park created for public use.
Several hundred volunteers and a small core staff manage the park. Building and maintaining park infrastructure was largely underwritten by corporate donations.
With those came naming rights. That’s why there are logos and names on museums and boardwalks and buildings in this unique urban park.
It’s also how the Florida Children’s Museum was able to move from downtown into spiffy new quarters at Bonnet Springs Park.
Embracing its surrounding community, this family-focused park features a canopy walk, a nature center, a butterfly house, botanical gardens, and a treehouse.
Play structures and playgrounds are scattered across the park, while the heritage and community gardens are front and center.
A Welcome Center contains a coffee shop, gift shop, and history museum illustrating the context of the park in Lakeland’s past.
Kids will enjoy seeing the model railroad running above the exhibits, and the balcony of the museum offers a panorama of gardens and the sweep of the park.
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.
Length: 2.8 mile loop
Trailhead: 28.05052, -81.96700
Address: 400 Bonnet Springs Blvd, Lakeland
Restroom: In most buildings
Land manager: Bonnet Springs
Open 6 AM to dusk, except when the park closes for private events or is open for evening events. Check ahead. Depot Cafe 10:30 AM – 6 PM, Welcome Center Coffee Shop 8 AM – 5 PM.
No smoking. Leashed dogs welcome. Most of the trails are accessible and at least half are in full sun. A tram is provided to visit stops of interest.
Bicycles are welcome on the 1.7-mile paved loop the tram uses and the perimeter path adjoining the entrance road but not on boardwalks or footpaths.
Take exit 32 from Interstate 4 for Lakeland. Turn south on US 98 and drive 2.6 miles to George Jenkins Blvd. Turn right and continue a mile to Sloan Ave. Turn right and make an immediate right onto Bonnet Springs Blvd. Once inside the park, follow the perimeter road, passing the Welcome Center, to park adjacent to the Florida Children’s Museum (notable landmark: a giant yellow alligator sculpture) and the Depot Cafe.
Pathways radiate across Bonnet Springs Park in a multitude of directions, with the museum and cafe more central to the well-signposted trail network than the welcome center.
After salads at the Depot Cafe, we followed a counterclockwise loop using the 1.7 mile paved loop (open to cyclists) as a backbone for exploration.
A tier of pathways are up higher on the hills to access slides built into the slopes and park benches perched well above the basin.
The paved loop curves downhill to a nature-themed playground at the edge of the forest in the basin.
A cluster of workout equipment is tucked along the forest’s edge at this trail junction at a half mile, but it’s Mable the Owl that captures everyone’s attention.
She’s a climb-in slide in the woods. Art and play come together in this area, which during our visit hosted a collection of kinetic sculptures.
The paved loop turned uphill from here, circling the Event Center and its outdoor kitchen (where there are restrooms) past greenhouses.
Heading downhill again, you reach the Butterfly House at 0.8 mile. It’s worth the short walk through it to enjoy the flowers and flutters.
The trail sweeps downhill around the Botanical Gardens. One of the more spindly oaks in this area is named the Alice in Wonderland Tree.
At a mile, turn off on the Nature Center Trail. A boardwalk leads to the building perched above a cove of Lake Bonnet.
Exhibits illustrate the interplay of ecosystems in the park and their residents. Peek into a working beehive in one little niche. There are restrooms in this building.
Follow the boardwalk down to lake level, where a platform edges the water. Future plans are to add a canoe launch. A screened picnic pavilion is part of the complex.
Circling the complex, rejoin the paved path. Cross the bridge over Bonnet Springs outflow and turn right to follow a boardwalk along the water’s edge.
The walk along this cove of Lake Bonnet is a 0.7 mile round-trip off the paved loop, but well worth it for the views. An observation deck is at its tip.
Return to the paved loop. Its next diversion is a massive treehouse rising prominently under the oak canopy on the left, which also serves as an observation tower.
A boardwalk provides a gentle ramp up to treehouse level. The balcony offers a panorama of the creek, while inside is a play area for small children.
Rejoin the paved loop. A side trail to the left leads to the Peace Pagoda beyond the Treehouse. But the big don’t-miss feature of this park is its Canopy Walk, off the loop ahead.
Elevated above the forest floor but staying beneath the oaks, it bends and curves, giving a variety of angles of views of lake and park.
Benches provide rest stops. Peer into the tree branches for resurrection fern, native orchids, and planted staghorn ferns.
The Canopy Walk meets the paved loop again after almost a quarter mile in the air.
The paved loop leaves the shady forest along Lake Bonnet soon after, climbing uphill.
The last 3/4 mile is out in the open through a grassy area yielding to the gardens near the Welcome Center.
Feel free to explore the gardens. The Heritage Gardens showcase citrus grown in Lakeland as a commercial crop during the era the railroad yard was active.
If you haven’t been to the Welcome Center before, learn the story of the railroad and Lakeland’s citrus industry in the museum upstairs.
The last piece of the paved loop circuit circles the large Family Lawn. It doubles as an outdoor event space where concerts are sometimes held.
Finish the circuit of the park next to the Depot Cafe and Children’s Museum after 2.8 miles.
See our photos of Bonnet Springs Park
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
A beauty spot along Lake Mirror in downtown Lakeland, Hollis Garden is a collection of themed garden rooms
Circle B Bar Reserve
For fabulous birding and more alligators than you can count, roam the marshy edge of Lake Hancock on miles of causeways through Circle B Bar Reserve in Lakeland
Fort Fraser Trail
Paralleling US 98 between Bartow and Lakeland, the Fort Fraser Trail is along an urban greenway with connectivity to Circle B Bar Reserve
With day hiking and cross country trails, Holloway Park & Nature Preserve is a slice of nature inside the city limits of Lakeland, just off the Polk Parkway.