With all that Florida has to offer, you'd think it would be hard for anybody to pick a favorite place in the state. In my case though, it's not. By a mile,my favorite place is Washington Oaks Gardens State Park. Washington Oaks is one of the most peaceful and beautiful places I've ever been and it's a great example of old Florida. The gardens are located about 20 miles south of downtown St. Augustine and 2 miles south of Marineland on A1A .
This 389-acre park stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Matanzas River (also called the Intracoastal). I lived 10 miles from Washington Oaks for 6 years before I moved to Pensacola and I've really longed to return to this tranquil place . Luckily, this past December on a visit to see my son, we went to the gardens. December is my favorite time of year to visit because the citrus trees are ready for harvest. We couldn't have asked for a better day too. The weather was in the 70's and there was not a cloud in sight. The entrance fee is $5 for vehicles up to 8 people. It's an absolute bargain. Remember the beach parking is also included in the entrance fee .
History and Visitor Center:
Washington Oaks Gardens has a very interesting history and the Visitors Center does an excellent job of sharing that. Native Americans came there to fish, hunt and gather shellfish. It still has a mound of oyster shells in the rose garden on a hill that was left by generations of Native Americans. It also was owned by a distant relative of President George Washington .
In 1936 ,Louise Young purchased the land . The gardens were established by Louise and her husband Owen Young and they built a winter retirement home that's now the visitors center. Louise was a very accomplished New York designer and Owen was Chairman of GE and founder of RCA. .He was also Time Magazine man of the year in 1929. They named the property Washington Oaks. A couple years after Owen's death in 1962, Louise donated most of the property to the State of Florida and wanted the gardens maintained in their present form and expanded as funds became available. The park was opened to the public on July 1, 1964 and I think Louise would have been proud of the condition of the park today and the upkeep.
The Formal Gardens:
The formal gardens are really wonderful. I love the citrus trees and some of the different varieties. The St. Augustine area was the start of citrus production in Florida and it's even said Ponce de Leon planted the first orange tree of Florida in St. Augustine in the mid 1500s. Tall palms, moss-covered oak trees and banana trees surround several reflecting ponds. There's a formal rose garden and a lot of flowers on plants and trees throughout the gardens. Roses, camellias, azaleas and birds of paradise are just some of the flowering plants that you will see.
A lot of people that go to the gardens are unaware that the beach at Washington Oaks is as incredible as the gardens and they miss it. It wasn't until my last visit that i experienced just how expansive the Coquina rock outcroppings are because we walked the length of the beach. Walk north on the shore to see what I mean. It's the second largest outcropping on the Atlantic Ocean. Coquina rock is a type of sedimentary rock. The Coquina in this area was formed by the shore, where shells and sand become well sorted by waves . During times when the ocean level was lower, these shells and sand were exposed to rain. The rainwater dissolved some of limestone from the shells, which acted to glue together the sand and shells into rock. Over the years, winds and waves have eroded the rock to the great shapes there are today. Various tide pools with ocean life are amongst the rock
Nature, wildlife and activities:
The vast majority of the park is natural and varied. There is sparse coastal scrub near the Atlantic and a lush coastal hammock with oak, hickory and magnolia trees near the Matanzas. For bird watchers, over 100 different species have been spotted in the park including the endangered Florida Scrub Jay. Animals that one can see on or near the Atlantic Ocean side are the Loggerhead Sea Turtle and Gopher Tortoise . On the Matanzas side is the coastal hammock where there are deer, rabbits and armadillos. The Florida Manatee can sometimes be on the Matanzas swimming along the parks seawalls.
The park is an excellent spot for fishing if you have a Florida fishing license. I want to try bike riding on old A1A that now is part of the park. I love the road.
Go—and report back to TG. Even the drive along A1A to there is great!