NE Florida's Secret Garden: Live Oak, Roses, and George Washington's Relatives?

Did you know that George Washington's descendents lived in NE Florida not so terribly long ago?

The kids and I took advantage of a respite in the rainy weather to hike a new trail. Hiking with kids is an amazing way to build an appreciation for nature. Not to mention we were all stir-crazy mad and in need of exercise after so much rain.  We packed a picnic basket full of lunch, some trail snacks, sunscreen, water, a map, and lots of bug spray and hit the road for a new-to-us trail about an hour south.

Washington Oaks Gardens State Park is nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and Intercoastal Waterway in Palm Coast, Florida, south of St. Augustine. I've seen friends posting incredible pictures from this part recently and had to check it out.

What we found was so much more than just another nature trail. Driving by on the highway, one has no idea such an intricate garden even exists and its essence is nearly  as fascinating as its storied past. The highest point in the garden, the rose garden, rests on mounds of oyster shells (called midden) left behind by Native Americans over a period of several hundred years.

I love a good story as much as I love nature and this one is pretty great. The jungle-like property was purchased by Spaniard Jose Mariano Hernandez of St. Augustine in 1818.  He named it "Bella Vista" for its glorious view of the Intercoastal Waterway. Hernandez was a man who knew how to go with the flow. When Florida became a U.S. Territory, he swore allegiance to the US and later organized and commanded a militia throughout the Second Seminole War of 1835-1842.

Hernandez became known as Brigadier General Joseph Marion Hernandez.  He was the first representative from Florida Territory to the United States Congress.

Hernandez's daughter Luisa married a distant cousin of President George Washington, George Lawrence Washington, in 1845.  Luisa died, but George and his sons build a hunting and fishing getaway at Bella Vista and planted citrus on the property too. George purchased the entirety of the property from Luisa's sisters in 1888 and it became known as the Washington Place.

Changing hands several times, the property was nearly turned into a subdivision in the 1920s, but the Great Depression put an end to that. In 1936, wealthy Louise Powis Clark from New York purchased the land as a winter retirement residence for herself and her husband, Owen Young. Young was a successful attorney, businessman, and diplomat who had been named Time Magazine Man of the Year in 1929. The name Washington Oaks was born and the couple designed the gorgeous gardens, combining native and exotic plants.  They built a house and tended their growing gardens, entertaining guests and family alike. Mr. Young died in 1962 and his wife donated the land to the State of Florida with the requirement that the gardens must be maintained.  They have been. The park opened to the public just a few years later.  I love how well-maintained the magical gardens are. I also love the fact that the surrounding forest is largely untouched, looking today just like it did in the 1800s.


The original 500-mile North to South roadway called Highway A1A runs right through the property and visitors can walk along an original section of the road. The existing highway A1A was later shifted closer to the coast and is an incredibly scenic way to see the state. It must have been incredibly beautiful driving through this tunnel of greenery!

The kids and I enjoyed our first hiking adventure of the summer. Surrounded by towering Live Oak and swaying palms, Bella Vista Nature Trail was like a journey into the jungle. The kids pretended they were explorers in the Amazon Rain Forest. Our Audubon Guide and drawing pads did not get much use though, as it was incredible buggy. We were swarmed by buzzing mosquitoes each time we stopped for pictures. At least we got a brisk power walk on avoiding the bugs (with little success). Our Off Spray does absolutely nothing to fend off these pests.

We checkout the gift shop for a bit before visiting the garden and chatted with some sweet park workers. The ladies were kind and welcoming to the kids and gave them coloring pages, a birding guide, and information to upcoming Junior Ranger programs. The kids found the perfect magnet to add to our travel collection.

Washington Oaks Gardens' formal garden was much less mosquito-filled and the kids loved it more than they expected. Every turn, every corner brought a new surprise. Ponds, fun statues, interesting plants, and hilarious lizards and squirrels were fun to spot. Butterflies flitted and fluttered around us and the warm, humid air carried the scent of roses and jasmine. "This is exactly like The Secret Garden!" my youngest proclaimed, happily zipping down one trail and up another. The kids loved the bridges and the koi ponds full of turtles, minnows, and frogs. Drawing pads came out frequently. An atmosphere of creativity inspiration was palatable.

Our adventure ended with a picnic lunch along the Intercoastal Waterway, watching speedboats, fishing vessels, and yachts traverse the gray waters and stark white herons glide just above the waves

I can't imagine how the Spanish survived here in their heavy armor and woolen clothing, or the early American settlers for that matter. It's no wonder the the Timucuan Indians wore very little clothing. Temperatures in the upper 80s and high humidity left us dripping with sweat, but everyone truly enjoyed our NE Florida adventure. It's fun to get out and try something new, and even more so when that adventure holds unexpected surprises. The park's history was most interesting to me. I just adore learning about interesting people and places. My oldest enjoyed practicing her photography skills. The boys liked smacking mosquitoes off each other, while my youngest drew plants and butterflies to her heart's content.  We (barely) beat the storms and made it home just as the dark clouds lit up with lightning and dumped their torrents of rain. It's summer in the South. The bugs, the heat, and the beauty are all part of the adventure.


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