Washington Oaks Gardens State Park, at the northeasternmost part of Flagler County, is the dean of Flagler County parks: a 476-acre spread on both sides of State Road A1A (just three miles south of Marineland), of formal gardens, day lilies, roses, some of the most stately oaks in the county, colossal coastal boulders of coquina, an impressive collection of native and exotic species, and lush, intimate paths ideal for solitary walks or preludes to a kiss, or more: the park is a favorite ground for weddings.
Those looking for a day’s activities at an affordable price will discover the value of Washington Oaks Gardens, which straddles the main road, is hard to beat.
Washington Oaks Gardens State Park:
Where to begin the day’s adventure may depend on the tides. At low tide at Washington Oaks’s beachside is the place to be for a relaxing wade through the water and around the coquina rock formations generally exposed at ebb tide. The rocks make for an ideal playground, caution permitting. Swimming is not recommended because of the coquina’s treatchery beneath the surf, but those looking for a virtually vacant beach will enjoy the solitude.
Across A1A, or Ocean Shore Boulevard, visitors may notice a drop in temperature on the hottest of days as they stroll under the oak hammock, through the gardens and along the seawall. Several trails wind through the hammock, giving a true glimpse of the old, mostly vanished Florida, the Florida Francis Parkman once described as “vast wastes of forest verdure; mountains silent in primeval sleep; river, lake, and glimmering pool; wilderness oceans mingling with the sky.” The contrast between the two sides of Washington Oaks Gardens recreates “the long, low line where the wilderness of waves met the wilderness of woods.”
“Here,” Parkman wrote of the area as it was near the birth of the Republic, “the Bartrams, father and son, guided their skiff and kindled their nightly bivouac-fire; and here, too, roamed Audubon, with his sketch-book and his gun. It was a paradise for the hunter and the naturalist. Earth, air, and water teemed with life, in endless varieties of beauty and ugliness. A half-tropical forest shadowed the low shores, where the palmetto and the cabbage palm mingled with the oak, the maple, the cypress, the liquid-ambar, the laurel, the myrtle, and the broad glistening leaves of the evergreen magnolia. Here was the haunt of bears, wild-cats, lynxes, cougars, and the numberless deer of which they made their prey.
“In the sedges and the mud the alligator stretched his brutish length; turtles with outstretched necks basked on half-sunken logs; the rattlesnake sunned himself on the sandy bank, and the yet more dangerous moccason lurked under the water-lilies in inlets and sheltered coves. The air and the water were populous as the earth. The river swarmed with fish, from the fierce and restless gar, cased in his horny armor, to the lazy cat-fish in the muddy depths. There were the golden eagle and the white-headed eagle, the gray pelican and the white pelican, the blue heron and the white heron, the egret, the ibis, ducks of various sorts, the whooping crane, the black vulture, and the cormorant; and when at sunset the voyagers drew their boat upon the strand and built their camp-fire under the arches of the woods, the owls whooped around them all night long, and when morning came the sultry mists that wrapped the river were vocal with the clamor of wild turkeys.”
You might get lucky and glimpse apparitions from that past, though the land still breathes a wealth of Florida history. The park land was once part of Bella Vista Plantation, owned by General Joseph M. Hernandez, a sugar planter descended of Spanish and Minorcan blood and the state’s first delegate to Congress, appointed by a legislative council in 1823. Hernandez made his name in Florida as a militia general led in the Second Seminole War from 1835 to 1842. His daughter married a relative of the first President of the United States, a surveyor also named George Washington. She got Bella Vista as a wedding present in 1844 and lived in the plantation until 1856. (A descendant in 2010 donated remnants of the Hernandez’s Washington, D.C., china to the Flagler County Historical Society. Some of that china is displayed at the county administration building in Bunnell, on State Road 100.)
Owen and Louise Young bought the land in 1936 as the couple’s winter home. Owen, a lawyer who died in 1962, was one of the founders of RCA and a Chairman of the Board of General Electric. The Youngs established the gardens and renamed the place Washington Oaks Gardens to honor its connection to the Washington line, and as a reflection of the many live oaks on the property. When she donated the land to the state in 1964, Louise stipulated that the gardens be maintained as they had been established. This stipulation resulted in the park having non-native plant species included on the grounds–unusual for Florida State Parks.
The park opened, with no ceremony, on Jan. 1, 1965. Young herself missed the opening. She was in hospital in St. Augustine.
The western side of the park is bordered by the Intracoastal Waterway and a popular place to cast a fishing line, launch a kayak or sit back and enjoy the wildlife and activity on the water. The Youngs also appreciated the view and built their home, now the visitor center, on a hill overlooking the Intracoastal. The center is decorated with furniture and an operating television from the Young’s era on the land (but no video loops of ‘Gunsmoke,” “Wagon Train” or Red Skelton). A historical timeline of photos and artifacts are also on display.
The park hosts many popular events throughout the year including Earth Day, Holiday in the Gardens, fishing clinics, a Citrus Festival and various musical events. The Friends of Washington Oaks have plant sales featuring many plants propagated by volunteers in the newly refurbished greenhouse from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. the second Saturday of every month.
A picnic area on the south side of the park has its own parking and pavilions for an impromptu picnic. Pavilions can also be reserved for private events.
A Washington Oaks Gardens State Park Gallery
(For best viewing, click on an image rather than the slideshow.)