Tucked away off of Florida’s A1A highway on the quiet outskirts of Palm Coast is a hidden gem: Washington Oaks Gardens State Park. We discovered it recently as part of our quest to see more of our own backyard.
Less than two hours from our house, Washington Oaks Gardens sits between St. Augustine and Palm Coast in Northeast Florida. It’s got a stretch of protected beach, beautiful flora in the formal gardens area, and even some unexpected wildlife. At just $5 per vehicle (or free with a Florida State Parks pass), it’s a good value even if you’re only stopping in for a couple of hours as part of a bigger road trip.
Overall, this park is great for a super chill afternoon — not an action-packed place to visit. If you’re trying to get a few miles of casual walking in, it has tons of great options, from the formal gardens to the biking trails and the secluded beach across the street. It’s a great place to just spend a day relaxing.
Washington Oaks Gardens: Hidden Gem of Palm Coast Parks
If you’re heading in from the north like us, you’ll see signs for other parks — including St. Augustine’s Anastasia State Park, Palatka’s Ravine Gardens State Park, and even Fort Matanzas National Monument — but soon the busyness of the road calms down and you realize you’re driving over river marshes and alongside the coast. Coming up from the south, you’d pass Bulow Creek State Park in Ormond Beach and Canaveral National Seashore.
When you enter a stretch of greenery, keep an eye out for the park entrance (we passed it on our first drive by). There are two sides to the park — the gardens and the beach — but the park entrance sign is only on the garden side, which can make it tricky to spot if you, like us, are craning your neck in awe of the ocean. We passed it once by accident, turned around, and drove in.
The garden side is where you’ll find the visitor center, picnic areas, the bathroom pavilion, hiking and biking trails, a gift shop, and even an outdoor stage with ample parking (you can rent out parts of the gardens for events like weddings). The beach side of the park is much less developed, and the only facility it offers is a (surprisingly well ventilated) porta potty.
Washington Oaks Gardens extends from the Matanzas River to the Atlantic Ocean, protecting all the greenery between, including the coastal maritime hammock and the estuarine tidal marsh along the river. Along the seawall behind the visitor center are plenty of benches and bait areas for fishing. It’s important to note that while you can take leashed pets into the picnic areas and on the 2+ miles of trails, pets are not allowed in the gardens or on the beach.
Spend a Relaxing Afternoon in the Lush Garden
We started our Washington Oaks Gardens experience at its namesake — the gardens. While the gardens feature exotic plants from all over the world, they’re best known for their azaleas, camellias, and roses. There’s an entire courtyard area featuring different colored roses in pinks, reds, yellows, and even spotty blends.
As you make your way through the gardens, you’ll walk under massive oak trees, hear the wind rustle the fronds of the towering palms, duck under large banana leaves, and use mini bridges to cross over the pond system. Near the greenhouses, there’s a native Florida plant exhibit (with aloe plants for $5!), and further into the self-guided garden tour were some raised beds with mixed plants.
While the gardens were pretty, I’m definitely more of an animal person than a plant person. This park ended up surprising me with the life that was teeming just below the surface. As we made our way around the gardens, we saw a black snake carefully avoiding the ponds, a pair of colorful skinks scurrying into the bushes, and too many butterflies and squirrels to count.
This park isn’t too heavily trafficked by humans, which means most of these creatures won’t be scared off by the time you’d meet them. The woods were so quiet, we could hear the sounds of woodpeckers doing their thing from every direction. Washington Oaks Gardens is actually part of the Great Florida Birding Trail, and you can get a birding checklist at the ranger station when you enter the park.
Cross the Street for a Sunset Stroll Along the Beach
The beach at Washington Oaks Gardens is unlike any other in Florida. Coquina rocks dot the shoreline and gather along the northern part of the park’s border. These unique limestone features were created by years of rainwater dissolving and “gluing” sand and shells together.
This beach isn’t really a great place to swim because of all the submerged rocks, and there were rip current signs posted in the parking lot with red hazard flags to scare people off. But I think that’s part of the reason it’s so pristine and uncrowded, which makes it ideal for a quiet walk or an afternoon of sunbathing.
While the beachside parking lot is really small, it wasn’t anywhere near full on our visit. So hop out of your car and walk along the shoreline, look for shells, sit a spell, and feel the warm sea breeze against your skin — you’ll feel like you have the place to yourself.
The views here are the perfect end to a day spent exploring what makes Florida special.