Experience Natural Florida at Eden Gardens State Park
July 4, 2018 by Manny Chavez
Visiting Eden Gardens State Park is tuning out the rest of the world and tuning in the “Real Florida”.
Trade in your worries and turn on to the splendor of SoWal's great outdoors, with some Florida history to boot. Just a bit north of the beach, Eden Gardens State Park is nestled in the woods of Point Washington, along the shores of Tucker Bayou and the Choctawhatchee Bay. It's the ideal spot to relax and have family fun.
As you enter the park ($4/vehicle, $2/walk or bike), you'll get an eyeful of huge live oak trees and enormous magnolias with Spanish Moss and Resurrection Fern growing in abundance. Beautiful lawns and gardens surround the famous Wesley Mansion, a restored monument to days gone by. Inside, the rooms are decorated with old antique furniture and guided tours are conducted hourly from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. ($4/adult, $2/child). Your tour guide will share entertaining stories about the Mansion’s history. Who knew the reflection pool (a beautiful water garden with a bubbly fountain), built in 1972, was once a cow pen? Or that the current inhabitants of the pool (mostly Koi and “mosquito fish”) are pretty much self-sufficient feeding on the algae and mosquito larvae growing within the pond.
“If you’re lucky,” says museum tour guide Kara Wheeler, "you can see the Koi jump up on the sides of pots in the pond and attach their mouths with suction to the growing algae. They make a distinct sucking sound as gravity brings them back down into the water and the sides of the pots are soon algae free!” The fish do have to be fed by humans occasionally, but they do a pretty good job of fending for themselves.
The Mansion is also home to the Fig Leaf Gift Shop where locally crafted souvenir items, books, t-shirts, postcards, etc. can be purchased. Be sure to consider scooping up the 1972 film “Frogs” …a low-budget horror flick filmed on location at the Mansion. You’ve never seen so many frogs, snakes, spiders, nor a skinnier Sam Elliott than you will in this film! While the Friends of Eden Gardens State Park maintain the gift shop, the group also stays busy keeping up the rose, butterfly, and camellia gardens that adorn the property.
Once you have visited the Mansion, take a stroll across the lawn and through the massive live oaks down to Tucker Bayou. You'll see the Living Shoreline Trail which is dotted with markers identifying plants and trees throughout. The printed trail guide can be picked up at the gift shop. At the northern edge of the trail, you will be at the dock on Tucker’s Bayou. Great photo opportunity here for family and friends. Or, fishing is good here too! There are various park benches and picnic tables in this area, tailor-made to picnic or just enjoying the silence. Scattered throughout the park and along the hiking trails are whimsical life-size sculptures of children at play.
Walking back on the western edge will finish up the Living Shoreline Trail and afford great views of the enormous “Wedding Tree,” a HUGE Spanish Moss-adorned live oak that has become a favorite background for wedding and family portraits. This tree has been dated to be over 600 hundred years old. Photo opportunities exist in every direction at Eden.
Finishing up your stroll through the main Eden property, a more strenuous hiking trail can be taken. The 1.7-mile loop is shaded throughout and is a wonderful walk for families to enjoy. To get to this trail, take the paved road north of the main entrance and follow it until it circles back around. You will find bathrooms, several picnic shelters, and a primitive boat launch for canoes/kayaks. These picnic shelters are available on a first-come, first-serve basis, but can be reserved by calling the Eden office.
Eden’s annual Christmas Candlelight Open House takes place every December for one special night. The staff and Friends of Eden Gardens State Park go all-out in making sure this event will be enjoyed by everyone. The Wesley Mansion is open to the public on this night only for self-guided tours. The mansion’s antiques take on a festive glow with each room decorated for the season. The beautiful garden walks are lined with candle luminaries and refreshments including hot cocoa, hot cider, and cookies guaranteed to keep the cold at bay. Musical entertainment will complete the holiday ambiance.
Another popular Eden event is the annual Camellia Festival scheduled each February. Also hosted by The Friends of Eden Gardens State Park, the colorful outdoor event spotlights Eden’s Camellia Garden and will feature the flower in its many incarnations. Various camellia and other floral demonstrations take place along the grounds with plants available for purchase. Guest lectures are featured along with food vendors and actors strolling about in period dress.
October of every year brings back Eden’s Fall Film Festival, an outdoor under-the-oaks film featured every Thursday of the month. Admission is free with paid park admission and “Frogs” is always on the agenda. Bring along a blanket or chair, doesn’t hurt to have a flashlight, and a small concession stand will be on hand.
The park is also available for weddings and group gatherings. Please call the park for ground and pavilion reservation information. Eden Gardens State Park is located at 181 Eden Gardens Road off Hwy. 395 N, just north of Hwy. 98. Hours: 8 a.m.-Sunset, daily. Phone: 850-267-8320.