When thinking of Florida beaches, one usually pictures sandy, flat shores. If you find yourself at Washington Oaks Gardens, prepare for a surprise. The park contains a beach unlike any I have ever seen in Florida and includes one of the largest outcroppings of natural coquina on the Atlantic Ocean! Washington Oaks Gardens is a state park located just north of the tiny town of Palm Coast. On a trip to St. Augustine, my boyfriend and I decided to go off the direct route dictated by GPS and stop at this amazing park. We were both so happy that we did!
An easy 30 min drive south from St. Augustine and about an hour north east of Orlando, this park is off the beaten path and is not generally well know. My boyfriend has lived about an hour from the park his whole life and had never even heard of it. The park spans either side of the A1A from the Mantanzas River to the Atlantic Ocean, with a historical garden on the river side and the coquina beach on the ocean side. I think part of the reason may be the name of the park doesn’t refer to the amazing beach side and what you will find there. I’ll start with the beach because it was so spectacular!
Ocean Side (MAgical Coquina)
We actually visited the garden side first, but I want to start with the beach side of the park, since, in my opinion it is the main draw and the reason I wanted to come to the park. The beach access side of the park is actually directly across the A1A from the park’s main entrance. We had already paid the $5 entry fee on the garden side so did not pay again when crossing over to the beach side. The parking area is quite small, but we were easily able to grab a spot since we visited on a weekday. After crossing over the dunes on a footpath (the wooden stairs were closed due to erosion) we found ourselves on a beautiful white sandy beach. Where was the coquina formations I had seen photos of?! Turning to the left, the beginnings of the rock formations were easily visible about 100 yards down the beach. We started walking!
The coquina outcroppings start pretty abruptly and continued quite far down the beach. I think our jaws kept dropping lower and lower the closer we got. We explored the first several hundred feet of the coquina, though the rocks kept going much further up the beach, and had a great time jumping between the rocks and watching the waves crash in and swirl out. The waves have created beautiful erosions on the rocks and it was interesting to see how the formations varied as we moved down the beach.
Here I will include a few words of caution: Please be CAREFUL when climbing on the rocks. Keep in mind there is no lifeguard on duty and it would be easy to slip or get caught in between rocks if you do not tread with care. Be smart when climbing on the rocks and keep an eye on children! We escaped with only a minor injury, a small cut on my boyfriend’s foot. This is a great place for photos (we took a million), but keep a good hold on your phone or camera. If dropped in down into a tidal hole it would be gone forever!
The beach would be a great place to spend the day. You could easily set up camp on the flat part of the beach and spend the day exploring the coquina. I am unsure how swimming would be in this area. It seemed like the rock formations did go out into the water pretty far, so swimming here might not be a good idea. The sandy area by the beach access would probably be a better for swimming.
The Gardens (Huge oaks)
Back over on the other side of the A1A is the park’s namesake, a formal garden filled with live oaks and other foliage. Apparently the park and gardens were once owned by a family called the Youngs. There was a small gift shop near the parking lot but it was closed when we were there. We wandered over to the river’s edge where a couple was fishing, back through the rose garden, and along the paths that meander around several man made ponds.
I had one main goal, to find the beautiful oak tree I had seen in numerous pictures when researching the park. We finally stumbled upon it and it was a sight to behold!
All in all the gardens didn’t take too long to explore. I think in total, we spent a little less than an hour at beach and gardens combined. While the gardens were nice, the coquina beach outshone the gardens and were an amazing experience. Washington Oaks Gardens is a great place to stop and explore!
Washington Oaks Gardens State Park website: https://www.floridastateparks.org/park/Washington-Oaks
Friends of Washington Oaks Gardens website: http://www.washingtonoaks.org
The park requires a $5 entry fee per car and closes at sundown.