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Washington Oaks State Park: Florida’s ‘rocky’ coast

The park's coquina rock coast.Washington Oaks State Park and botanical garden is one of those places you can drive by every day for years without ever knowing of the absolute treasure tucked away just out of sight from the busy road.

Do yourself a favor and visit. You’ll be surprised that such a unique marine environment is so accessible to northern Floridians.

Located just 2 miles south of Marineland below Crescent Beach, the state park is bisected by Highway A1A.

On one side, bordered by the Matanzas River,  visitors can stroll through a beautiful botanical garden.

On the other, beachcombers find themselves in a surprising landscape, more reminiscent of the rugged, rocky California coast than Florida.

Either locale is a treat for the senses and great for photo opportunities.

The formal rose garden.Most of the park’s 400 acres exist in their natural state. The formal gardens are nestled within a hammock of huge oak trees draped with Spanish moss. Throughout are walkways, waterways, reflection ponds, gazebos and expanses of flowers such as camellias, bird of paradise and azaleas. A courtyard filled with many varieties of roses invites visitors to stroll leisurely and smell the fragrant blooms. The beauty of the gardens have made them a popular location for weddings.

Along the Matanzas River side of the garden is a seawall with benches and BBQ grills. Migrating marine birds and manatee are frequently seen in this area. This section of the park also contains trails for hiking and biking and visitors can fish from the seawall and in the surf on the beach side.

The unique rock outcrop along the beach is thought to be the result of a bar of sediment formed 100,000 years ago just off the shore during the last interglacial ice age.

A garden stream and gazebo.Sea levels later fell nearly 30 feet, exposing the bar to air and weather. Percolating rain water dissolved the calcium carbonate in the sediment’s coquina (shell) material which cemented it together into rock.

Five thousand years ago, ocean waves began wearing away the exposed rock, carving out the startling coastline seen today.

The tract of land that eventually became the park was once owned by a relative of George Washington. In 1963 Louise and Owen Young bought the property, built a winter retirement home and established the gardens. In 1964 they donated most of the property to the State of Florida.

With separate entrances to the gardens and the beach, visitors must drive to the section they want to visit. The good news is one entrance ticket is good for both areas and the nominal entrance fee is about the best bargain around.

Pets are welcome on the hiking and biking trails but not in the gardens or on the beach and must be on a leash at all times.

The park address is 6400 N. Oceanshore Blvd. (A1A) and is open from 8 am until sundown 365 days a year.

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