Nestled in Point Washington between Destin and Panama City Beach, Eden Gardens State Park is a slice of paradise in the Florida Panhandle, attracting tourists to experience the tranquility of the natural landscape accented by a stately 1897 mansion surrounded by ornamental gardens.
At just over 160 acres, Eden Gardens is much smaller than the typical Florida state park. The Alfred B. Maclay State Gardens in Tallahassee, for example, spans 1,176 acres. Despite its relatively small size, Eden Gardens boasts a wealth of natural beauty and history. There’s a garden trail that winds around the property’s edge and passes through a heritage rose garden, butterfly garden, camellia gardens, azalea gardens and even a hidden garden.
“Camellias have already started to bloom. Azaleas will be soon,” said park manager Wesley Myers, who manages both Eden Gardens and Camp Helen State Park in Panama City Beach. Camellias and azaleas color the grounds pink and yellow from October to May, with peak blooming around March. The Friends of Eden Gardens hosts an annual Camellia Festival at the park in mid-February.
Eden Gardens was the site of the Wesley Lumber Company from 1890 until after World War I. The business included a sawmill, planer mill and dry kiln with a dock to facilitate loading barges in Tucker Bayou for shipping lumber. William Henry Wesley built the mansion on the property in 1897 from timber cut at the mill and the family lived at the estate until his wife, Katie Strickland Wesley, passed in 1953.
The ground’s gardens were cultivated by Lois Genevieve Maxon, a publishing magnate who bought the property in 1963 and renovated the house in the antebellum style to showcase her family heirlooms and antiques. She donated the property to the state of Florida in 1968. The house with two-story white columns extending from the balcony to the wraparound front porch is ornately decorated inside, with chandeliers and a floral carpet.
Visitors can go on 45-minute guided tours of the Wesley House from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. every hour on the hour Thursday through Monday. The cost is $4 per adult and $2 per child (age 11 and younger) in addition to the park entrance fee. “The tour guide tells the history of Lois, the last resident at the house, and the history of the Wesley House,” Myers said.
The Wesley House is enveloped with moss-draped live oaks. Just beyond the reflection pond filled with koi fish and lilies in front of the Wesley House, an estimated 600-year-old live oak has become known as the wedding tree. Wedding vows are exchanged underneath its branches. “We have day and night weddings,” Myers said. “Last year, we had 70 to 80 weddings.”
Myers noted that the gardens are a popular picnic spot, with a Virginia live oak offering ample shade for a family picnic on the grass, and picnic tables scattered throughout the property. “On the grounds behind the azalea garden it’s green grass from the house to the bayou,” said Myers, who added that pavilions equipped with grills are available to rent.
Picnic tables are also located by the seawall and dock on Tucker Bayou. The shallow bayou connects to the Intracoastal Waterway and Choctawhatchee Bay. Visitors can bring a pole for saltwater fishing, as well as their canoes and kayaks. “You can see mullet in the bay jumping in the water,” Myers said.
West of the gardens, the park features short hiking trails. “Black bears are in the area but they’re not common to see in this small of a park,” Myers said. “You’ll see white-tailed deer, racoons, and may see an armadillo and snakes; venomous and nonvenomous.”
A Living Shoreline Trail protecting the property from shoreline erosion meanders through the gardens and highlights trees like native scrubby flatwoods, mesic flatwoods, floodplain swamp, wet flatwoods, baygall, xeric hammock and maritime hammock.
Twice a year, the park hosts an after hours stargazing experience on the lawn in front of the Wesley House. “Stargazing is unique [because] we’re located [in a place] with ambient light that at night is very low,” Myers said. The night sky above Eden Gardens is one of the darkest south of the I-10 corridor.
On Friday, March 20, from 8 to 11 p.m. the Northwest Florida Astronomy Association will facilitate a stargazing with local astronomers guiding telescopes. Guests are welcome to bring their own telescopes as well as flashlights with a red lens for light diffusion. The event is free with paid park entry.
Eden Gardens State Park is located at 181 Eden Gardens Road, Santa Rosa Beach, and open daily from 8 a.m. to sunset year-round. Admission is $4 per vehicle and $2 for pedestrians and bicyclists. For more information about a wedding or special event, call the wedding coordinator at 850-267-8320 Monday through Thursday, between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. For more information about the park, visit FriendsofEdenGardens.com or FloridaStateParks.org.