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Bok Tower Gardens: Beautiful oasis atop Florida ‘mountain’

At the 250-acre Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales, you can wander through manicured greenery, visit a historic home, let your kids explore a garden just for them, enjoy a pleasant lunch at a café and wander trails through disappearing habitats.

Get ready to spend a day exploring Bok Tower Gardens, Lake Wales. (Photo: Deborah Hartz-Seeley)
Driving from the main gate to the Visitor Center through citrus orchards, you are teased with a distant view of the Singing Tower Carillon at Bok Tower Garden, Lake Wales. (Photo: Deborah Hartz-Seeley)

Here too you’ll see lush azaleas, camellias and magnolias in season. And you might come across any of the over 125 different species of birds as well as gopher tortoises and endangered non-venomous eastern indigo snakes that inhabit the gardens and trails.

Or you can just sit in the gardens and enjoy the view from atop Mount Iron. At about 298 feet, it is part of a ridge that is millions of years old providing among the highest elevations in peninsular Florida.

Plus, from just about any place in the garden, you can hear the music of a 60-bell carillon that is played regularly.

In fact, there may be more to enjoy at Bok Tower Gardens than you can comfortably do in a day.

While you’re visiting Bok Tower Gardens, here are 7 fun and funky things to do in Lake Wales from Florida Rambler.

Bok Tower Gardens’ back story

This outdoor attraction is the dream of Edward Bok, an immigrant, who later became a Pulitzer Prize winner and influential publisher with a life-mission to make the world a more beautiful place

In 1921, he was wintering in the Mountain Lake Community of Lake Wales when he decided he’d preserve an adjacent hilltop where he enjoyed the sunsets.

This is the view that inspired Edward Bok to purchase this piece of land set atop one of the highest peaks in Florida. (Photo: Deborah Hartz-Seeley)
This is the view that inspired Edward Bok to purchase this piece of land set atop one of the highest peaks in Florida. (Photo: Deborah Hartz-Seeley)

He purchased the land and enlisted Frederick Law Olmstead Jr., a preeminent architect of the time who helped create national parks such as Acadia and Yosemite. Bok’s mission was to turn the sandy hilltop in central Florida into a bird sanctuary.

The gardens and carillon were donated to the public in 1929. Bok died almost exactly one year later and is buried between the brass doors and the moat at the base of the bell tower.

Your visit to Bok Tower Gardens

Garden Gate: You begin your exploration of the Bok Tower Gardens from the moment you turn off the main road and pass through the manned gate.

Visitor Center: The road through the garden leads to the parking lot and the Visitor Center. Here you can view a short looping video that fills you in on the creation and mission of the garden.

Map of Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales.
Map of Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales.

An exhibit hall provides a permanent collection detailing Bok’s life and work at Bok Tower Gardens.

You also may want to pick up the Bok Tower Gardens Visitor Map & Guide and a separate pamphlet about El Retiro, the historic home on the property that is an optional visit. Or access an interactive map online. (El Retiro also goes by the name the Pinewood Estate, as seen on the map above.)

Rambler Tip: Familiarize yourself with the map and go see what attracts you most. Then put the map away and just wander. Be sure to turn off the paved paths onto the mulched ones. There are beautiful things to see nestled in these less visited areas.

Our seven favorite stops at Bok Tower Gardens

A spider web in the Bok Tower Gardens, Lake Wales, gets kids involved. (Photo: Deborah Hartz-Seeley)
A spider web in the Bok Tower Gardens, Lake Wales, gets kids involved. (Photo: Deborah Hartz-Seeley)
  • 1. Hammock Hollow Children’s Garden: Let the little ones enter through the small keyhole doorway into the garden area designed just for them.

Among other things, they can sit in a bird’s nest, climb on an oversized black spider’s web, sit atop the head of an indigo snake with pebble scales, try getting water from a hand pump, play harmonic instruments, create a costumed play on a stage or run around and just be kids.

You’ll find all the attractions available on a map that’s posted at the garden and online.

  • 2. Pollinator Garden: You’ll be accompanied by butterflies as you walk through this almost 23,000-square-foot garden that hosts 20 to 30 different species of pollinators.
Gallardia or Indian Blanket flower welcomes bees and butterflies. (Photo: Deborah Hartz-Seeley)
Gallardia or Indian Blanket flower welcomes bees and butterflies. (Photo: Deborah Hartz-Seeley)
  • 3. Endangered Plant Garden: Lake Wales and Bok Tower Gardens are situated in a unique area that is home to plants such as the pygmy fringe-tree and scrub plum.  They are among the 48 rare species of plants found here and no place else in the world.

That’s because 100,000 years ago when sea levels were 250 feet higher, the Lake Wales ridge formed an island in the Atlantic Ocean and currents deposited a lot of sand here.

As a result of their isolation, endemic species evolved on the ridge and much of the area is sandy. Some of the rare species can be seen growing in this garden under the auspices of the Rare Plant Conservation Program.

Here’s more from Florida Rambler on how the Lake Wales Ridge area offers hiking, paddling, history and more.

  • 4. Window by the Pond: Enter the wooden cabin and take a seat where you can look out the oversized window at the bog beyond. Then just sit, remain quiet and watch as water birds land, alligators slither through the water and you get surprised by what shows up next.
This picture-perfect view through Window on the Pond allows for an undisturbed visit with Mother Nature. (Photo: Deborah Hartz-Seeley)
This picture-perfect view through Window on the Pond allows for an undisturbed visit with Mother Nature. (Photo: Deborah Hartz-Seeley)
  • 5. Exedra: The marble Exedra was a gift to Bok from his neighbors at the adjoining Mountain Lakes community where he lived.  It marks the spot from where Bok enjoyed the sunsets that inspired him to purchase this land and preserve it as Bok Tower Gardens.
  • 6. The Singing Tower Carillon and Reflection Pool:  One of only 200 carillons in the United States, the Singing Tower is a work of art. The Art Deco structure is made of coquina, Georgia marble and ceramic tile used in a way that marries the landscape with the architecture.

Look carefully and you’ll find song birds, fox, eagles and other animals adorning the structure.

The Reflection Pool captures the 205-foot-tall carillon standing majestically at one end. (Photo: Deborah Hartz-Seeley)
The Reflection Pool captures the 205-foot-tall carillon standing majestically at one end. (Photo: Deborah Hartz-Seeley)

Rambler Tip: There are vending machines around the pool that provide fish food pellets so you can feed the black and orange koi.

  • 7. Around the Carillon: There’s no nicer place to sit and relax than at the base of the carillon looking out from this hilltop to distant views. Periodically the carillon plays as you enjoy the shade of the oak trees.

The area around the base of the Singing Tower Carillon is a lovely place to stroll or spread a blanket in the shade and have a picnic. (Photo: Deborah Hartz-Seeley)
The area around the base of the Singing Tower Carillon is a lovely place to stroll or spread a blanket in the shade and have a picnic. (Photo: Deborah Hartz-Seeley)

Nature Trails

You’ll not only find gardens at Bok Tower but also nature trails through a variety of ecosystems.

Rambler Tip: At the Visitor Center, be sure to request maps of each of the two nature trails. You may have less trouble finding the entrance to trails with the use of the maps than you will without them.

Trail signage is not great. But by trial and error, I was able to find my way and you really can’t get too lost.

Pine Ridge Nature Trail: This easy ¾-mile trail through longleaf pine and turkey oak habitat provides some nice vistas out over orange groves. This pineland habitat used to cover millions of acres in the Southeast but is losing ground to development and other environmental factors.

The Pine Ridge Nature Trail winds through pineland with views of distant orange groves One end of the trail is near Window on the Pond and the other at the parking lot. (Photo: Deborah Hartz-Seeley)
The Pine Ridge Nature Trail winds through pineland with views of distant orange groves One end of the trail is near Window on the Pond and the other at the parking lot. (Photo: Deborah Hartz-Seeley)

Rambler Tip: If using the Bok Tower Gardens Visitor Map & Guide, be sure to check the compass rose to get your bearings as north on the map faces the right side of the page; not the top. The separate map of the trail you get at the Visitor Center desk has no directional code but the back of the map provides important information on what you are seeing.

Preserve Trail (aka the Reserve Trail): There is a path leading from the northeast side of the parking lot opposite the Visitor Center to the beginning of this trail (it is the same path where the Pine Ridge Nature Trail ends at the parking lot).

However, the signage starts across the street from the flagpole where you turn into the Visitor Center. This 1.5-mile trail ends at the main gate (or vice versa).

Here you are likely to see gopher tortoises and birds of prey such as the Northern Harrier and Common Kestrel hunting in the grasslands. You also may see sinkholes, citrus groves and longleaf pines that take 100 to 150 years to become full size and live up to 300 years. 

You even pass through an area that has had a controlled burn laid on it recently and is starting to spring back to life with greenery shooting up through the char.

There is a downloadable interactive map of the trail available online that tells you what you are seeing at certain points along the trail. The information is also available on trail signage.

Rambler Tips: This is not a loop so you will probably have to leave your car at either the gate or the parking lot end of the Preserve Trail. That means you may have to walk out and back unless you can get a ride to your car.

Take plenty of water with you on either trail, especially in warmer months; it’s hot out there.

A gopher tortoise munches on the greenery that quickly appears after a prescribed burn along the Preserve Trail. Because tortoises dig burrows, they have a safe place to hide when fire passes through the landscape. (Video: Deborah Hartz-Seeley)

El Retiro: A historic home at Bok Gardens

El Retiro is a nicely restored historic home that was part of the Mountain Lake Community. The 20-room home was bought by Bok Tower Gardens and finally placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.

A visit to El Retiro is a worthy stop on your tour of Bok Tower Gardens, Lake Wales. (Photo: Deborah Hartz-Seeley)
A visit to El Retiro is a worthy stop on your tour of Bok Tower Gardens, Lake Wales. (Photo: Deborah Hartz-Seeley)

Originally owned by Bethlehem Steel executive Charles Austin Buck, El Retiro was the work of the Olmsted Brothers.

Although it wasn’t Bok’s home, it is a good example of the Mediterranean-style architecture being built in the 1930s.

To enter, you ring the bell once (a sign emphasizes this) and wait to be admitted. Then your tour progresses as you walk through the home with a docent present in each room to explain the importance of what you are seeing.

You are welcome to view much of the house including the kitchen, servant quarters, master bedroom and hallway lined with three guest bedrooms all with baths and walk in closets for the many changes of clothing that were required at the time.

Don’t miss the sweeping lawn on the backside of El Retiro. It flows downhill to this landscaped pond. If you visit the pond, you may be surprised at how long a climb it is to return to the house in the distance. (Photo: Deborah Hartz-Seeley)
Don’t miss the sweeping lawn on the backside of El Retiro. It flows downhill to this landscaped pond. If you visit the pond, you may be surprised at how long a climb it is to return to the house in the distance. (Photo: Deborah Hartz-Seeley)

Visiting Bok Tower Gardens, Lake Wales

Where: 1153 Tower Blvd, Lake Wales, FL

When: Open 365 days a year. Visitor Center and Shop 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Gardens remain open until 6 p.m.

Bok Tower Gardens tickets/admissions: The last admission of the day is at 5 p.m. Adults $16; children (ages 5-12), $5; children under 5, free. Garden tickets can be purchased online or at the gate.

Can I bring my dog? Yes, there is an admission for dogs — $5. Dogs must be friendly and on 6-foot or shorter leashes at all times; no retractable leashes.

El Retiro: The historic home is open Nov. 1 through April 30 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; May 1 through Oct. 31 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.

Admission to El Retiro: Adults, $7; children (ages 5-12), $5. In addition, general admission to Bok Tower Gardens is required (combination tickets can be purchased). House tickets can be purchased at the Main Gate, in the Visitor Center or online. A combination ticket for the house and gardens also is available.

It’s preferable if you arrive at the home with an entry ticket. But for those who don’t, they can be purchased at the house with exact change; no bills over $20 accepted.

Rambler Tip: To visit the upstairs, you must ascend a steep, narrow, spiraling staircase. There is no working elevator. Be forewarned.

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Bok Tower Gardens and its Singing Tower Carillon. (Photo: Deborah Hartz-Seeley)

Dining: Cafe or picnic

While visiting Bok Tower Gardens, the most convenient place to eat breakfast or lunch is the Blue Palmetto Café.  I can recommend this order-at-the-counter restaurant that offers indoor and outdoor dining adjacent to the Visitor Center.

It’s also well-reviewed on TripAdvisor.

Served 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the restaurant menu features a few simple breakfast items (available until 11 a.m.) with salads, soup and sandwiches for lunch.

You also are invited to picnic in the gardens with tables available. Please dispose of trash properly.

Singing Tower Carillon at Bok Gardens

You cannot enter the tower but the Singing Tower Carillon provides concerts at 1 and 3 p.m. daily with short selections played on the hour and half-hour. 

The carillon schedule features live concerts by Geert D’hollander mid-October through mid-May, Thursday to Sunday. Recordings can be heard the remainder of the week, as well as during the summer months from mid-May to mid-October. 

No admission required other than general admission; concerts can be heard throughout the gardens. During live concerts, a wooded area near the base of the carillon provides seating and a closed-circuit camera view of the carillonneur performing.

Christmas at Bok Tower

Programs take place throughout the year with one of the biggest being the Bok Tower Christmas celebration that most years includes lots of festive foliage and Carillon concerts of holiday favorites.

A prescribed burn taking place on the hillside at the base of the Singing Tower Carillon at Bok Tower Gardens, Lake Wales, in May 2022. (Photo: Deborah Hartz-Seeley)

Atmospheric conditions permitting, prescribed or controlled burns are conducted on the Bok Tower Gardens property.

A garden staffer told me prescribed burns are laid on various areas every three years to maintain the view, help plants thrive and increase biodiversity as invasives are removed and nutrients are returned to the soil.

While you enjoy the gardens and nature trails, you may notice some singed areas where burns have taken place. Look for new life as green shoots spring up and small pine trees begin to sprout. In fact, some pine seeds require the fire’s heat in order to germinate.

Find more beauty spots in our guide to 19 Florida botanical gardens.

Places to visit near Bok Tower Gardens from Florida Rambler

A note from the editor:

The information in this article was accurate when published but may change without notice. Confirm details when planning your trip.

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