Lake Wales has the distinction of being set almost smack dab in the center of the state on one of the highest ridges in Florida. Its history includes cattle, oranges and turpentine.
And today, it’s home to the beloved Bok Tower Gardens complete with one of only about 200 carillons in the United States. (Here’s more about Bok Tower Gardens from Florida Rambler)
In fact, the gardens are probably the biggest draw to town because they offer something for everyone including being part of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail.
But on a recent visit, we had the fun of discovering there’s much more to Lake Wales than just the gardens. And most of them have free admission and parking.
Seven things to do we discovered in Lake Wales
1) Visit the lake
Yes, there really is a lake at the center of Lake Wales. But depending on the sign or map you see it on, it may be called either Lake Wales or Lake Wailes.
Rambler Fun Fact: The discrepancy in the spelling of the name of the lake and the name of the city was the result of Sidney Irving Wailes helping to get a survey of the city performed in 1879 and, as a result, the lake in the center of town was name Lake Wailes.
But when the surrounding city was established in 1911 by the Lake Wales Land Co., it was referred to as the city of Lake Wales.
On their way to the lake, this family of sandhill cranes stops traffic. (Video: Deborah Hartz-Seeley)
You can drive around the lake hugging the shoreline to view older homes as well as newer ones that have sprung up. We found the more impressive ones at the eastern end and southeast side of the lake.
Or, you can walk/bike on a lighted and paved path that covers about 2.5 miles or about three quarters of the lake’s circumference. You can find free parking and access to this out-and-back trail at these locations:
- North Lake Shore Boulevard and Cephia Street
- North Lake Shore Boulevard between Park Avenue and North Wales Drive
- South Lake Shore Boulevard and Polk Avenue
2) “Climb” Spook Hill
Years ago, when I originally visited Spook Hill, there was nothing here but a small sign explaining that this was an optical illusion called a gravity hill and how to experience it.
Today, there’s signage to get you here from around town and, once there, plenty of signs and instructions on how to enjoy and participate in the illusion of rolling down hill in your car but feeling you are rolling up hill.
For more information about Spook Hill, watch this campy video. (YouTube video by Visit Central Florida.)
Where: Spook Hill is on North Wales Drive (5th Street) between Burns Avenue and Doctor JA Wiltshire Avenue. It’s even on Google Maps.
3) Taste sunshine at Grove House
Anyone who shops for orange juice is probably familiar with Florida’s Natural brand produced by the one of the largest citrus growers’ cooperatives in the world. It’s these farmers who sponsor Grove House.
Here you can see exhibits detailing the history and challenges of citrus growing in the area. You can enjoy a virtual tour showing how the fruit is brought from tree to table. You can sample the orange juice for yourself and purchase appropriately themed gifts and souvenirs. Then you can head outdoors for a self-guided tour of the citrus trees.
Where: 20160 Highway 27, Lake Wales, FL
When: Open October through May, Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
4) Discover Lake Wales History Museum
Housed in the 1928 Atlantic Coast Line Railroad station, the Lake Wales History Museum is home to around 20,000 documents, artifacts and photos that introduce you to the history of the area and its development.
Kids will enjoy the historic pullman car and locomotive on the property along with a caboose available for boarding.
Where: 325 South Scenic Highway, Lake Wales, FL
When: Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission: Adults, $5; children (up to 19), free
6) Explore Historic Downtown Lake Wales
On a first drive through, the center of town seems sort of sad and run down. But take advantage of the free parking, get out of your car and start exploring.
There are 11 historic buildings, some nicely preserved and refurbished. They are easy to visit via the downloadable Walk Lake Wales city map that is the work of the Lake Wales History Museum.
The tour also is available on the free Florida Stories app available in iTunes and Google Play. The app is GPS enabled and provides narration and photos that cover each tour stop.
There also are almost two dozen murals painted on downtown doors, walls and streets. An online guide is available if you’d like to visit them.
Rambler Tip: If you see a driver and his pick-up truck filled with produce set up in a parking lot, you may want to buy what he’s selling. We treated ourselves to watermelon in season that was sweet, delicious and kissed by the sun. I later saw nearby watermelon fields being picked by hand.
7) Jump into skydiving or paramotoring
My hotel room overlooked a large grassy field that stretched as far as I could see. When I opened my curtain in the morning, there were three people paramotoring through the distant sky.
What they were doing looked like fun. But I admit, I didn’t try it or skydiving myself so I have no experience with these activities or those in town who provide them. But opportunities are available.
Here’s what I found in an online search: Aviator Paramotor; Jump Florida Skydiving.
Staying in Lake Wales
There are a number of national chain hotels available close to Bok Tower Garden and downtown Lake Wales including the Holiday Inn Express Lake Wales N-Winter Haven and the Hampton Inn & Suites Lake Wales (both are about 8 miles from Bok Tower Gardens, Lake Wales).
There also are a few locally owned motels available in town. You can check them all out on TripAdvisor.
If you prefer, there are some more fun and funky alternatives to the usual motels. They are a little further out of town; you decide if they are worth the trip:
Westgate River Ranch Resort and Rodeo has a variety of accommodations including glamping, luxe teepees and even comfy Conestoga wagons (35 minutes from Bok Tower Gardens, Lake Wales). Here the fun includes line dancing, horseback riding and Saturday night rodeos.
Camp Mack, a Guy Harvey Lodge, Marina & RV Resort on the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes (25 minutes from Bok Tower Gardens, Lake Wales). From here you have access to 21,000 acres of bass fishing as well as over 20 miles of hiking and equestrian trails in the adjacent Lake Kissimmee State Park. From the property, you can access the water in your bass boat or kayak; air boat tours also are available.
Restaurants in Lake Wales
There are a variety of restaurants in Lake Wales that you can check out on TripAdvisor
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. Of course, you have to pay the garden admission fee to access the restaurant.
For those venturing outside the gardens, I recommend Melanie’s Seafood Company, in historic downtown Lake Wales. The small storefront offers fresh food, friendly table service and fair prices. You can visit on Facebook.
Places to visit near Lake Wales from Florida Rambler
- Bok Tower Gardens: A beautiful oasis atop a Florida ‘mountain’
- Lake Wales Ridge area offers hiking, paddling, history and more.
- The charming small towns of the region including, Lake Placid, Avon Park and Sebring.
- Lake Wales Ridge State Forest
- Kayaking Arbuckle Creek
- Lake Kissimmee State Park
- Highland Hammocks State Park
- Tiger Creek Preserve
Notes from the editor:
The information in this article was accurate when published but may change without notice. Confirm details when planning visits.
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Deborah Hartz-Seeley is a Master Gardener whose yard is certified as Florida Friendly. With a master’s degree in agricultural journalism, she’s written for the Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald, The Coastal Star, Cook’s Magazine, Florida Food & Farm and Florida Design. If she’s not out back growing things, you’ll find her wandering a garden path or exploring nature on foot, on a bike or in a kayak.