Near the very geographical center of Florida, this city gives its name to a sandy ridge running along the spine of the state for 100 miles.
A local high point is Iron Mountain, which is the setting for a magnificent garden attraction, open since the 1920s. Bok Tower Gardens was laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (1870-1957), who also contributed to Lake Wales’s urban plan.
In the 21st century, the city has begun a scheme to bring more greenery to its streets and parks, and have taken a cue from Olmsted by planting hundreds of new trees.
Lake Wales is also the gateway to a magnificent chain of lakes east of the city at the likes of Lake Kissimmee State Park.
1. Bok Tower Gardens
In the 1920s the author and publisher Edward Bok (1863-1930) developed an incredible 250-acre garden atop Iron Mountain in Lake Wales.
Rising to almost 300 feet, this is one of the highest points in Florida. Crowning the spellbinding landscape is the 205-foot Gothic Revival Singing Tower, which holds a 60-bell carillon, cast in England.
Bok hired the esteemed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. for the gardens. Over several years Olmsted planted myriad live oaks, palms, and azaleas.
A century later, I can’t do justice to how beautiful this place is. Naturally you’ll want to make a bee-line for the Singing Tower. This romantic building is footed by koi ponds and looks like something from a fantasy movie.
Whatever you do you have to be here for one of the carillon concerts, lasting 30 minutes and taking place daily at 1:00 pm and 3:00 pm.
2. El Retiro (Pinewood Estate)
For an additional fee, at Bok Tower Gardens you can tour this splendid Mediterranean-style mansion.
El Retiro was built in 1930 as a winter retreat for the industrialist C. Austin Buck, who was vice-president of the Bethlehem Steel Company, in Pennsylvania
The mansion is ensconced in 7.5 acres of lush gardens, and has a separate listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
Designed around a cluster of tile-clad courtyards by architect Charles Wait, this is held as one of Florida’s finest examples of Mediterranean Revival architecture.
The surrounding gardens are the work of the Olmsted firm’s William Lyman Phillips, best known for Coral Gables’ Fairchild Tropical Garden. These are dense with tall pines and live oaks, and are laced with water features, offering respite from the heat.
3. Lake Wailes
The large body of water in the heart of the city has held onto the original spelling, after founder Sidney Irving Wailes.
This is a spectacular place to be, especially at dawn or sunset, when the views are unforgettable. Lake Wailes Park makes up about ⅔ of the lakeshore, and has a 4.5-mile path by the shore.
I couldn’t think of a better location for a picnic, though perhaps not in the sweltering summer months. E.C. Sutton Park, Kiwanis Park and Crystal Lake Park all adjoin Lake Wailes Park. So a short walk away are amenities like a skate park, playgrounds, and the city’s Little League complex.
Lake Wailes Park also hosts big annual events, like the Orange Blossom Revue music festival in December.
4. Historic Downtown Lake Wales
Bounded to the east by SR 17, Lake Wales has a downtown with more than meets the eye. Loosely distributed across several blocks is a large community of local businesses.
You can peruse shops for antiques, candy, flowers, jewelry, homewares, pet supplies, cakes, and more. For food and drink you’ll come across spots for ice cream, coffee, Southern cuisine, seafood, Thai and diner classics.
Downtown Lake Wales is on the National Register of Historic Places, with numerous buildings dating from the 1920s Florida land boom.
The most prominent, in every sense, is the Dixie Walewsbilt Hotel (1926), rearing up over the cityscape from the west side. This once opulent establishment counted silent movie stars like Gloria Swanson and Mary Pickford among its guests.
When I was in town the hotel was boarded up, but there were rumors of upcoming development.
5. Lake Kissimmee State Park
Lake Wales is the jumping off point for an awe-inspiring wild region, completely unaffected by development. If you’re ready for some adventure, my starting point would be Lake Kissimmee State Park.
Encompassing almost 5,000 acres, this park harbors more than a dozen natural communities, from open water to pine flatwoods.
Thirteen miles of trails wind through an eden-like environment, with more than 50 animal and plant species on state lists. An amazing 200 different bird species have been spotted at Lake Kissimmee, from sandhill cranes to the native Florida scrub-jay.
For water activities, you can go boating, canoeing, kayaking or fishing on the upper Kissimmee chain of lakes. There are also some 60 campsites if you want to stay overnight.
Something I love here is the authentic 1876 Cow Camp, with living history demonstrations harking back to the days of the Florida cow hunters.
6. Lake Wales Art Center
Established in 1972, this local arts organization is headquartered in a beautiful former church building.
In the Spanish Mission style, the Holy Spirit Catholic Church was built in 1927, and was in use for 60 years before the congregation needed a larger home.
Today it’s an inspiring space for short–term exhibitions, art education, performances, and a host of other cultural events.
There’s a new exhibition every couple of months or so. I was fortunate enough to catch Floridian Fire, a compelling show for contemporary ceramic arts in the Sunshine State.
The Lake Wales Arts Council also organizes numerous concerts at this venue, in genres from jazz to Americana, folk and classical.
7. Lake Wales History Museum
One building that may catch your eye in the center of Lakes Wales along SR 17 is this Mediterranean-style railroad depot.
Lake Wales station was built by the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad in 1928, and has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1990.
Since the 1970s, this has been the venue for the Lake Wales History Museum. Exhibits go into the natural history of the Lake Wales Ridge, the area’s Native Americans, the development of the railroad, and local industry and agriculture.
There are three historic pieces of rolling stock on the site. These include an 1886 Pullman-style Office Car, the 1926 Seaboard Air Line Railroad Caboose, and a 1944 US Army Locomotive Engine.
Sharing the campus is a pioneer house from 1920, and the old Seaboard Air Line freight station from 1916. When I put this list together the museum was temporarily closed for renovations.
8. Tiger Creek Preserve
A little further out, Tiger Creek Preserve is about 15 minutes southeast of downtown, and sits on the eastern flank of the Lake Wales Ridge.
In the care of the Nature Conservancy, this 4,900-acre property is made up of pine flatwoods, hardwood swamp, and pine scrub along several miles of Tiger Creek.
Being on an ancient island has allowed an usual diversity of natural life to evolve. In fact, I was amazed to learn that there are more than a dozen species here that can be found nowhere else in the world.
There are three marked trails at the preserve, adding up to more than ten miles.
9. KICCO Wildlife Management Area
Taking its name from the old Kissimmee Island Cattle Company, this wildlife management area is a mix of scrub, oak hammock, cypress strand, and pine-palmetto flatwoods along the Kissimmee River.
You can get out to the KICCO Wildlife Management Area in about 20 minutes from downtown Lake Wales.
Once there, you can ride a bike along nine miles of the KICCO Grade Road, paved with crushed shells.
There’s also 13 miles of the Florida National Scenic Trail through this property. There’s great paddling too, along the Kissimmee River, with a public boat launch off SR 60.
I’d recommend this place for its marvelous wildlife, with bald eagles, white-tailed deer, alligators and a huge array of wading birds sighted along the river.
10. Spook Hill
If you believe the rumors, Spook Hill in Lake Wales is a place where the laws of gravity don’t apply. Apparently, magnetism is super-strong here, and cars will roll uphill with their transmissions in neutral.
The jury is still out on what causes these interesting phenomena. There seems to be little room for doubt that there are odd occurrences on the hill, and they’ve been around for as long as anyone can remember.
Naysayers—I for one—might claim that the hill is just subject to optical illusions. These make things appear to be happening that really aren’t. Either way, it’s a fun and convenient stop that’s totally free.
11. Orange Blossom Revue
Arguably the biggest event in Lake Wales’s calendar is a music and heritage festival, normally on the first weekend of December. The Orange Blossom Revue has humble origins, as a fundraiser for the local Rotary Club.
It has since exploded into a two day roots music extravaganza, with internationally-renowned musicians, bringing in people from across the state.
I was lucky enough to be in town for this event, and topping the lineup were the soul-rock band JJ Grey & MoFro, rootsy trio The Wood Brothers, and Country singer-songwriter Brent Cobb.
There’s also a strong culinary element to the Orange Blossom Revue, with superb food vendors, and locally brewed craft beer.
12. Pioneer Days Festival
Going back half a century, the Pioneer Days Festival is a hotly anticipated annual event organized by the local historical society.
Usually taking place in late October on the shores of Lake Wailes, this free celebration brings two days of old-timey activities.
A heritage village crops up in the park, filled with costumed reenactors demonstrating historic trades. There are more than 60 vendors here each year. These provide historical lessons, while selling high-quality handmade items, from metalwork to handloom fabrics.
Younger kids will love the harvest-themed activity area, while there’s also live music, as well as food and drink vendors.
13. LEGOLAND Florida
On more than 150 action and creativity packed acres, LEGOLAND Florida is located in Winter Haven about 15 minutes northwest of Lake Wales.
One of the state’s most popular theme parks, this place has only been around since 2011. It all opened on the site of the old Cypress Gardens. Long before the days of Disney World, this was an early Florida amusement park that opened in the 1930s.
Most of the rides and activities were designed with 2 to 12-year-olds in mind, but older kids and parents usually have a blast too.
There are also fun elements left over from Cypress Gardens, like the stunning botanical gardens, and an action-packed daily water-ski show.
Something amazing in the gardens is a massive banyan tree, which has grown from a seedling planted in 1939.
14. LEGOLAND Florida Water Park
In 2012 the water park at Cypress Gardens was rebranded as a LEGOLAND attraction. The facility first opened in 2005, and has water slides and play areas, ideal for kids up to around 12.
Visitors at the older end of the spectrum will be thrilled by the Twin Chasers and Splash Out water slides. There’s also a wave pool, and a unique lazy river where you can build your own raft.
Elsewhere, creativity is the name of the game at the Build-A-Boat attraction in Creative Cove. Meanwhile the littlest family members can splash, slide and build at the DUPLO Splash Safari.
15. Peppa Pig Theme Park
The third big attraction and the second dry park to open at the LEGOLAND Resort, is an amusement park themed on the children’s TV phenomenon, Peppa Pig.
Given the show’s target audience, this is a place for wee ones, up to around five. There’s a Fun Fair, lots of kiddie rides, playgrounds, a splash pad, and shows all day long at the Mr. Potato’s Showtime Arena.
Something neat that I haven’t seen anywhere else is Peppa’s Pedal Bike Tour. Here children can climb on a bike and make their way through a whimsical, themed environment with mountains and woods.