With travel being limited and outdoor venues being the thing to do, we decided to check out a local favorite in Vero Beach. McKee Botanical Gardens in Vero was known as McKee Jungle Gardens and I live literally less than 2 miles away. My husband Jack, fondly remembers visiting the attraction as a child because of the monkeys they housed there.
McKee Botanical Gardens has been restored to an 18-acre world-class botanical garden in Vero Beach, Florida. You will find some of the best collections of tropical water lilies in the nation. There are over 10,000 native and tropical plants. There are streams and waterways that you will follow along on your journey. As you follow the paths and trails, you will see unique flora, plants and trees such as orchids, palms, oaks bamboos among many many other species.
McKee Garden’s History
McKee Botanical Gardens was originally purchased in 1922 by land developers, Arthur McKee and Waldo Sexton. Located in Vero Beach, Florida, it was originally 80 acres that were going to be used for citrus farming. However, the two entrepreneurs felt the land was too special.
They hired a tropical landscape architect that designed the gardens into a local attraction for tourists visiting the area. By 1932, the park was ready to be opened. It offered streams, ponds, and trails filled with indigenous vegetation. It was adorned with ornamental plants and seeds from around the world.
By the 1940s, over 100,000 visitors a year would come to visit the unique gardens. Unfortunately, by the 1970s they were unable to compete with the attractions in Central Florida, like Disney and the McKee Garden closed. It was sold to developers. Today 18 of the original 80 acres have been restored for the public to enjoy.
On January 7, 1998, it was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places under its former name of McKee Jungle Gardens and is now a Florida landmark.
McKee Botanical Gardens Exhibitions and Attractions
If you are looking for things to do in Vero Beach, there are several things to see in the gardens that offer both botanical and artistic value. Exhibits do change so you can check their website to see what they are offering. No matter what is being displayed there, I can assure you it will be amazing! For this trip, we stayed on the outside trails that go around the garden.
Ocean Sole Africa
This display offers marine life sculptures that were made from flip flops that were polluting the oceans. The sculptures were created by artisans living in Kenya Africa. Their first year in making the unique one of a kind pieces, more than 750,000 flip flops were recycled from the oceans.
Royal Palm Grove
Royal Palms are one of my favorite palms and they live up to their name. They will create a sense of wonder as you walk through the Royal Palm Grove at McKee. You will enter into this luxuriously shaded palm hammock and immediately be in awe. I would love to own a property with these majestic trees that can reach heights of 80 feet. I can imagine that these trees are at full maturity.
Stick Work Pavilion
This was such an amazing piece of artwork made from sticks. Have you ever heard of the green art movement or Stick Work? Neither had I. Patrick Dougherty has an amazing talent for manipulating saplings into beautiful structures. The McKee Botanical Gardens is blessed to have such a unique and world-renowned piece of art from Patrick.
The structure took three weeks of climbing on scaffolding, weaving, bending, trimming and shaping willow saplings into a one-of-a-kind sculpture made exclusively for McKee Gardens.
In the original McKee Jungle Gardens, there stood a giant mushroom. The family of Waldo Sexton offered this to the new McKee as a memorial to Waldo Sexton who helped build the Gardens.
The original mushroom still stands about 1/3 of a mile northeast of the garden in the Vista Gardens condominium development that was built on part of the original 80 acres.
Bamboo Trail and Pavilion
As you walk along the Bamboo Trail you will see many types of Bamboo along the way. I loved how meticulously cared for the Bamboo was. My neighbor has bamboo and I can tell you if it is not maintained it can be an absolute nightmare to get it back under control. The grounds at Mckee are pristine.
Once you pass through the trail you will come to a Pavilion entirely made from Bamboo and surrounded by a lush tropical forest.
Live Oak Trail
Once you make it through Bamboo Trail you will come upon Live Oak Trail and where you will find another waterfall and more native flora. Live Oaks are very popular in the South and even more so in Vero Beach. You will find one in most yards on the beach since they grow well in salty soil. They will bring you much-needed shade at this point in your journey.
The Banyan tree ignites the imagination and has for centuries. It was commonly called the Dragon’s Tree because people thought the tree’s trunk resembled hanging dragon tails. In the wild, dragon trees can grow up to 70 feet tall and live for hundreds, if not thousands of years. They are in decline and considered vulnerable so it is a treat to see this younger one in the garden.
The Children’s Garden
McKee has recently added a large children’s garden that offers an awesome play area. First, you enter through the Monkey Bridge, a rope bridge that takes you to the adventure.
Once you have crossed into the park you will find a huge pirate ship named the Scorpion where you can pretend you are a real pirate! Then be sure to cool off in the Karst Splash Garden or play with the musical instruments in the Music Maze. There is so much to do here!
The cool thing for parents is that the entire area is fenced for safety. There is only one way in or out. You can allow your kids to explore this magnificent playground and go back and forth to the many activities it offers families.
After exploring the playground area, we continued along Hammock Trail, which is mostly made up of Native plant and tree species. The Hammock Trail will guide you to the exit where you can continue on your journey and see the center of the Gardens.
The Hall of Giants and Spanish Kitchen
This is actually one of my favorite places in the Garden. The building is clearly a Waldo Sexton structure. Made from mostly wood with Pecky Cypress walls, it houses a magnificent mahogany table. This is a giant table made out of a single 35-foot piece of mahogany, supposedly the World’s Largest, which Mr. McKee found in a basement in New York City.
In addition, you have the classic Spanish Kitchen which is very similar to the one located at the Historic Driftwood Inn, which is also on the National Registry for Historic Structures. Waldo Sexton’s original home is still standing and a part of the much larger hotel.
You can watch several clips I have compiled of the garden in this video and see all of the high points of the gardens.
We did not make it to the center of the garden and we still spent two hours there. The park does not open until noon on Sunday we were at the hottest part of the day in August. I purchased a Membership so we can return and I will update the article with more of the sites in McKee Botanical Garden.
Your trip to Vero Beach will be deeply enriched if you include the McKee Botanical Gardens in your plans.
McKee Garden Hours and Admission
Here are the current hours and fees associated with going to McKee. You can double-check to make sure there have been no changes on their website.
Hours of Operation
- Tuesday-Saturday 10:00am – 5:00pm
- Sunday Noon – 5:00 pm
- MEMBER FREE
- ADULTS $15
- SENIOR (65+)/YOUTH (13-17)$13
- CHILD $10
- MILITARY $10
- CHILDREN UNDER 2 FREE
- SCHOOL GROUP (PER PERSON) $8
- TOUR GROUP (PER PERSON) GENERAL ADMISSION