This past October, Lakeland and the surrounding central Florida community was gifted with the new addition of a sprawling park. While this park is free to enter and open to the public, it is unique in that it is a privately developed public park that depends solely on public support.
Located on 168 acres of what was once the heart of Lakeland’s developing infrastructure, the abandoned rail yard has been converted into a truly magical space to explore. Transformed into an endless green space beckoning exploration, its winding pathways read like a love letter to the community itself. After years of planning, fundraising and construction, Bonnet Springs Park now proudly boasts that it is Florida’s best free natural attraction.
Our family visited on a pretty busy Saturday, and while the park was deceptively calm and quiet, it was buzzing with activity without feeling crowded and stressful. Free and frequent open-air shuttles are available to transport throughout the grounds, however, we opted instead to traverse the park from front to back (and back to front again!) covering nearly 7 miles to ensure we wouldn’t miss a single beat of all it has to offer.
Bonnet Springs Park’s website offers maps and details on everything you can find here, but these are a few of our favorite highlights.
Playgrounds, Play Spaces and Surprises:
Everywhere you look in this park, there’s something to explore, climb on and take the time to just be a kid. Skillfully crafted playgrounds pay homage to Florida’s past and present, with things like a huge wooden train to conduct and explore or a massive mosaic owl that hides climbing spaces and play equipment inside (pictured below).
The endless pathways leading through the park climb and fall over rolling hills, however nearly every hill has the option to slide down! Scott and Avery took turns zooming down the landscape at every turn, taking our outdoor exploration to a whole new level. A treehouse looms overhead in the branches that offer plenty of space for a cool spot to sit and eat lunch, or have a popsicle, beer or wine from the on-site vendors. Plenty of kids and grown ups alike brought along their bikes, scooters, skateboards and more to hit the wide walkways.
Nature at its Finest:
My favorite thing about this park is that not only is it a stunningly natural environment in the center of a bustling city, but that exploration of this space is not only allowed, it’s encouraged. A walk down to Barefoot Creek beckons you to kick off your shoes, splash around and take a load off. A field of enormous climbing trees calls to kids of all ages to climb the limbs and branches. Many spots are like something straight out of a fairy tale.
A canopy walk traverses the treetops and stands 15 feet off the ground to get a different view of the park. The nature center, greenhouse and butterfly house invite you in to learn more about the natural world.
Education and Entertainment Intertwined:
In addition to the incredible outdoor spaces, Bonnet Springs Park is also home to a Children’s Museum nestled in the heart of the landscape. Here, Avery tried her hand at a number of kid-sized careers, including running a chaotic food truck, working on a farm, broadcasting the news, caring for creatures in a vet
clinic, and even following in her grandmother’s footsteps by working at a miniature Publix. Other areas offer a hands-on opportunity to explore the science of the natural world including electricity, sound and physics.
Just outside the museum (and adjacent to another hill slide!) sits a rooftop bar offering beer, wine and cocktails overlooking the park’s outdoor event space. We cozied up for an afternoon drink while Avery downed some snacks and the park set up for an outdoor concert to be held that evening. A coffee shop and restaurant sit nearby to provide everything you need for the day.
Be sure to pack plenty of sunscreen for your adventure – we spent nine straight hours outside during our visit! Plan for a full day to explore and you won’t regret it. I’m already planning my next trip back – see you there!
BONNET SPRINGS PARK
400 Bonnet Springs Boulevard, Lakeland 33815
Open 6 a.m. to dusk daily
Florida Children’s Museum
Mon – Sat: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Sun: 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.
$15 per person (2 yrs and under are free)