Whether you enjoy gorgeous gardens, seasonal festivities, communing with nature, or an interesting walk with surprises around each corner, the Garvan Woodland Gardens will be perfect for your visit.
Verna C. Garvan started the Garvan Woodland Gardens in 1956. She plotted out the paths, the location for various plants, and which plants should be planted. She gifted the 201-acre botanical gardens to the Department of Landscape Architecture through the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
Nestled in the Ouachita Mountains of scenic Southwest Arkansas, Garvan Woodland Gardens is about a 15-minute drive from Hot Springs.
When we visited the gardens in October during Mumfest, I was delighted with the number of flowers still blooming and the mums that lined several walkways. The entire botanical garden was beautiful and full of surprises throughout the gardens. Those visiting in the spring will enjoy their Tulip Extravaganza that runs mid-March through mid-April. If you wish to see when individual flowers are in bloom, check their Facebook page where new blooms are posted.
Garvan Woodland Gardens provides shade from pine and other trees, 4.5 miles of wooded shoreline, and delicate flora and fauna throughout. While the flowers are gorgeous, other highlights include architectural structures and magnificent botanical landscapes. You will also find some peacocks roaming around. One greeted us as we walked to the entrance. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera handy when he surprised us.
While spring and fall are probably the ultimate times to visit, they have beautiful flowers in summer, and their winter light show highlights the holiday season. Let’s take a look at some of the focal points in the gardens.
Note: Garvan Woodland Gardens provided free admission but all opinions are my own.
Anthony Chapel Complex
Anthony Chapel Complex includes a meditation garden and four structures. The structures include the Evans Groom's Quarters, the Anthony Chapel, Millsap Bride's Hall, and the Anthony Family Carillion.
The chapel is one of Arkansas' most unique and requested wedding venues. It is located outside the ticketed Garvan Woodland Gardens and was built with private donations.
When I visited, the chapel was locked in preparation for a wedding that evening. But we were able to view the gorgeous interior through the windows.
Pratt Welcome Center
As you enter the garden, you will pay admission and receive a self-guided tour map at the Pratt Welcome Center. If you don’t want to walk, you can purchase golf cart rides at the center.
There are also restrooms and a GardenShop within the building. You will want to visit after your tour for a souvenir.
Garden Of The Pine Wind
The 4-acre rock and stream garden is known as the Garden of the Pine Wind. In 2012, the Journal of Japanese Gardening voted it the 5th best Asian garden in North America. It is peaceful and quiet, a great place to stop, relax, meditate, and enjoy the view of over 300 different Asian ornamental plants and trees. If you visit in the spring, you can enjoy the azaleas and tree peonies.
Key features include the Sunrise Bridge, three cascades, two springs, four pools, a 12-foot waterfall, the Joy Manning Scott Bridge of the Full Moon, and a half-acre koi pond. Garvan Woodland Gardens offers breathtaking sights (and fantastic photo opportunities) at every turn.
Joy Manning Scott Bridge Of The Full Moon
One of the most recognized and photographed features in the Gardens is the Joy Manning Scott Bridge of the Full Moon. The “full moon” sphere-shaped arch in the majestic 11-foot-high bridges resembles those found in China.
Evans Children’s Adventure Garden
An interactive rock garden provides children of all ages (including this 50+ child) 1.5 acres of fun. Over 3,200 tons of boulders from the state are positioned to welcome exploration in the man-made cave that houses “ancient” fossils.
Evans Children’s Adventure Garden also boasts a cascading 12-foot waterfall hiding the cave entrance. A maze of rocks and a series of wading pools provide fun for all. A 450-foot-long elevated walkway sits 20 feet above the play area, providing a picturesque view of Lake Hamilton.
In the center of the Children’s Garden is the newest centerpiece, The Tree House.
The Bob And Sunny Evans Tree House
This treehouse is every child's dream. The Bob and Sunny Evans Tree House is suspended within oak and pine trees. It opened in 2018, so it is still relatively new. In true treehouse fashion, the interior theme is dendrology (the study of trees and wooded plants.) Each of the four levels within the treehouse is based on a different part of the tree. The first level focuses on the tree roots, then the trunk and branches, the leaves, and fruit/flowers. Built-in seats and furniture are made of wood or products to look like wood.
You can access the treehouse from the ground and the circular overhead boardwalk.
When we visited in October, there was a short line to enter the treehouse since the number of people inside was limited due to COVID. Of the people in line waiting to visit, all were adults except two young children. It is definitely a site for all ages to enjoy, and the inside is very intriguing.
The botanical garden centerpiece, Garvan Pavilion, is a sandstone and open-air redwood structure featuring a unique, faceted steel and glass ceiling. The Garvan Pavilion highlight is the ceiling window that appears to be an unfolding flower that blends perfectly with the garden surroundings.
The pavilion was designed by Fay Jones, who was an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright. Some of the original plants still surround the pavilion.
Sugg Model Train Garden
Train lovers will enjoy this section of the gardens. Running G-scale passenger, freight, and logging trains, this layout includes three independent operating loops, 389 feet of track, and 259 trestles.
The Sugg Model Train Garden has miniature buildings built to represent the Malvern Brick and Tile Company and the Wisconsin Arkansas lumber Mill, both owned by Verna Cook Garvan. While these structures no longer exist, the replicas take you back to an earlier time in the area.
Volunteers oversee the model train operations, and the trains only run when they are available.
Grab a snack or lunch at the Chipmunk Cafe located behind the Garden Railroad. Outdoor seating is available, and the menu features wraps, salad, fresh-made gourmet sandwiches, desserts, and snacks.
Hixson Family Nature Preserve
I thoroughly enjoyed this area looking out over Lake Hamilton. The Hixson Family Nature Preserve encompasses 45 acres and includes educational displays placed along the walkway. The local Audubon Society has identified more than 120 species of birds in the preserve, including pileated woodpeckers, pheasants, Blue India peafowl, and bald eagles. There are resting benches for bird watching.
Make sure you have your camera as you walk along the Birdsong Trail. It features numerous picturesque views of Lake Hamilton and special feeding stations for the birds, so there is an excellent possibility of capturing some stunning bird pictures.
If you are into bird watching, visit early or later in the day for the best chance to see birds. You can download the Garvan Bird Guide here (PDF).
Millsap Canopy Bridge
Another place to capture spectacular views of Lake Hamilton is while walking along the Millsap Canopy Bridge. The serpentine-shaped walkway spans 120 feet and floats two stories above the forest floor.
Landscaping in this area highlights a collection of heat-tolerant rhododendrons, pools, cascades, and other plants. Hydrangeas, dogwood, and cinnamon ferns are seasonal features.
Paul W. And Valerie Klipsch Amphitheater
This beautiful Klipsch Amphitheater is in the middle of the gardens and a popular venue for outdoor concerts, plays, and other entertainment. The open-air theater has flagstone seating for 500 people and is surrounded by mature trees.
If You Visit
The Gardens are wheelchair- and stroller-friendly.
Their website suggests allowing at least an hour to enjoy the gardens. I would allow at least 3 hours. I don't think you can walk and see it all in less time. We were there for almost 4 hours and left only because they were closing. The Gardens are open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day except Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and the entire month of January. The Gardens close for inclement weather.
Pro Tip: Dogs are welcome if they are on a short leash, and only one dog per person. There is an extra fee for each dog. You can check out the other rules for bringing Fido on their website.