Garvan Woodland Gardens occupies a peninsula that juts into Lake Hamilton in the Ouachita River in Hot Springs, Arkansas, lending it a perfect location to spend some time outdoors. I was intending to just take a leisurely stroll through some nature, but surprise after surprise turned this little walk in the woods into a memorable afternoon.
Run by the University of Arkansas, Garvan opened to the public when local resident and self-taught gardener Verna Cook Garvan bequeathed the property upon her death in 1993, specifying that it be used to educate and serve the people of Arkansas, and noting that she hoped it remain a natural preserve to counter the environmental devastation encountered throughout much of the 20th century. Garvan got her wish. Today, it is one of the world’s top 10 botanic gardens.
Right beside the entrance, I found my way into the bonsai garden, a delightful collection of nearly three dozen bonsai — miniature trees and bushes, meticulously trimmed, in trays and shallow pots.
From there, I began exploring Garvan’s halcyon 210 acres. Depending on the time of year, you’re treated to seasonal displays of beautiful flora, such as camellias, daffodils, magnolias, tulips, and more than 160 different types of azaleas. But no matter which month you’re here, the Garden of the Pine Wind, in particular, will impress you. Named the fifth best Asian garden in North America, this beautiful four-acre space is chock-full of maples and dogwoods, a 12-foot waterfall, a pond filled with colorful koi, and the Joy Manning Scott Bridge of the Full Moon, a romantic stone crossing with a sphere-shaped arch inspired by China’s rustic bridges.
Surrounded by 4½ miles of beautiful Lake Hamilton shoreline, the gardens are never far from beautiful water views, with trees enflamed with autumnal colors covering the gentle foothills of the Ouachita Mountains. Dirt and gravel paths and stone staircases lead to and from these viewpoints, wending their way through ash, hickory, oak, and pine trees.
I received another surprise when I stumbled upon the Millsap Canopy Bridge. Two stories above the forest floor, the snakelike 120-foot-long bridge resting on stone piers offered me a bird’s-eye view of the cascades, pools, ferns, rhododendrons, and hydrangeas below me in the ravine.
Another unexpected turn came when I found the Sugg Model Train Garden — and it’s hardly just for children: I had my own childlike reaction of curiosity and joy while I watched it in operation. Built to reflect the two businesses owned by Verna Garvan (the Malvern Brick and Tile Company, and the Wisconsin Arkansas Lumber Mill), the display features 389 feet of track and 259 trestles, upon which passenger trains and freight trains hauling clay for the brick factory or logs bound for the lumber mill loop their way past and around manufacturing plants, kilns, mills, and other related buildings.
My biggest surprise came when I turned onto a dedicated trail just for the great Anthony Chapel. Dedicated in 2006, this gorgeous 160-seat chapel made me want to get married right on the spot; indeed, it’s one of the most requested wedding venues in all of Arkansas, the site of more than 200 nuptials annually. Blending harmoniously into its surrounding, the chapel is an architectural feat. Yellow pine beams and columns support the steeply pitched 57-foot-high roof, which almost appears to float in the middle of the forest thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows. I stepped inside and walked down the flagstone aisle to the simple altar, with the windows bringing nature — the perfectly blue sky, the autumnal yellows and oranges of the changing leaves, the green conifers — right inside. I imagined it must be just as beautiful in winter, illuminated by exterior lights and inside sconces against a cobalt-blue dusk sky, as in any other season — and it was the very last (and most memorable) thing I expected to see in a botanic garden.