It’s hard to imagine what lies ahead when you turn off NE 180th Avenue in Williston to make your way up the road that is the entranceway to Cedar Lakes Woods and Gardens. What the visitor will find is a little bit of paradise.
The former limestone quarry is now a 20-acre botanical garden with koi fishponds, waterfalls, and thousands of plants laid out with the distinctive feel of a Japanese garden. That’s because of the fondness that park founder Dr. Raymond Webber has for the Japanese gardening aesthetic.
“It has a Japanese feel because Dr. Webber visited Japan and fell in love with the culture,” said Lori Wallace, the park’s general manager. “He bought the property in 1991 with the idea of fishing in his own backyard.
“It was a swamp when he first bought it. In 1993, he got the excavators in and then built bridges in lower levels and other things like that. It needed a rock wall along the top, which led to putting plants behind the rock wall, which turned into a real passion to plant the gardens,” she said.
Webber stumbled upon the retired quarry, which had supplied materials for roadways like Highway 27, which runs through Williston, back in the day. When Webber found it, the former quarry had deteriorated into little more than a polluted swamp.
He purchased the property at first for his own private use. Workers dug out what was left behind, including old mining remnants, and began to transform the old swampy quarry, according to the website. Eventually, Webber created the non-profit Cedar Lakes Woods and Gardens, Inc. He donated the garden to the non-profit and opened it to the public.
He also donated the entire 64-acred surrounding woodlands to Conservation Florida to keep those lands protected. The visitor can wander along the trail there and enjoy Live Oaks that are hundreds of years old as well as cedars, pines, pecans, hickories, and dogwoods. The organization, Conservation Florida, maintains the easement.
Wallace met Webber, an endodontist, in 1985 when he became a frequent patron at the restaurant where she worked in Ocala. Both moved to Williston about the same time, and Wallace would come to visit him and the gardens and see how they were changing. Eventually, once the park opened in 2014, she ended up running things.
Not that spending time here is any hardship with over 50 separate gardens, a few cascading waterfalls, koi ponds that demand the visitor linger, and view after breathtaking view. You don’t want to be in a hurry when you visit.
“This past year, he donated a beautiful cacti collection and built a greenhouse for it and paved some of the roadway which is big,” Wallace said. A year ago, Carol Solza and Karen Herring donated the Cacti and Succulent collection that their father tended to before his death, which should satisfy the whims of anyone with a hankering for the Southwest. The road repairs mitigate damages done by Hurricane Irma in 2017.
There’s also a children’s garden, with a mini birdhouse and small figurines that catches anyone’s eye but is particularly appealing to toddlers.
But all the gardens are kid-friendly and bring out the best in families. “I love you Daddy,” one little girl shouted out to her father as they viewed the koi fish in one of the ponds. “I love you right back,” Daddy told her, as he swung his daughter up in his arms.
The kids may also like the ducks on the premises—Huey, Duey and Louie—although park staff warns they should not be approached. Also on site, although in their own quarters, are two South African tortoises, as well as a Sulcata tortoise and four Leopard tortoises.
There are also plenty of benches where the visitor can stop and sit and picnic tables in covered overlooks as well as a dining area with numerous tables where you can eat what you bring along. Except for festivals when vendors will participate, there are no food services on the premises.
What gives the gardens their warm and friendly atmosphere is that there are many nooks and crannies given names, like “Daniel’s Place,” or “Betty’s Roses,” named after volunteers, friends, family members, dental staff and people who work at the gardens.
Although Cedar Lakes Woods and Gardens is primarily there “to inspire the public with artistic botanical creations,” several festivals are held throughout the year. Coming up on June 18 is the Second summer Daze Car Show where classic cars will be on display.
The park is closed on Wednesdays but open every other day from 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Admission is $12 for anyone over the age of 13, $7 for children aged 6-13, and free for children 5 and under, and $6 for all military with ID.
Webber drew the map that visitors can pick up at the admissions office. The trails are well-marked with handrails painted red or blue that add to the charm. Plan on at least a 90-minute stay to complete your walk, but there’s no rush.
For more information, visit cedarlakeswoodsandgarden.com.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated.