Day Trip: Innisfree Garden

One of the world’s top 10 gardens

By Michael Turton

Local residents in search of a summer day trip that is nearby, very satisfying and completely relaxing, need look no further than Innisfree Garden near Millbrook, New York. Despite having been named one of the world’s top 10 gardens, Innisfree is a place that for reasons unknown does not automatically appear on everyone’s regional radar of top-notch area attractions. When mom visits — you really should take her there.

Innisfree stone structure (Photo by Kate Vikstrom)
Innisfree stone structure (Photo by Kate Vikstrom)

Innisfree’s proximity is an attraction in itself. Located just 35 miles from downtown Cold Spring, the renowned gardens are a leisurely 45-minute drive via the Taconic Parkway — based on Mapquest’s assumption that you obey the speed limit. Its size adds to the gardens’ appeal. At just 185 acres it exemplifies human scale. It is not the Grand Canyon. It is not the Rocky Mountains. Innisfree’s beauty is subtle and understated but no less impactful. One writer succinctly described it as “disarmingly simple.”

Don’t let the short walk fool you

Writing or reading about Innisfree is an exercise doomed to marginal success. Like a delicious meal these gardens must be experienced firsthand. Exploring Innisfree is a sensual feast involving sight, sound, fragrance, light, touch, temperature and more. It takes only about 90 minutes walking at a leisurely pace to complete the main trail which circles the small lake at the heart of the property.

The more time that visitors take — the more there is to take in. (Photo by M. Turton)
The more time that visitors take — the more there is to take in. (Photo by M. Turton)

Detail-conscious visitors who are not clock watchers will have no trouble spending twice that amount of time taking up-close looks at the trails, waterfalls, core garden and lake. The more time a visitor takes, the more there is to take in. Seen from numerous angles along the trail and at long range, the lake’s beauty is unmistakable. But pausing to quietly look into its waters reveals a wealth of wildlife from fish and frogs to turtles and colorful emergent plants.

The trail is not difficult but good walking shoes are advised. Parts of the garden are handicapped accessible, but most of the landscape is uneven.

History

Innisfree was created over a 50-year period, mainly through work of landscape architect Lester Collins and his client Walter Beck, an artist and a teacher, and his wife Marion Burt Beck. The Becks began their work at Innisfree in the 1920s and Collins joined them in 1938. A non-profit organization was formed in 1960, which resulted in Innisfree opening to the public that year. In the early 1970s, the non-profit sold surrounding lands to Rockefeller University for use as a research station and preserve.

‘Sublime composition’ and special events

Heavily influenced by Japanese and Chinese garden design principals the Innisfree website describes it as … “a distinctly American stroll garden … surrounding a large, shimmering lake — a sublime composition of rock, water, wood and sky.”

Innisfree Gardens (Photo by Kate Vikstrom)
Innisfree Gardens (Photo by Kate Vikstrom)

Light is an integral part of Innisfree’s beauty and a unique special event highlights that. On Aug. 16 and Oct. 18 the site will open an hour before sunrise. Photographers, artists and anyone simply interested in experiencing the gardens’ spectacular morning light can attend.

A number of special tours are also scheduled. Guided tours will be held at 11 a.m. on July 26, Aug. 23 and Sept. 27, and at 2 p.m. on Oct. 18. Guided wildflower walks will be held at 11 a.m. on Aug. 2, Sept. 6 and Oct. 4.

Picnics and nearby attractions

Picnicking is permitted in designated areas and groups of Adirondack chairs strategically located on site are excellent for reading or just relaxing. Recreational activities such as playing ball, throwing Frisbees and cycling are not permitted.

Those wanting to stretch their excursion into a full day might want to visit other area attractions including Millbrook Winery, the Trevor Zoo, Wing’s Castle or the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies.

Hours, directions and what to bring

Innisfree is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. For the remainder of this season the site is open Wednesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on weekends and holidays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Last day of operation for 2014 is Sunday, Oct. 19. The site will reopen the last two weekends in April and then resume its regular schedule in May.

A walk around the lake unmasks Innisfree's subtle beauty. (Photo by M. Turton)
A walk around the lake unmasks Innisfree’s subtle beauty. (Photo by M. Turton)

For GPS, MapQuest, etc., Innisfree Garden is located at 362 Tyrrel Road, Millbrook, New York 12545. Drivers are cautioned NOT to take the Tyrrel Road exit from the Taconic Parkway as a portion of that route is impassible.

What to bring: a picnic, your camera, walking shoes, a good book. Detailed information including fees is available at innisfreegarden.org.