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Travel Inspiration | Southeast States | Road Trip
Road-Tripping to Gorgeous Gardens of the Southeast


This gardens-inspired road trip begins with two glorious gardens blooming from the grounds of universities in North Carolina’s Triangle area before making a beeline to Fayetteville and then continuing southeasterly to the coast, taking in wow-worthy gardens in Wilmington, North Carolina; Murrells Inlet and Charleston, South Carolina; and Savannah, Georgia.

That 500-mile route makes for an epic road trip in itself, of course. But if you want to get your fill of Florida’s flora (and we recommend you do), extend your travels another 600 or so miles through the Sunshine State, starting in Jacksonville on the Atlantic Coast and then on to Lake Wales in the center of the state before visiting Naples on the Gulf and culminating your journey back on the Atlantic side in Miami.

Let’s see some fabulous flowers!

Duke gardens Sarah P. Duke Gardens; Photo by Brian Wells/Courtesy of Sarah P. Duke Gardens

919-684-3698 |

Nestled on the grounds of Duke University, next to the pretty Duke Chapel and surrounded by neo-Gothic architecture, the Sarah P. Duke Gardens is home to 55 acres of postcard-perfect gardens. Here, you can explore four themed areas, with many sections dotted with spring-blooming cherry trees, and 5 miles of picturesque pathways (guided walking and trolley tours are available by reservation).

Tucked behind Gothic garden gates, the Historic Gardens—which began in 1934 with a donation from university benefactor Sarah Duke to plant an iris garden—is now adorned with a rose garden with heirloom blooms, a century-old fountain, a pond with koi fish and a colorful cascade of terraced gardens.

The 6.5-acre Garden of Native Plants showcases a collection of 900 varieties of regional native plants, many from a plant-rescue mission from land under development. In the Asiatic Arboretum, boasting 18 acres of Southeast Asia plantings, take in everything from Japanese maples to ginger lilies as well as a Japanese-style arched bridge. And at the Doris Duke Center & Gardens, check out the water-plant-laden Virtue Peace Pond, an amphitheater presenting seasonal performances, and an organic food garden that helps feed families in the surrounding community.


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For more than a half-century, the North Carolina Botanical Garden has been conserving the state’s unique botanical legacy, including plants found nowhere else in the world. Today, it cultivates more than 1,100 acres of gardens and conservation areas, propagates native plants, supports rare and endangered plant species, and researches the flora of the Southeastern US. In the 14 themed Display Gardens, discover a variety of Southeastern native wildflowers, shrubs and trees. Children will especially love the Wonder Garden, where they can get their hands dirty in digging areas and search for butterflies in a pollinator garden. Also popular are the Carnivorous Plant Garden with insect-eating plants and the Native American Plant Garden with medicinal and ceremonial plants. Behind the Display Gardens, an 88-acre forest beckons with 3 miles of nature trails through Piedmont habitat.

Not all is lost on rainy days, either. An indoor discovery center features nature-themed displays and interactive activities, and a small art gallery presents a bimonthly rotating display of drawings, paintings and photographs by local artists.

Cape fear botanical gardenCape Fear Botanical Garden; Photo by Refrina/


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Tucked just 2 miles from downtown Fayetteville, in between the Cape Fear River and Cross Creek, the 80-acre Cape Fear Botanical Garden is a wonderland of greenery teeming with specialty gardens, forested nature trails and habitat for aquatic plants.

Along with 700 species of native plants and some 2,500 varieties of ornamentals in the gardens, you’ll find an 1886 farmhouse, an old tobacco barn, an amphitheater and inviting grounds for picnicking. Special events and workshops are also offered throughout the year, ranging from children’s nature-themed story time to houseplants 101.

Airlie Gardens Famous Airlie Oak TreeAirlie Gardens; Photo by Jared Kay/Courtesy of


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Billed as “A Century of Gardens by the Sea,” Airlie Gardens is home to 67 spectacular acres punctuated by colorful seasonal blooms, majestic live oaks and quaint historic structures. Of special note is the Airlie Oak, a 500-year-old Southern live oak draped in Spanish moss and, in spring, surrounded by thousands of pink azaleas.

Learn about the more than century-old history of Airlie on docent-led walking and tram tours of a dozen of the gardens. Also, be sure to check out the Tranquility Gardens & Butterfly House (open seasonally), the sculpture garden and the lakeside Pergola Garden.

Airlie is also stop on the North Carolina Birding Trail, with more than 200 species of birds spotted by birdwatchers in the gardens.

Brookgreen gardensBrookgreen Gardens; Photo courtesy of Discover South Carolina


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As the first public sculpture garden in the US—founded in 1931 by renowned sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington and her philanthropist husband, Archer Milton Huntington—Brookgreen Gardens boasts the largest and most comprehensive collection of American figurative sculpture in the US, dating from the 19th century to today. Here, on 9,127 acres of pristine land located between Murrells Inlet and Pawley’s Island, 2,000-plus works by 430 artists are scattered throughout welcoming gardens and showcased in three galleries. Sculpture workshops are also offered for aspiring artists.

Of course, the gardens are works of art in themselves. That includes the Live Oak Allée, fringed with 250-year-old live oak trees; the enchanting Butterfly Garden; the Terrace Garden with roses, a variety of perennials and more; and the Palmetto Garden, named for South Carolina’s state tree and home to the fanciful Fountain of the Muses Garden.

Learn more about Brookgreen Gardens, which is a National Historic Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, in the on-site Lowcountry History Center and Lowcountry Zoo as well as on a walking tour, boat excursion or overland vehicle trek.

Middleton Place Aerial viewMiddleton Place; Photo courtesy of Explore Charleston


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Begun in 1741, the gardens at Middleton Place plantation, a National Historic Landmark, are known as America’s Oldest Landscaped Gardens. Here, some 110 acres of manicured gardens—65 of them accessible to visitors—grace the shores of the Ashley River, about 15 miles northwest of downtown. Built in the fashion of the grand classic style prevalent in Europe in the early 18th century (think the gardens at the Palace of Versailles), the gardens feature a beautiful tapestry of romantic allées, rolling terraces, long vistas punctuated by sculpture, ornamental canals, and flowers galore, including more than 100,000 azaleas.

Guided tours take you through not only centuries of history of the flora but also centuries of history of the people who cultivated and cared for the gardens. That includes the enslaved Africans and African Americans who lived here and worked this land; learn about some of their struggles through the Beyond the Fields: Enslavement at Middleton Place program that aims to “facilitate a conversation about slavery in American history with stories of brutality, survival, contribution and perseverance.”

Exhibits include live demonstrations by costumed interpreters, including a blacksmith, cooper, potter and textile worker. Children will especially enjoy a visit to the Stableyards with heritage breed livestock (think Cashmere goats, Belgian horses and Gulf Coast sheep) that contributed to life here in the 18th and 19th centuries.

crape myrtle alleeCoastal Georgia Botanical Gardens; Photo courtesy of Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens


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Part museum of plants, part living classroom and entirely garden oasis, the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens sits just 10 miles southwest of downtown Savannah on land that once supported a bamboo farm in the late 1800s. Today, under the care of the University of Georgia, the grounds have evolved into a 50-acre sanctuary blooming with everything from a cottage garden to a pollinator garden to Italian Renaissance-style formal gardens. Of course, historic bamboo plantings are also on display.

Be sure to stroll the camellia trail, bursting with Sasanqua, snow, vernal and common camellias (and their hybrids) that compose one of the most diverse collections of its kind on the continent. Also, meander through the 300-foot-long Crape Myrtle Allée, which dazzles in its blooming season from late June to mid-July. And, if you time it right (peak bloom is in April and early May), witness the beauty of the Rivers of Iris gardens as hundreds of Louisiana iris varieties after a heavy rain bring to mind a Monet painting, with their petals dancing like butterflies in the breeze over gently moving waters.


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Carved from 120 acres less than 9 miles from downtown Jacksonville, the Jacksonville Arboretum & Botanical Gardens presents seven nature trails—ranging from easy to moderate to more difficult—that weave through 13 diverse ecosystems.

Among them is the Lake Loop, skirting a serene 2-acre lake and featuring a fernery with some 825 plants; the 1-mile Sand Ridge Trail, traversing a xeric hammock, rosemary/oak scrub, depression marsh and wetland marsh; and a half-mile Live Oak Trail, lined with 100-plus-year-old live oaks bedecked in Spanish moss and where you can see the National Champion Loblolly Bay, the largest tree (with a diameter of 46 inches and height of 117 feet) of its kind in the country.

The singing tower, bok tower gardensBok Tower Gardens; Photo by Nick Fox/


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The defining feature of 250-acre Bok Tower Gardens, created in the 1920s by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward Bok, may be the Singing Tower, complete with a 60-bell carillon. But, the other key ingredients to the beauty here are the gardens, with acre upon acre of winding informal gardens and a 25-acre bird sanctuary, originally designed by famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead Jr.

Beckoning plant lovers and birdwatchers alike, nature trails include the 1.5-mile Preserve Trail, which partly wends through longleaf pine forest, and the ¾-mile Pine Ridge Nature Trail, which leads to one of the highest points in peninsular Florida, providing an attractive environment for rare plant species.

A 1930s Mediterranean Revival-style mansion with a whopping 20 rooms, called El Retiro (“the retreat” in Spanish), is also open for tours, and carillon concerts are presented daily (included with admission).

naples botanical gardenNaples Botanical Garden; Photo by Stacy Tillilie


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A 170-acre verdant paradise, the Naples Botanical Garden teems with tropical plant life from Florida and around the world, including the Caribbean, Brazil and Asia.

Perhaps the garden’s most iconic feature is its Water Garden, reminiscent of Monet’s water lily pool. Or maybe it’s the Brazilian garden, accented by a soothing waterfall and multicolored mosaic wall designed by celebrated Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. Or it could be Kathryn’s Garden, where the design of the jungle-esque environment takes cues from the works of Post-Impressionistic French artist Henri Rousseau.

There’s also the Florida Garden (natch), Succulent Garden, Asian Garden, Orchid Garden and 90-acre Preserve that looks like a time capsule of old southwest Florida. Be sure to visit the Caribbean Garden, too, where an oolite pergola serves as a popular backdrop for photo ops.

Fairchild Tropical Botanic GardenFairchild Tropical Botanic Garden; Photo courtesy of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden


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Voted the best botanical garden in North America by USA Today for the past three years, the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, opened in 1938, comprises 83 acres of nature-infused serenity south of Miami. Named in honor of Dr. David Fairchild—a renowned international plant explorer who collected many of the plants found here today—the garden hosts more than 3,000 types of plants from across the planet.

Behold the beauty of tropical flower gardens, butterfly gardens, a tropical fruit pavilion, an arboretum and more. The aquatic exhibits are also a must-see, with 11 lakes and seven pools laden with water lilies, lotus plants, African Cichlids, orchids, anthuriums, rare philodendrons, pitcher plants and tons of ferns. The Children’s Garden and an Expedition Discovery Club encourages the younger set to explore the natural world around them.

Tram tours, self-guided and guided walking tours, and private guided tours (in shuttle carts) are offered daily. Also, birdwatchers will delight in seasonal Early-bird Walks through the Kushlan Bird Trail at Fairchild.

To find more public gardens and arboretums throughout the country, visit the American Public Gardens Association.

AAA TripTik map
Are you inspired to set out on this garden-themed road trip? We’ve mapped it out for you with a AAA TripTik.

A: Sarah P. Duke Gardens—Durham, North Carolina
North Carolina Botanical Garden—Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Cape Fear Botanical Garden—Fayetteville, North Carolina
Airlie Gardens—Wilmington, North Carolina
Brookgreen Gardens—Murrells Inlet, South Carolina
Middleton Place—Charleston, South Carolina
Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm—Savannah, Georgia
Jacksonville Arboretum and Botanical Gardens—Jacksonville, Florida
Bok Tower Gardens—Lake Wales, Florida
Naples Botanical Garden—Naples, Florida
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden—Coral Gables, Florida