The Hudson Valley is overflowing with hidden treasures, many of which are outdoors, which is super convenient in this era of COVID. As we approach leaf-peeping season, all of these outdoor attractions are about to get even prettier, too! From hiking to sculpture gardens, there’s something for everyone who is trying to enjoy some fresh air and wide open spaces. And if YOU are looking for your next Hudson Valley adventure, I think you should consider making it the stunning Innisfree Garden in Millbrook, NY.
About Innisfree Garden
The 185-acre Innisfree Garden isn’t a garden in the sense you might be thinking. There aren’t sprawling flower beds or manicured rose gardens. Instead, it’s been designed more in the style of a traditional Chinese garden, incorporating more plants, bushes, streams, and rocks. In fact, there really aren’t many flowers here at all, but there is plenty of beauty and nature for you to enjoy and tons of nooks and crannies to explore.
Innisfree Garden is located at the former country home of Walter and Marion Beck in Millbrook, NY. The Becks had an interest in Asian art, which is where they gained inspiration for the design of their garden. More specifically, Innisfree Garden was modeled after the design concepts of the 8th-century garden of Wang Wei, a Chinese poet, painter, and garden maker whose work Walter Beck particularly admired.
The Becks began construction of Innisfree Garden in the late 1930s with the help of Lester Collins, who was a Harvard undergraduate landscape architecture student at the time he met the Becks in 1938. Collins ended up collaborating with the Becks in designing the garden over the next 20 years, and he continued to maintain an association with Innisfree Garden for an additional 35 years, ensuring that it became the treasure we are all so lucky to be able to enjoy today.
In addition to his magnificent work at Innisfree, Collins also led the 1977 redesign of the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden as well as projects at the Smithsonian Institution’s Enid A. Haupt Garden, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Gunston Hall Plantation in Lorton, Virginia, and the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. where he moved in 1954. He also served as a professor of landscape architecture and later as a dean at Harvard.
In 1960, the garden was first opened to the public, and it is now under the care of the Innisfree Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit. In 2019, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and the garden indicates that they have been recognized as one the “world’s best gardens”.
So naturally, we had to visit and see for ourselves if the garden was as spectacular as all that. And dear readers, we have to agree that it is!
Visiting Innisfree Garden
Due to COVID, you are now required to purchase tickets in advance if you’d like to visit Innisfree Garden. There are three different two-hour time slots you can choose from, and you must complete your entire visit within that two-hour window. Tickets aren’t refundable or transferrable and the garden is open rain or shine, so keep that in mind when you place your order.
When you arrive at the front entrance, you’ll be asked to park on the road until your scheduled time slot. This allows for the previous group of attendees to clear out of the parking lot before your group enters. Please also note that once you get out of your car in the parking lot, you’ll be asked to wear your mask and keep it on for the duration of your visit.
Once you arrive at the parking lot, there are three porta-potties available, which are the only restrooms onsite. If you need to go, this will be your chance. None of them had working soap or sanitizer dispensers when we were there, so keep your sanitizer handy in case they’re not operational during your visit either. If you don’t need to go, grab a map from one of the staff members who will greet you at the lot and get ready to go. You can also purchase bottle water here if you didn’t remember to bring any with you.
When you’re ready to set out, you’ll have two options for where to start. You can choose to walk along the lake (either partially or fully around it) or you can head to what they call the “core garden”. Most people in our group headed to the core garden first, which is what we did, too. However, if it seems like that’s what your group is doing as well, you may want to go ahead and check out the lake first. This will help you to avoid being bunched up with the rest of the crowd. In hindsight, we really wish we had done that ourselves!
If you choose to circumnavigate the lake, it’s a 1.3-mile walk and the paths are, unfortunately, not handicap-accessible or stroller-friendly (nor is pretty much any of the rest of the garden). Near the core garden you can walk along the lake path in either direction, but once you reach the end of the core garden, you must follow the trail around the lake in a counter-clockwise direction. It wasn’t clear to us if this was a COVID restriction or if it’s normally like this, but since the path is narrow in places, it made sense for everyone to flow in the same direction.
Within the core garden area, you can use the map to identify the various features within the garden. There are waterfalls, ponds, bridges, caves, rock and brick walls, and even a couple small buildings to explore. Everything is beautifully laid out and carefully maintained! It’s such a peaceful and idyllic place to enjoy an afternoon.
Normally, you are free to bring a picnic to enjoy onsite, but due to COVID the tables are all currently off limits. However, you are welcome to sit and relax in one of the many chairs scattered throughout the garden or alongside the lake and enjoy a snack or small picnic there. We didn’t bring a picnic ourselves, but it was very hot the day we visited so we took several water breaks and just sat and enjoyed the splendid views all around us.
After we visited the core garden, we set out for the lake path. At the far end of the lake, there is a bridge that allows you to cross the lake and then you’ll find yourself in a nice and shady wooded area. Here you can either walk up the hill and through the trees or you can continue along the path on the water’s edge. We chose the lakeside path ourselves and eventually both paths rejoin near a somewhat rickety old covered bridge.
As you continue to follow the lake path, there’s another hilly section with beautiful views of the lake and the core garden across the way. We stopped here for another water break and a bit of shade and to take in the spectacular view for a bit longer. Eventually, though, we had to continue on our way back to the parking lot.
Overall, we took our time during our visit and, despite the heat, we spent nearly our full two-hour time slot at the garden. They recommend budgeting at least 90 minutes to enjoy both the core garden and a walk around the lake, and I’d say that’s pretty accurate, especially if you don’t plan to take many breaks to just sit and relax and take it all in.
Now that leaf-peeping season is fully upon us, I expect that a visit to Innisfree will be extra delightful. As beautiful as the scenery is, it must be even more magnificent in full fall color! Don’t wait too long to visit, though, because the garden will only be open through November 1st before closing for winter.
Have you ever been to Innisfree Garden? Tell me what you thought about your own visit!
Plan Your Own Visit
Where to Go
- Innisfree Garden: 362 Tyrrel Rd, Millbrook, NY 12545
When to Go
- Innisfree Garden will be open Wednesday through Sunday through November 1st, 2020 and reopen in the spring.
- Advance reservations are required presently due to COVID. You can choose from three different 2-hour time slots and must conclude your visit within your designated time slot.
- Tickets are released on the Innisfree Garden website 2 weeks in advance. The garden is open rain or shine and tickets are nonrefundable and nontransferable.
Tips for Visiting
- If you don’t have the first time slot of the day and you arrive before your designated entry time, you’ll be asked to park on the side of the road outside the entrance. The road to the garden is really only wide enough for one car, so the staff will wait until all guests from the previous time slot depart before allowing you to enter.
- There are three porta-potties in the parking lot. None had soap/sanitizer or working dispensers during our visit, so you’ll want to have your sanitizer handy just in case.
- Masks are required at all times and in all areas of the garden during COVID.
- You may bring drinks/food with you, but the official picnic area and tables are not currently available to guests. Ensure you carry all your garbage out with you at the end of your visit!
- The shortest path around the lake is 1.3 miles (portions of which are one-way, thus committing you to finishing the loop) and the paths are not wheelchair or stroller friendly, so you’ll want to prepare accordingly if you bring children or less mobile guests.
- Since everyone arrives all at once for a time slot, you’ll be bunched up together at the start of your visit. Most people seemed to start off in the core garden area before walking the loop around the lake. To avoid crowding, I’d recommend doing the lake loop first and then exploring the core garden afterward.
- And if you can’t make it to Innisfree Garden in person, you can enjoy this peaceful video instead!