Walking The Palm Beach Lake Trail

November 9, 2017

The path that shows you Palm Beach ... like a native

There is a pleasant informality that exists in the Town of Palm Beach. In a place that boasts some of the most exclusive addresses in the world, there is a relaxed friendliness and casual civility. This is true especially along the Lake Trail, a path that runs along the island’s western side. This old, meandering ramble is a place where joggers nod and nannies smile while pushing their charges for a mid-morning walk. There, along walls draped with bougainvillea and ivy, is where the people of Palm Beach mingle with anyone who wishes to take a walk along one of the most scenic spots in Florida. The Lake Trail affords visitors an intimate encounter with the Palm Beach style, complete with a view that will have you coming back again and again.


Palm Trees line the southern end of the Palm Beach Lake Trail

The trail runs alongside the western edge of Palm Beach, with a dramatic view of the Lake Worth Lagoon and West Palm Beach beyond. Palm Beach is a long, narrow barrier island, stretching 16 miles in length, and less than a mile wide. The trail itself is 5 and a half miles long, running from South Lake Drive near Peruvian Avenue North to its terminus just north of the famous Sailfish Club. The trail has two interruptions where walkers must navigate sidewalks and an intersection, but the trail is otherwise complete and well maintained.

Southern end of Lake Trail
Beautiful yachts await ant the Palm Beach Town Docks

If you wish to travel the trail’s entire distance (there is a lack of public restrooms on the walk), we suggest you park at the trail’s southern end at South Lake Drive and Peruvian Avenue. There is paid public parking along South Lake Drive. The trail winds north along the water, offering an expansive view of West Palm Beach and the Lake Worth Lagoon. The Palm Beach Town Docks is your first landmark, a public marina that has provided berthing for yachts of all types since the 1940s. The sight of the splendid boats there with the West Palm Beach skyline in the distance makes for an Instagram shot that should not be missed. Along this section, visitors get a sense of how Palm Beach defies the conventional pace of modern life. The sweeping curves of 1960s vintage condos, complete with ornate white concrete banisters and repeating floral patterns, show how buildings aren’t replaced here. They are preserved for generations, seemingly without regard for architectural trends and fads. The palm trees are original island ornaments, most displaying the imperfection of a tree that grew in place, not something recently placed by a landscaper. Things are real here in Palm Beach, decades in the making and immaculately kept, but marked with the signature of long life.
 


If you take the pedestrian crossing at Royal Palm Way, you’ll be near The Society of the Four Arts and The O’Keeffe Gallery. Here, you will see another characteristic of the island. Often art simply appears, without fanfare or preamble, to every visitor’s delight. Turn a corner and you’re liable to see an example of modern art, a burst of color in the tropical sun. In another short distance, a Romanesque statue will add lovely contrast to the surrounding scenery. Art forms part of the landscape, placed there by island patrons, for anyone to enjoy. Sometimes the art will peer out from backyards and over hedges. One home along the trail has a marble statue of a classical nude, modestly clothed in a brightly-colored t-shirt. Let no one say Palm Beach takes itself too seriously.

Walkers enjoy the Lake Trail
The trail moves close to the water and the back yards of exclusive homes.

Soon the trail moves close to the water’s edge, following the natural curves of the shore. Along this stretch, walkers are quite literally in the back yards of very exclusive homes, just a few feet from pools and patios used by the rich and famous. Occasional park benches will appear positioned for an optimal viewing of the Lagoon, and are often occupied by nannies and giggling children. A cyclist will roll by on a beach bike, smiling and nodding as he goes. There’s time to say hello here, and being civil comes very naturally on this path.

The giant kapok tree
The striking giant kapok tree with the West Palm Beach skyline in the distance

Soon a huge and graceful tree appears along the trail. It is the giant kapok tree, a mammoth with sweeping, octopus-like roots and a smooth, arching trunk. It is a transplant from the Amazon rainforests, brought here as an experimental crop tree in Palm Beach’s earliest days. The branches reach out toward the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum, a palace-like home designed and built by the man who brought Palm Beach to life. The white marble steps, towering columns, and the intricately-decorated door are reminiscent of a European palace; perhaps a bit foreboding in stature, but irresistible all the same.

Cyclists ride in front of Flagler Museum
The trail runs in front of the impressive Flagler Museum

In a way, this impressive structure, known as “Whitehall”, was the home to a head of state. Built by Henry Morrison Flagler at the end of the Nineteenth Century, Whitehall was a wedding gift to Flagler’s third bride, Mary Lily Kenan. Flagler, a businessman and oil tycoon, built the railroad that allowed for the development of much of Florida’s east coast. The home he built has long been a jewel of The Palm Beaches, visited and enjoyed by worldwide travelers and local residents alike. Tours of the home and a fascinating recounting of local history is well worth the admission fee.

Sea Gull Cottage, Palm Beach, Florida
Sea Gull Cottage, an example of the earliest homes on Palm Beach

In the shadows of the Flagler Museum is a small cottage, clad in blue-grey shingles and a wood shake roof. Called the Sea Gull Cottage, this unassuming little structure is perhaps as historically important to the Island as Flagler’s palatial home. Built in 1886, the cottage was considered one of the nicest homes on the island, with stained glass windows and a staircase constructed of mahogany salvaged from a local shipwreck. Henry Flagler was so impressed that he decided to buy the house and the entire tract of land it sat upon. The cottage became Flagler’s winter home, and the land nearby became the construction site for his new mansion, completed in 1902. The charming, three-level cottage is next to the Lake Trail, and serves the community of Palm Beach for functions and events.
It is here where the south part of the Lake Trail ends. To reach the north segment, continue along Cocoanut Row and navigate across Royal Poinciana Way. Turn West on Sunset Avenue to the water’s edge and the Lake Trail begins again, heading north toward the Palm Beach Inlet.

The Lake Path become intimate
The path becomes intimate the more one walks

A concentration of lakeside condos gives way to individual homes as the path winds along the water. The homes seem to grow older and more charming as you head north, with tall hedges set handsomely against white-washed walls and wooden gates. Things become small and informal again, with bougainvillea and jasmine pushing out from niches and breaks in the walls. The water flows just feet from the path, washing up on a gentle tide, inches from the grass. Old trees seem to lean over the water, seemingly ready to take a long drink.  

Exotic trees line the walk along the Lake Trail
Unique trees form exotic displays along the walk

The canopy of old trees grows thicker and the path a bit more uneven. This is when you’ll see the old Bethesda-by-the-Sea, a deconsecrated Church converted to a family residence. It is occupied by descendants of Henry Maddock, one of the island’s pioneers, and it is open to full view from the trail. The home is full of early 20th century charm and design, with a concrete path lifted and buckled by an ancient Banyan tree. Patio furniture is randomly placed on the lawn, and one expects to see some glasses of iced lemonade waiting on a nearby table.

The old Bethesda-by-the-Sea church, now a home
The old Bethesda-by-the-Sea church, now a private home

This all-wood building is clearly an island original, its service as a church ending in the mid-1920s. Next door is a home called the “Duck Nest”, also built by the Maddock family. It is the oldest standing house in Palm Beach, built in 1891. One can only imagine the tropical view this home enjoyed when West Palm Beach was in its infancy.
 

 

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There is a spot where visitors are treated to a rather out-of-place view. In this land of flat, sandy terrain, people are shocked to find a section of two lane road flanked by sheer cliffs of coral rock. This is Country Club Road, and the deep cut that allows travelers to drive through the rock has been the subject of curious tales and ghost stories. Historians say this was no more than a bicycle path in the community’s earliest days. It was slowly widened over time to accommodate automobiles, with sheer rock cliffs created in the process. There are several spooky tales attached to this bizarre bit of roadwork, including witches terrorizing travelers and a private dungeon carved into the rock. The spot remains popular around Halloween.

The view along the Lake Trail is always pleasing
The trail is charming and intimate

The trail becomes even more scenic as it winds northward, past old trees and curving coastline. The sprawling Rybovich Marina facility across the Intracoastal Waterway will afford a view of jaw-dropping yachts. Soon, the trail reaches the famous Sailfish Club, an exclusive dining club and social gathering place for Palm Beach’s residents. The path weaves around the club and continues a few more blocks until it merges with the neighborhood at the extreme north end of the island. All told, the Lake trail covers 5.5 miles and a relaxed pace can require three or more hours to complete. This leisurely walk will bring you up close to the casual, relaxed style of Palm Beach Life. Here, you’ll see why Palm Beach is a jewel of The Palm Beaches with a relaxed approach to style and life.
 


Some tips for enjoying the Lake Trail:
Since the trail largely passes through residential neighborhoods, it is wise to carry water and take a restroom break before heading out.
Bicycles are available for rental on the island. Visit Palm Beach Cycle Trail Shop or Top Cycle Palm Beach
The Publix Supermarket on Sunset Avenue is near the southern start of the north section of the trail.
Sprinkles Ice Cream and Sandwich Shop or Pizza Al Fresco can help you with lunch needs.