Our day spent touring the Frederik Meijer Gardens reminded me of why I love traveling to new places. The 158 acre facility is much more than just well planned floral gardens. The grounds are divided into different environments, ranging from a local farmstead to a massive tropical conservatory. But what makes Meijer Gardens stand out is the hundreds of sculptures integrated into the landscape. Ranging from small animal statues to towering works of art, the sculptures are placed to add another dimension to the surrounding greenery. Located on the outskirts of Grand Rapids, Michigan, the gardens are open year round and make for an enjoyable day trip.
Touring Meijer Gardens
The grounds are divided into five main outdoor areas plus the 15,000 square foot conservatory. Visitors of all ages and abilities will find the gardens easy to navigate and several areas of interest. However, to cover the entire facility requires a serious amount of walking. To make part of it easier, narrated tram tours of the sculpture park are offered for a small fee and I highly recommend this option. The rest of the gardens are more enjoyable up close at a leisurely pace.
Before starting your tour, decide which areas have the most appeal to your group and plan your day accordingly. An hour or more can easily be spent in each of the larger gardens. I recommend beginning with the conservatory attached to the main building before heading out to the gardens. It is very humid inside and best enjoyed before more guests arrive. From there head to your favorite gardens until hunger catches up with you.
The only option for food, other than drinking fountains, is in the main building. Snacks are allowed in the children’s garden, but otherwise discouraged. The cafe offers a good variety of sandwiches and salads plus a decent children’s menu. The food is a bit on the pricey side, but high quality. My turkey sandwich was around $10, but incredibly delicious.
Meijer Gardens Conservatory
The conservatory is made up of multiple greenhouses. The smaller areas contain cacti, pitcher plants, and even pineapples. The main greenhouse hosts tropical flora. Massive flowering vines hang from the ceiling over towering palms and beautiful orchids. There are several birds in the main conservatory, but are very difficult to spot. The conservatory is so large you feel as if you are in the rain forest; humidity and all.
Woodland Shade Garden and Michigan Farm Garden
We began with a walk through the Woodland Shade garden. It was essentially a paved trail through the woods with an option to head on a longer journey along the wetlands boardwalk. When we arrived at the Michigan Farm Garden the importance of the sculptures was evident. This area is a small scale version of a typical farm, with a house, barn, and small fields. There are several sculptures in this area. What makes them stand out is that they fit right into the scenery. Instead of being a point of focus, like a Greek centerpiece in a formal garden, these bronzes were of life size animals and placed in their natural setting. Hogs, cows, and horses; sometimes accompanied by a farm hand to give even more life to the artwork. I was truly impressed by this showcase of art imitating rural life.
The Farm Garden has meandering pathways and we discovered Fred Meijer’s unassuming grave. He passed away in 2011 and is buried in a fenced off plot here. Despite the amazing sculptures throughout the landscape, his grave is marked merely by a simple granite block and surrounded by a wrought iron fence. It is moving that somebody who gave so much to the gardens wished to rest under the shade of a tree in the corner of the farm.
Meijer Garden’s newest area is the 8 acre Japanese Garden. Centered around a small lake, the pathway circles around the perimeter with a few offshoots. The highlight was the two rocky waterfalls that flowed under the walkway into the lake. I have to admit, after admiring the beauty of the Farm Garden, the Japanese area left me a bit underwhelmed. It is a pleasant area, but seemed as if the greenery was more akin to a native Michigan garden than Japanese in style. The waterfalls would have also benefited being pushed back away from the path a bit and offering a place to sit and reflect. Being rather new, I expect that it will continue to evolve over time and also gain more sculptural elements.
Lena Meijer Children’s Garden
The children’s area is designed to give kids an area to play while surrounded by nature. There is a splash area and large water tables shaped like the Great Lakes where kids can sail toy boats. Make sure to bring a change of clothes and towels for fun times here. Surrounding the water area is a boardwalk through the wetlands and an amazing wooden fort and fossil quarry for hands-on activities. Kid-centric tram tours are also offered so families can experience some of the larger parts of the landscape that would tire little feet.
Sculptures also play an important part of this area, but with a mixed message. A friendly pair of bears and a mouse welcome you into the area. But an important fact has been overlooked: kids love to not only look, but touch. In one area there is a pair of large bronze dragons laying down that beckon to be played with, except for the Do Not Climb sign. I felt a bit sad for both children and the dragons.
The sculpture grounds offer landscaped settings for the larger works of art to stand on their own right. One in particular is simply stunning. The giant bronze American Horse by artist Nina Akamu is a staggering 24 feet tall and appears even larger posing on its own lawn. It was inspired by a concept created by Leonardo Da Vinci and a second casting is located in Milan, Italy.
The Sculpture Park is spread out over 30 acres and, unless you’ve come specifically to admire this area, is best viewed by the narrated tram tour.
The Frederik Meijer Gardens are open daily year round, closing only for Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Special events are held throughout the year and a summer concert series brings in popular acts to the Garden’s amphitheater. Visit their official website for more information on admission prices, daily hours, and current events before your visit.
Frederik Meijer Gardens is a seamless combination of art and natural beauty unlike anything I have seen before. It is easy to spend a relaxing and enjoyable day here without much planning. Be sure to add this beautiful destination to your Michigan travel itinerary.