Hutchinson Island has an abundance of pristine beaches with easy public access, like Atlantic Coast beaches used to be. You remember the days — when you could just pull off to the side of State Road A1A almost anywhere in Florida and stroll through the dunes to the ocean.
Although Hutchinson Island today has its share of oceanfront condos, a long stretch of the island has been set aside as a buffer around Florida Power and Light’s St. Lucie nuclear power plant.
It is in this buffer zone that you will find some of the prettiest and most pristine beaches on the island, where you just pull off the road onto hard-pack sand lots with limited parking.
Both Martin and St. Lucie counties, which share this barrier island, have carved out dozens of beach parks, and there are the main beaches in Fort Pierce and Jensen Beach can accommodate crowds of beachgoers with large parking lots, rest rooms and concessions.
Because much of the island remains in its natural state, it is home to a number of marine research facilities and exhibits. And Fort Pierce’s history as the birthplace of Navy frogmen gives it bragging rights as the home of the Navy Seal Museum.
Beaches near the power plant are my usual destination because they are mostly devoid of crowds, sometimes deserted, and they offer an unmatched opportunity for successful surf fishing, aided by a near-shore reef that corrals fish in the trough between the reef and the beach.
Surf Fishin’ Safari – Hutchinson Island is ideal for surf fishing, so bring your gear: For starters, a medium spinning outfit. Tackle includes pompano rigs, pyramid sinkers and a heavy jig to bounce along the bottom. Cut a pointed edge on a 3-foot section of PVC pipe and stick it in the sand to protect your rod and reel. Best baits are sand fleas (mole crabs) and shrimp. Buy bait before you reach the island. Bring a beach chair and 5-gallon bucket for your catch of pompano, whiting or bluefish. You need a shoreline fishing license, which is free. For more information, check out my tutorial.
There are nearly three dozen beaches on the island, so many that you can just drive up A1A and pick any one of them to suit your taste. Many are deserted, even on weekends. Rather than attempt to describe each one, I thought I’d highlight a few with special features:
Special beaches on Hutchinson Island
Horseback Riding on the Beach — Here’s something different. Every Saturday and Sunday, and sometimes during the week by prior arrangement, one-hour tours on horseback are offered on the beach at St. Lucie County’s Frederick Douglas Memorial Park, about 4 miles south of Fort Pierce Inlet (and 4 miles north of the power plant). The cost is $45 per person (cash or credit in advance) for a 3-mile ride along the surf line. Sunset rides are also available. Reservations must be made in advance by calling 772-468-0101. Details can be found at www.beachtoursonhorseback.com This beach has a restroom, picnic tables and pavilions.
Blind Creek – Boat ramp and beach access — Just a few hundred yards north of the power plant is Blind Creek, a finger of water off the Indian River that reaches deep into the narrow island, almost to the beach. There’s a boat ramp under the A1A bridge over Blind Creek, but you can launch kayaks and canoes from either side with access to the Indian River Lagoon. Direct beach access is restricted by a gate to keep cars out, but you can park outside the gate and walk the short distance to the beach, which is popular with both fishermen and surfers. Here’s information on surf conditions. There are no facilities at this beach, no lifeguards and, most of the time, no people.
Walton Rocks Dog Beach — The pawfect place to bring your canine, although on weekends it gets crowded with dogs running everywhere. (It’s an off-leash dog park). Nevertheless, dogs need a place to play in the ocean, and this is the place.
The 24-acre beach is also popular for fishing, but get their early so your lines don’t get tangled by rambunctious dogs running in and out of the surf. There is plenty of parking, restrooms and an outdoor shower, and you’ll find pavilions with picnic tables in the last parking lot at the end of a long and winding hard-pack sand road that trails behind the sand dunes. You would never know this beach is there unless you’re looking for it. 6700 South Ocean Drive, Jensen Beach.
Jensen Beach Park — This is where the action can be found on Hutchinson Island, but not to the exclusion of families. There’s no more popular beach on Hutchinson Island, and it has something for everyone: volleyball courts, picnic pavilions, restrooms and showers and a concession stand. There’s plenty of parking, although on weekends with nice weather, the cars overflow onto the shoulders of A1A.
Across from the beach, slightly north of the causeway, are several strip shopping centers with restaurants, surf shops and beach toys. Personally, I drive right on by this park for the more secluded beaches further north on A1A. 4191 NE Ocean Blvd, Jensen Beach
A near-shore reef (created by a type of worm) protects an idyllic lagoon, taming surf and offering shallow pools of warm water and soft sand. This is also a good place for easy snorkeling. The beach has plenty of parking, but you should get there early on weekends because it fills up. Lifeguards are on duty only on weekends. There’s a bathhouse with showers and pavilions for picnicking. On the inland side of the park, there’s a fishing pier on the Indian River. Bathtub beach is located on South Hutchinson Island on MacArthur Boulevard, which branches south off A1A at the southernmost bridge access in Stuart. 1585 SE MacArthur Blvd., Stuart.
Hutchinson Island access
Fort Pierce South Causeway (Seaway Drive) – From downtown Fort Pierce, this bridge and causeway will take you to the northern end of the island. As you come onto the island, you’ll see South Jetty Park on your left. There’s a broad expanse of beach with picnic pavilions and restrooms overlooking busy Fort Pierce Inlet and the beaches across the channel at Fort Pierce Inlet State Park, where hundreds of boaters congregate on weekends. Within walking distance are several shops and beach-area restaurants.
Jensen Beach Causeway – This causeway is difficult to find for out-of-towners. It’s located just north of downtown Jensen Beach, which is worth finding for its quaint shops and restaurants, and takes you out to A1A on Hutchinson Island. Causeway Park lines both sides of the roadway. There are picnic pavilions and a boat ramp (with 62 spaces for trailers). The causeway is also a popular fishing destination.
Stuart Causeway – This bridge offers access from downtown Stuart across Sewall’s Point to the southern end of Hutchinson Island. Once you cross the bridge, check out East Island, underneath the bridge, with its narrow beaches, public boat ramp and picnic pavilions with restrooms. If the surf’s too rough at ocean beaches, these man-made beaches are not a bad place to spend a sunny afternoon. East Island is also a popular fishing spot.
Other places of interest on Hutchinson Island
Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center – A 57-acre marine life nature center run by the non-profit Florida Oceanographic Society. The center features a 750,000 gallon Game Fish Lagoon with more than 35 species of fish, a nature trail, coastal hardwood hammocks and mangrove swamp communities and a tank where visitors can touch sea rays, among other displays. The center offers daily education programs. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and 12 noon to 4 p.m. on Sundays. Admission is $12. 772-225-0505. Located on the east end of the Stuart Causeway at 890 NE Ocean Blvd., Stuart. www.floridaocean.org
The Smithsonian Marine Station is a satellite program of the Smithsonian Institute in our nation’s capital. This small aquarium is located on the South Causeway Bridge very close to downtown Fort Pierce. There’s a large living reef exhibit and a variety of smaller tanks and exhibits. That large tank was originally in the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C., where it was one of the first living reefs ever on display. Today, while aquariums have gotten more sophisticated and tanks larger and larger, this, one of the originals, is still a dazzling display. The museum attracts great volunteers, who answer questions and make sure the touch tanks are engaging and interactive. Admission is $4. 772-462-FISH.
House of Refuge – A predecessor of the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Lifesaving Service was formed after the Civil War to rescue the crews of ships that encountered trouble at sea. They had no boats, so the keepers of these refuges – there were 10 on Florida’s coast – would walk the beaches after storms and search for victims of shipwrecks. The only remaining House of Refuge on the Florida coast and the oldest structure in Martin County, the exhibit includes lifesaving equipment and showcases the keeper’s quarters circa 1904. About 100 yards offshore, you can sometimes see the wreckage of an Italian brigantine that sank during a violent storm that same year. Admission is $8. Located at 301 SE MacArthur Blvd., about 1.2 miles south of the intersection with A1A (East Ocean Blvd.) Here’s a Florida Rambler story on the House of Refuge with lots of photos.
The Elliott Museum – The Elliott Museum built a spiffy new building with a high-tech robotic system to display its extensive collection of antique cars, but the museum also has everything from wedding dresses to baseball cards to wooden boats. Most visitors to the eclectic museum will find something to intrigue them. Here’s a Florida Rambler story on the Elliott Museum and several photos.
Places of interest near Hutchinson Island
On the north side of the Fort Pierce Inlet is Fort Pierce Inlet State Park, where you can enjoy beaches on the ocean or along the inside of the inlet. There is ample access to launch kayaks and canoes to explore the Indian River Lagoon, a nature trail through a well-preserved coastal hammock that includes a variety of oaks, Gumbo Limbo and Redbay. Snorkeling and scuba diving are also popular activities. Located on Fort Pierce’s North Causeway. Admission is $6 per vehicle ($4 for motorcycles)
Fort Pierce is the birthplace of Navy frogmen and underwater demolition teams first deployed during World War II, known then as “Scouts” and “Raiders” who would later become a permanent part of elite U.S. Special Forces now known as SEALS. The national Navy Seal Museum is just past Fort Pierce Inlet State Park on A1A. The history and equipment used by Navy Seals and Underwater Demolition Teams are displayed here, including some fascinating underwater attack vehicles. Admission is $10 ($5 for children). Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, and 12 noon to 4 p.m. on Sundays.
The Manatee Observation and Education Center is a waterfront wildlife observation and nature education center on the mainland in downtown Fort Pierce at 480 North Indian River Drive. The center overlooks a saltwater estuary and the freshwater Moore’s Creek, where endangered Florida manatees can be viewed in the wild year-round. The center also has a butterfly garden and a replica of a natural spring, a common habitat for manatees in colder winter months. Admission is $1 (Children under 6 are free). Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., and Sundays from 12 to 4 from October through June. Summer hours (July-September) are 10-5, Thursdays through Saturday.
Across the causeway in Jensen Beach, lovers of Old Florida will want to have lunch at the Dolphin Bar & Shrimp House, 1401 NE Indian River Drive, Jensen Beach, (772) 781-5136. Founded by 1940s singer and movie star Frances Langford (1913-2005), it was originally the Outrigger Resort, capitalizing on the Polynesian tiki-bar craze of the 1950s.
Today the restaurant and bar remain fixed in that ‘50s style, with black-and-white photos of Francis Langford and her celebrity buddies decorating the lobby. There is expansive outdoor seating overlooking the Indian River Lagoon, where kids can feed fish off the pier and birds are plentiful. The seafood-oriented menu is reasonable for lunch and pricey for dinner (entrees $24 to $39.)
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