~STUART — Kayak trails are more fun when there’s a destination. And few destinations are as intriguing as a hidden beach on a wild island.
That’s why I consider the St. Lucie Inlet Preserve State Park a great discovery: There’s a scenic kayak trail through mangroves teeming with fish and birds. The kayak trail is on the undeveloped, wild northern end of Jupiter Island. And from the kayak trail, you can find a narrow path to a spectacular beach where we walked for miles on a sunny Saturday and saw only two other people. This is my definition of a hidden paradise.
St. Lucie Inlet Preserve State Park is located about a half hour north of West Palm Beach. It’s the northern tip of a barrier island, ending where the St. Lucie River enters the ocean. It is one of the few undeveloped barrier islands on Florida’s east coast.
There are no roads on this part of the island and no bridges to reach it. The park adjoins Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge, so it is well-insulated from people and development. Access is only by boat.
On the island, there are restrooms, picnic shelters and a 3,300-foot boardwalk connecting the dock and beach. A free tram whisks visitors from Intracoastal to ocean from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends and holidays. We walked; the better to admire the thick coastal hammock of live oak, cabbage palms and ferns.
Kayak trail at St. Lucie Inlet Preserve
You need to carefully plan this kayak outing for high tide, because the trail is impassable at low tide. The best time to leave is two hours before high tide, because that gives you four hours to paddle and explore.
A sandy beach-like launch site is located directly across the park in a small Martin County park at the end of Cove Road. (Exit I-95 at SR 76 and take a right on Cove Road in about two blocks. Go to the end of the road.) This attractive little park is a magnet for kayakers – four people were launching at the same time we were.
From the launch site, you face the worst part of this kayak trail: Crossing the choppy Intracoastal, about a third of a mile wide here, with its cruising yachts and zipping personal watercraft. This open water can get windy too; we paddled mightily against the wind at one point to make progress. But even on a sunny March Saturday, boat traffic was light and we considered the island worth the challenging crossing.
Print out the accompanying map and bring it with you. (There are maps in the park’s office, but it is frequently unmanned and you probably don’t want to go to the park’s office first anyway. ) We didn’t have this map and missed some key opportunities as a result.
You can make the trail into a loop by using the narrow channel through the mangroves at Marker #13 on the southern end of the island. (This channel is said to be tricky to find; look for moving water along the shore.)
We started at the other end: heading north and turning right into the first opening.
The trail itself is shallow with a sandy bottom where you can often peer in to see schools of fish or a fleeing ray. You paddle through some very narrow, twisty sections and come to some broader lagoons. We loved the abundant wildlife: We startled ibises and watched three ospreys fishing in the same area. Eventually, we were close enough to the beach to hear waves crashing through the mangrove thicket.
There are no trail signs, but if you start at the north end of the trail and head south, you always take the right channel to stay on the trail. The trail is entirely lined with mangroves. There is no place where you can step out onto land. While you do paddle under the boardwalk, you cannot reach it from the water because the mangroves are impenetrable.
If you paddle to the very last lagoon at the trail’s southern end, there is a narrow path between the kayak trail and beach. We would have loved to have stopped here, but we didn’t know it existed. (We didn’t have the map at this point.) The map I later saw at the ranger’s office shows this trail and when I got back to my computer, I could see it via satellite view on Google maps. So my advice: Plan to make this your stop to stretch your legs and have a picnic. The path will take you to the beach at a point where you are likely to have it almost to yourself.
Another alternative route for kayaking is to explore the lagoon off the St. Lucie Inlet called the Hole in the Wall. As you enter the kayak trail on it’s northern end, you’ll see a waterway fork off to the left to the inlet. We didn’t get there, but the Google satellite map shows the Hole in the Wall is a shallow lagoon with small mangrove islands. The land facing the inlet at this point looks sandy and appealing.
The hidden beach at St. Lucie Inlet Preserve State Park
After paddling the kayak trail, we tied up at the main dock and walked the boardwalk to the beach. And what a beach it is: Pristine, wide, quiet and virtually deserted. If you’ve always wanted a beach all to yourself, this is it.
The state park’s beach is 2.7 miles long, but the southern boundary is with Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge, and thus the beach actually continues uninterrupted for more than five miles.
Here’s some advice based on experience: Observe well where you entered the beach. There are no signs and the wild shoreline scenery doesn’t provide many clues. It’s easy to walk past your return path – we did, and for a while we wondered if we’d be sleeping on the island. We did find our return route, but we walked more of this beach than we had originally planned !
Near the beach is a large covered picnic pavilion and restrooms.
Scuba divers should note that an extensive Anastasia rock reef is located just offshore of the park extending 4.7 miles along the coast and up to one mile offshore. Depths range from 5 feet to 35 feet. This reef is the northernmost limit for the ranges of several species of corals found in South Florida. (The reef is too far for snorkelers from the beach to reach it.)
Planning your outing:
St. Lucie Inlet Preserve State Park
Across from the east end of Cove Road on Jupiter Island
Honor-box entrance fee: $2 per kayak
Hours: 8 a.m. to sunset, 365 days a year.
Note: Dredging of the inlet, scheduled for completion by May, results in a giant pipe stretching through the woods paralleling the beach in the park. While we crossed the dredge pipe to get to the beach, it had no effect on our natural experience.
More things to do near Stuart:
- Another nearby great kayak trail: St. Lucie River
- Jonathan Dickinson State Park, for hiking, biking, kayaking and camping.
- St. Lucie Inlet Preserve State Park, a state park reachable only boat.
- Blowing Rocks Preserve, an outstanding and unique beach very nearby
- The historic 1860 Jupiter lighthouse, which is one of the few lighthouses you can climb. The waterfront museum in the newly restored WWII building offers indoor Florida history exhibits, outdoor exhibits and the Tindall Pioneer Homestead. It’s $9 for adults, $5 children ages 6 to 18, ages 5 and under free.
- Bicycling Jupiter Island.
- Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge, a “secret” beach because of its out-of-the-way location and a great bicycling destination.
More great places to kayak