Bike & Hike / Camping / Historic / Kayak & Canoe / Southeast Florida

Jonathan Dickinson State Park: A Florida treasure

Jonathan Dickinson State Park is big, wild and full of adventure. It’s time you planned a visit:

  • Hikes from a half-mile to 10 miles long.
  • Scenic paved bike trails and popular mountain bike trails.
  • Campgrounds for tents and RVs.
  • Cabins available.
  • Excellent kayak and canoe river.
  • Horseback trail rides in winter.
  • Fascinating history  from the 1600s to WWII.
Jonathan Dickinson State Park reflections

Photographer Bob Peterson (Bob in Swamp via Flickr) played a bit of a trick here on a scene from Jonathan Dickinson Sate Park: The reflection is up. (The photo is upside down.)

If you love the outdoors, I promise you will find something to love at Jonathan Dickinson State Park.

Jonathan Dickinson State Park on U.S. 1 in Hobe Sound will delight kayakers, bicyclists,  mountain bikers,  hikers, campers, history-lovers, wildlife watchers and folks who just like a nice picnic site. I even took my 86-year-old mother on the narrated boat trip on the Loxahatchee River – she loved it!

Jonathan Dickinson State Park baby alligator

A small alligator at Jonathan Dickinson State Park. (Photo by Bob Peterson/Bob in Swamp via Flickr.)

There are even a dozen beautifully situated cabins near the Loxahatchee River that allow non-campers to stay overnight in the park for $80 a night in summer and $95 a night in winter.

This is the rare Florida park where you could spend several days and not explore all the trails and recreational opportunities. And it’s located within an hour or two of nature-starved urban South Florida.

I’ve personally seen eagles, osprey, deer, gopher tortoises, manatees, dolphins, an array of birds and alligators plus admired fields of colorful wildflowers.

Kayaking and canoeing at Jonathan Dickinson State Park

Jonathan Dickinson is best known for its river, the Loxahatchee, which was Florida’s first federally designated Wild and Scenic River. It’s a beauty, particularly the narrow, twisty section you access from Riverbend Park.  I think it’s the best canoe or kayak river in South Florida, and have written about kayaking on it for Florida Rambler before.

Jonathan Dickinson State Park Kitching Creek trail

Be warned: Jonathan Dickinson State Park trails are sometimes wet. This was a November hike and that’s the trail. (It was really fun though.)

From Jonathan Dickinson, you can put in your kayaks or canoes or rent them (see details below.)  Here, the river  is broad and tidal. Paddlers often see wading birds and occasionally manatees, ospreys and bald eagles. Upstream a short distance there is a tributary of the Loxahatchee, Kitching Creek, that is winding and narrow with overhanging trees and Spanish moss. Kayakers see alligators here and many consider it the highlight of paddling the river from Dickinson.

Jonathan Dickinson State Park hiking trail

Trail winds through lovely wetland at Jonathan Dickinson State Park.

Jonathan Dickinson State Park bike trail

Section of the bicycle trail near river/concessions at Jonathan Dickinson State Park.

If you continue upstream, you reach another highlight — the fascinating home of Trapper Nelson, one of those fabulous characters who have helped make Florida funky from its early days.  Nelson started out living off the land as a trapper and fur trader in the 1930s, but soon became well-known enough to turn himself and his home into one of the area’s first tourist attractions, “Trapper’s Zoo and Jungle Gardens.”  He died somewhat mysteriously in 1968 and his rustic buildings are evocative and beautifully situated on a wild part of the river.

While Trapper’s area is within Jonathan Dickinson State Park, it is accessible only by boat – either kayak/canoe or via a guided tour on the Loxahatchee Queen II.   See details below for the boat tour. It is open 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Thursday through Monday.

Here’s a useful guide to paddling the river, including travel times and distances.


Bicycling at Jonathan Dickinson State Park

Jonathan Dickinson is big enough that we enjoyed just bicycling on its lightly trafficked roadways in addition to its off-road trails.

We loved the paved bicycle trail that runs along the old roadbed of Old Dixie Highway, for about two miles. Dixie Highway is the original route folks took to visit Florida in the 1920s and 1930s and it ran right through what is now the park. As we pedaled the lovely tree-shaded trail, we tried to spot evidence of the old road. Our favorite find: A fading yellow stripe visible at some points, once the divider for two-lane Dixie Highway.

Jonathan Dickinson State Park Old Dixie now a trail

This bike trail in Jonathan Dickinson is actually Old Dixie Highway, which was closed through this area in World War II.

Mountain bikers treasure Jonathan Dickenson for its well-maintained Camp Murphy Off-Road Bicycle Trail System, which is a nine-mile network of mountain bike trails. It contains  loops for beginners all the way up to “black diamond, experts only” trails.

Hiking at Jonathan Dickinson State Park

Jonathan Dickinson is hiker heaven, with a good range of wild and scenic hikes. There’s a great short boardwalk trail –a half-mile trail up “Hobe Mountain” – South Florida’s highest point, with a 360-degree view of the ocean, Intracoastal and park.

There are medium-length hikes: A favorite is Kitching Creek Loop trail. The trailhead is off the main parking lot by the river concession area. You can make it a short hike by coming back via the Wilson Creek trail, a larger loop with a beautiful overlook of Kitching Creek or, if you go beyond the overlook, a 7.5 mile hike through scenic forests and meadows. Details on Kitching Creek Loop trail from Floridahikes.com.

Photographer Bob Peterson, whose photographs are included here, says: “I also love to park at the equestrian campground by the main park road and walk north along the power line road. The Eagle View Trail system branches off east and west from this and trails crosses magical depression marshes, wet pine flatwoods and even some Florida scrub. The wildflower cast of characters is constantly changing and each season is amazing in its own unique way.”

For back-packers or long-distance hikers, there is the 9.8 mile East Loop Trail.  Ask for a trail map at the ranger station and consult the links above to Floridahikes.com.

When we hiked in Jonathan Dickinson once, we ended up wading through ankle-deep water at points, so be aware some trails can be wet, particularly early in the winter.

Jonathan Dickinson State Park view from boat tour

A view from the narrated boat tour on the Loxahatchee through Jonathan Dickinson State Park.

Backpackers can hike into two wilderness camp sites on segments of the Florida Trail. Maps of the trail are available at the Ranger Station. One camp is five miles out along the trail, and the other is nine miles out. A pitcher pump is located near each camp and water must be treated. (Reservations are not required, but are suggested: 772-546-2771 for information and reservations.)

Jonathan Dickinson State Park meditation

Backwoods in Jonathan Dickinson State Park: A peaceful place for reflection. (Photo by Bob Peterson/Bob in Swamp via Flickr.)

Camping at Jonathan Dickinson State Park

Two family campgrounds are located at Jonathan Dickinson State Park. Pine Grove Campground, with 90 sites, is located near the ranger station on the east side of the park. The River Campground, with 45 sites, is about four miles from the park entrance, near the Loxahatchee River.

Jonathan Dickinson State Park Hobe Mountain

Jonathan Dickinson State Park Hobe Mountain

Both campgrounds have large, tiled restrooms with hot showers. All sites include water, electricity, table and grill. A dump station is located in each campground. Pets are welcome in the campground.  The maximum RV length is 45 feet.

Our first choice would be the River Campground, where dense vegetation and tall trees offer plenty of privacy and shade at most sites. Since it is deep in the park, there is no road noise other than minimal traffic during daylight hours to the nearby boat ramp. There are paths to both the boat ramp and the park concession where you can rent canoes or take the boat tour.
The new Pine Grove Campground, on the other hand, has only small trees with only a low-lying berm that separates it from U.S. 1 and the Indian River, where boat and highway traffic can disrupt the camping experience.  On the plus side, the new Pine Grove campground has paved access roads and level, well-maintained camping pads that are good for RVs (but not so much for tents).
Just outside the park, and within reasonable walking distance of the Pine Grove campground, is a church, a few shops and a full-service marina with a nice tiki bar that serves burgers and local seafood from Thursday through Sunday. The tiki bar also features entertainment.

While there are 120 campsites, these campgrounds are popular, so either reserve early  (you can book  11 months in advance)  or watch for cancellations daily. Reservations are made through ReserveAmerica.  Camping is $26 a night for tent or RV.

Cabins at Jonathan Dickinson State Park

There are 12 cabins. The smaller units have a maximum capacity of four in two queen beds, one of which is a sleeper-sofa.  Cabins 6 and 7 sleep six.

The “cabins” are actually new, miniature trailers with less than 300 square feet of space, although they do have well-equipped, complete kitchens and small bathrooms with tubs. The units come with linens plus heat and air conditioning. They are beautifully situated in a shady grove of pine trees near the Loxahatchee River. Price: $80 a night in summer; $95 in winter. After visiting and staying in the cabins I wrote this story. Reservations through ReserveAmerica.com.

Historic tidbits about Jonathan Dickinson State Park

Jonathan Dickinson State Park has all sort of fascinating stories from several different eras of history, starting in 1696, when Jonathan Dickinson, a Quaker merchant from Port Royal, Jamaica ,was shipwrecked near here.  He and members of his party were captured by the Jaega Indians. Dickinson kept a detailed journal that was widely read at the time. He escaped, traveled to St. Augustine and then on to Colonial  Philadelphia, where years later he was elected mayor.

More recent history was made during World War II, when the land that would become the park was developed as Camp Murphy, a top-secret radar training school.

At the time, Dixie Highway was diverted around the park and more than 1,000 buildings quickly sprang up from the scrub.

More than 6,000 people were stationed at the camp, which had its own power plants, sewer system, church and theater. Few locals had any idea what was going on, only that it was a secret Army base.  After two years of operation, in November 1944, Camp Murphy was deactivated and the operation was shut down.

Jonathan Dickinson State Park Forked bluecurls (Trichostema dichotomum)

Forked bluecurls (Trichostema dichotomum) are among the many wildflowers in the Jonathan Dickinson State Park photographer Bob Peterson (Bob in Swamp on Flickr) has captured.

Trapper Nelson: "The wild man of the Loxahatchee."

Trapper Nelson: “The wild man of the Loxahatchee,” whose story is told at Jonathan Dickinson State Park.

As we explored the park, we were delighted to come across a few closed buildings from the Camp Murphy days and a historic marker.

Details for planning your visit to Jonathan Dickinson State Park

  • Elsa Kimbell  Environmental Education and Research Center.  The interpretive center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week and has free wifi.
  • Canoe and kayak rental:  Canoes rent for $18 for two hours and $5 an hour after that. Single kayaks are $18 for the first two hours and then $5 an hour. Doubles are $23.30 for the first two hours and then $5 an hour. Motor boats are rented for  $50 for two hours; $25 each additional hour.
  • Shuttle service upriver for canoe or kayak rental: You can arrange to be dropped off at Riverbend Park and paddle back to the park. It’s $35 for a canoe with two people  or $40 for a double kayak. Call (561) 746-1466 for more information.
  • Bicycle rentals: Bikes rent for $5 an hour or $25 for all day.
  • Guided tours of the Loxahatchee River. The Loxahatchee Queen II  tour boat takes 25 passengers on  a narrated two-hour outing to Trapper Nelson’s site. Please double-check this information, but at the time of thsi writing, the fare is $24 for adults,  $14 for children 6 to 12 and free for children under 6 and trips leave at 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. You cannot make reservations. Call (561) 746-1466 for more information.
  • Horseback riding at Jonathan Dickinson State Park. In winter, an outfitter brings 20 horses from the Smoky Mountains area south to run trail rides every day. The one-hour rides through the pine woods are $25. There are hand-held riding experiences for youngters for $12 for 15 minutes. You cannot reserve rides in advance. Call for details: 561-746-1466.

What’s nearby? Things to do in the Hobe Sound/Jupiter area:

  • St. Lucie Inlet Preserve State Park, a state park reachable only boat.
  • Blowing Rocks Preserve, an outstanding and unique beach very nearby. Next door to Blowing Rocks is  Coral Cove Park beach, which has similar rock formations.  Both parks are known as good places for snorkeling from shore.
  • 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.
  • Guanabanas is 15 minutes from the park and it’s a a completely outdoor waterfront restaurant with a huge banyan tree, chickee huts, waterfalls and lush landscaping.  The place would be worth visiting just for its appearance, but its fresh, locally sourced seafood is outstanding as well.
  • Square Grouper Tiki Bar, 111 Love St., Jupiter:  This is such a classic beach bar that it was used as the locale for the “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” music video featuring country music artist Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffett.  It’s right on the sandy beach of the Loxahatchee River overlooking the 1860 lighthouse and the inlet. It’s very popular; best time to visit is in the afternoon.  Here’s what Yelpers say and here’s the “Five O’Clock Somewhere video.
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2 Comments

  1. Bobbi Rubenzahl says:

    Wonderful info!! Have done Shark Valley many times and it is one of our favorites. Going to go to Jupiter Island and other of your suggestions. Thanks sooooo much!!
    Great photos!

  2. Wow! great pics of park, especially like the reflected trees in first photo, though the gator is a great pic also.
    SPB

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