Camping / Parks & Forests

Dupuis Wildlife Management Area: Free camping, amazing trails, superior birding

You can do it all here.

A prime destination for camping, hiking, off-road bicycling, fishing and limited canoeing, this vast 22,000-acre wildlife refuge is a classic South Florida wilderness with wet prairies and marshes, cypress domes, oakwood hammocks, pine flatlands and abundant wildlife.

The refuge, managed by the South Florida Water Management District, is open to the public 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, except in hunting season.

There are no fees — not even for camping — although you need a special use permit (online) to camp in the awesome family campground or for group camping near the fishing pier. 

Camping in the Dupuis Wildlife Management Area is free

Family tent campground at the Dupuis Wildlife Management Area

Family tent campground

The “family” campground is a bucolic oasis one mile deep into the refuge, far from the rumbling farm trucks along the two-lane Kanner Highway.

I really loved this campground for its scenic beauty and access to trails, both for hiking and bicycling. For kayaking and canoeing, though, you’ll have to transport your boats at least six miles deeper into the preserve, 13 miles for more satisfying paddling experience.

family campground at the Dupuis Wildlife Management Area

Tent campsite

Only tents and pop-up tent trailers (no RVs) are allowed on the 16 spacious but primitive sites encircling a lovely pond. Many of the sites are shaded, some are waterfront. Each site has a picnic table and a fire ring, and there are two composting outhouses available to campers. No other amenities, no hookups, no showers, although there is a single spigot with drinkable water near the campground host. Generators are not permitted, adding to the serenity of the campground.

While you are able to make reservations in advance, sites are not assigned, so it’s first come, first served on arrival. No need to check in at the Visitor Center because the lock combination for access will be sent to you via e-mail once you complete the online registration form.

An alligator may roam into the campground while you’re there, but as long as you don’t feed them, they are unlikely to bother you. If you do feed them, alligators see you as a source of food and become aggressive.

The tent campground gate is locked and a combination is required. It will be provided after you file for the special-use permit. There is a campground host who lives on site, and there are occasional patrols by Florida Wildlife Commission rangers, but if you really need help quickly, you’ll need to call 911 to contact the Martin County Sheriff’s Office. I tested cellular service in the campground, and the signal was clear.

Access to the family campground is through Gate 1 on the Kanner Highway. 

RV Campground is also free

rv campground at Dupuis Wildlife Management Area

RV and equestrian campground.

RV’s are welcome at the refuge’s less-restrictive campground, which is designed for equestrian activities but accommodating to anybody with an RV, tent or pop-up.

These sites are primitive. There are no hookups, no picnic tables or fire rings. Spigots with potable water are shared among campers. Generators are permitted but hours are restricted. If you are not prepared for boondocking, this campground is not for you.

There is a rest room with shower, a barn to stable horses and a dump station, but there are no other amenities. There is a spigot with drinking water at the rest-room building.

Stables in the equestrian camping area at Dupuis Wildlife Management Area

Barn has 30 stables

This campground is less scenic, more of a sprawling field with an occasional shade tree. There are designated camping areas for equestrians and non-equestrians, although the day I visited, RV’s without horses were scattered throughout both areas. 

A campground host lives there year around.

Kim Willis, assistant land manager for the refuge, says no special use permits are currently required to camp in the RV campground, although she expects a special-use permit requirement in the near future.

Group Camping and Backpackers

A group campground is located 7.5 miles deep in the refuge near the fishing pier and nature-trail boardwalk. A free special-use license is required, and the campground is available to groups of 15 or more people. Again, these sites are primitive and there are no facilities. Pack it in, pack it out.

There are three primitive campsites for backpackers along the hiking trails. You can get details at the Visitor Center or online.

Pets are now allowed throughout the refuge and camping areas, but they must be kept on a leash at all times.

Hiking and Biking 

trail guide to the dupuis wildlife management area

Click to enlarge.

There is a designated parking area for hikers and bicyclists inside Gate 2, but day visitors are also welcome to enter the refuge and navigate the network of unpaved but well-maintained shell-rock roads winding throughout the refuge for access to 22 miles of trails developed and blazed by the Florida Trail Association.

There are four loop trails that range from 5 miles to nearly 16 miles, with a 7-mile extension from the last loop.

For a shorter hike, park at Gate 2 and hike one mile round trip to the old “Governor’s House,” a small structure former owners of the refuge used as a camping cabin. There are picnic tables adjacent to the house. You can also drive to the house along the Jim Lake Grade from Gate 1.

All of the marked roads to bicycles, but bicycles are not welcome on the loop trails, horse trails or the Dupuis section of the Ocean to Lake Trail, which cuts through the refuge.

The 62-mile Ocean to Lake Trail has connectors on each side of the refuge, east through the adjacent J.W. Corbett Wildlife Management Area to Jupiter and west to connect with the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail at Port Mayaca.

You can download a PDF of the Dupuis Trail Guide here.

Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail, Port Mayaca

lake okeechobee scenic trail

Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail

This 110-mile paved trail circumnavigates Lake Okeechobee atop the Herbert Hoover Dike, which protects agricultural areas and homes around the lake from flooding. Several sections of the trail south of Port Mayaca are closed through 2018 while the Corps of Engineers repairs the dike, but you can currently ride or hike on the trail north of the locks at Port Mayaca.

You can hike to the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail from Dupuis, or drive three miles west of the Dupuis Visitor Center to Port Mayaca and cross the bridge to the north side of the St. Lucie Canal for access.  

The ride itself is certainly scenic, at least at first, but it quickly becomes monotonous with very few trees and very little relief from South Florida’s scorching sun. Still, it’s worth spending a few hours atop the dike so you can get a feeling for the vastness of the lake. 

For the latest information on closures, visit this page updated by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. For more information about the trail, read this article on FloridaHikes.comHere’s another link for the Ocean to Lake Trail.

Kayaks and canoes

aerial view of the fishing pier and pond

Fishing pier and kayak launch.

Opportunities for kayaking and canoeing are limited and hard to reach, but you can find them.

From Gate 1, take the Jim Lakes Grade to the Dupuis Grade, and follow the shell-rock road for 7.5 miles deep to the fishing pier, where there is a small open water area bound by marsh. There is not much area to paddle, but it’s excellent for fishing, according to Willis. No motors.

A more adventurous launch is at the end of the Powerline Grade (turn left inside the refuge at Gate 1) and drive 13 miles south to an open water marsh that allows a little more freedom to roam. Willis advises that the marsh is not difficult to navigate, and it’s fairly easy to find your way back to the launch point, but she adds that it wouldn’t hurt to bring a GPS just in case. Motors are OK here, and you may encounter a few jon boats.

The alligator population is thick here, though, so act accordingly — and cautiously. Like most wildlife in the refuge, alligators are unlikely to bother you unless you bother them. Still, I personally wouldn’t be paddling out there on a paddleboard or a sit-on-top kayak.

Another option to consider is outside the refuge at the Port Mayaca Locks. From here, you can launch a boat into the St. Lucie Canal, which is the eastern segment of the cross-state Okeechobee Waterway, and access the rim canal surrounding Lake Okeechobee.

The boat launch is on the north side of the locks off U.S. 441.

Birds and Wildlife

painted bunting Photo: David Morgan/Audubon Photography Awards

Painted Bunting

A noteworthy stop on the Great Florida Birding Trail, the refuge includes mesic oak hammocks, cypress domes, pine flatwoods and wetland habitats that harbor more than a hundred species, from anhingas and warblers to falcons, eagles and owls.

Stop at the Visitor Center for a map and then drive south from Gate 1 along Jim Lake Grade, then turn left (south) toward the fishing pier. Along the way, check wetlands for Eastern Phoebes and pines for Wild Turkeys. Bird the roadside for Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. Songbirds are common throughout the refuge.

You may also find Bachman’s Sparrow, Bald Eagle, Crested Caracara, Painted Bunting, Swallow-tailed Kite and Wood Storks. You can download the DuPuis Bird List PDF for a complete list of birds that may be seen in the refuge.

You can also reference recent sightings with this link from the ebird.org hot list.

In addition to birds, you’ll find evidence throughout the refuge of of alligators, river otters, feral hogs, coyotes, white-tailed deer, to name a few.

Source: Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail

If You Go

Directions: Florida’s Turnpike to Exit 107. Go north on the Beeline Highway (State Road 710) to Indiantown, where you turn left on Kanner Highway (State Road 76). Go west on the Kanner Highway for six miles to the Dupuis Visitor Center. Another option is to take U.S. 441 to Port Mayaca, then go east for three miles on Kanner Highway.

Visitor Center: Open Monday through Thursday, 8:30 am until 4 p.m., sometimes on Friday, but never on weekends. For information, call (561) 924-5310.

Web site: South Florida Water Management District — Dupuis

Special Use Permit (for camping): Select the Dupuis campground at the bottom of the page and check the calendar

IMPORTANT: Refuge is closed during hunting seasons. During archery, muzzleloading gun, general gun, general gun mobility-impaired and spring turkey seasons, camping is allowed only by individuals participating in the hunt and only in the equestrian campground at Gate 3. The family campground is closed when hunters are in the woods.

For closure dates, refer to this Hunting Calendar.

Nearby things to do and places to stay 

Seminole Inn

Seminole Inn

Seminole Inn, Indiantown — If you are not into camping and are looking for a place to stay close to the Dupuis Wildlife Management Area and Lake Okeechobee, try the historic Seminole Inn in Indiantown, about 6 miles west of the refuge on State Road 76 (Kanner Highway). The inn is full of charm, including a broad porch with inviting rocking chairs, a lobby with a handsome fireplace and a dining room with hardwood floors, a 12-foot pecky cypress ceiling and large arched windows. Each of the inn’s 22 rooms is decorated differently with Old Florida decor, with prices ranging from $75 to $120. Lunches are served Monday through Saturday. Sunday is a big buffet brunch. Dinner is served Friday and Saturday nights, and it’s a buffet with carving stations for $13.95. The specialty of the house is fried green tomatoes, and you can order them as a side dish or in an outstanding sandwich ($7.95) with bacon on homemade bread for lunch. Book a room online, or call 772-597-3777.

Florida hike: Barley Barber Swamp boardwalk

Barley Barber Boardwalk

Barley Barber Swamp, Indiantown — This old-growth forest with 1,000-year-old trees is closely guarded because it is next to a Florida Power & Light power plant. With a little advance planning, you can walk its 1.1 mile boardwalk on free tours. The boardwalk is only accessible October to May, and you must reserve a spot on a bus to reach it. If you are staying at the Seminole Inn (above), tours will be arranged for you. Read more here about the Barley Barber Swamp.

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2 Comments

  1. I have driven through this area many times but have never thought to stop. Thanks for the information, I’m going to ty and get out there later this year.

  2. This beautiful place has been ruined by burocratic tie ups…I find it near impossible to get a permit with a cell phone…goodbye to a once public oriented place…shame on the higher ups that have ruined this.
    Reed

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