The long, wide Indian River Lagoon leaves a sliver of land for hundreds of miles along Florida’s Atlantic Coast. Naturally, we are drawn to the beach and scenic A1A.
But the other side of the Indian River Lagoon is worth exploring too. And because the lagoon is wide enough to discourage the building of lots of bridges, the western shore is a different world from the beach communities. You’ll find an Old Florida flavor here, especially on the scenic 20-mile drive between Stuart and Fort Pierce.
Both Jensen Beach and Fort Pierce have enough interesting places to explore to make this region a worthwhile daytrip or weekend destination.
The scenic road along the Indian River Lagoon
Starting at the south, you will want to leave Stuart via Sewall’s Point, a lovely residential island only a few blocks wide with the Indian River Lagoon to its east. The lavishly landscaped mansions are fun to gape at, and as you head north, the road begins to hug the shore of the lagoon, which it does for the next 20 miles. The views of the lagoon with palm trees along the shore and long docks stretching into the water, are the stuff of postcards.
As you approach Jensen Beach, you pass through a few blocks of picturesque cottages, many painted tropical colors and looking like a scene from Florida in the 1950s.
Downtown Jensen Beach
The historic riverfront downtown in Jensen Beach starts at the corner of Northeast Jensen Beach Boulevard with Mulligans Beach House cafe, which sets the tone with its chickee huts along the sidewalk. There are two or three blocks of shops, galleries and restaurants, wrapping around onto Maple Avenue, where more Old Florida cottages house commercial establishments. The downtown is cute, but not extensive.
A few blocks north of downtown along the lagoon is a classic stop: Conchy Joe’s Seafood. Conchy Joe’s, with its big chickee roof, spectacular lagoon views, local seafood and reggae music, looks like it has been here forever. It hasn’t: It opened in 1983 and has been a favorite ever since. Yelp reviewers give it 3 ½ stars: Some folks recommend the chowders, burgers and seafood; others say the food is less special than the atmosphere and setting.
The road between Jensen Beach and Fort Pierce
This 15 mile stretch is pure old Florida, with great views the whole way. Take your time: The speed limit is 35 miles per hour. You’ll see a mix of cottages and mansions, but no condos or highrises. In the distance, you’ll see the two towers of the FPL St. Lucie Nuclear Power Plant across the lagoon.
If you’re looking for a spot to stretch your legs, take a hike and have a picnic, look for the Walton Road and head west. There is no sign for the park and the low-lying two lane road (which can be underwater after heavy rain) looks like it’s going nowhere, but just two miles west of the lagoon is Savannas Preserve State Park.
The savannas are extensive fresh water marshes. The park preserves a 10-mile section of these marshes, which once stretched all along Florida’s southeast coast. Savannas Preserve is the biggest piece that has been saved.
The park has an extensive trail system. Floridahikes.com recommends the one-mile looping Hawks Bluff Trail, one of the rare places in South Florida where you can experience five habitats in a one-mile hike. We tried the Yellow and White trails starting at the canoe launch and can’t recommend them highly: They were shadeless roads, rutted with vehicle tracks and wild-hog wallows and at times turning into muddy puddles.
The nature center is worth a quick visit for its well-executed display about Jensen Beach’s heyday as “Pineapple Capital of the World.” In 1895, pineapple plantations covered the coastal ridge from Stuart to Vero Beach, with more than 1 million crates shipped a year. Freezes, fires and financial calamities killed the pineapple business and the land was planted with citrus. (And that’s why we’ve all head of Indian River citrus and not Indian River pineapples!)
Savannas Preserve State Park has some attractive picnic spots, including waterfront tables near the canoe launch, which is three-quarters of a mile up a dirt road from the visitor center.
Once you’re back on Indian River Drive, watch for lovely little Old Fort Park. The park was the site of the original fort of Fort Pierce during the Second Seminole War. It also holds a burial mound built by the Ais Indians, who inhabited this coastal area until they were wiped out in the 1700s.
Things to do in Fort Pierce
Fort Pierce has made the most of its location on the Indian River Lagoon. It’s easy to spend time hanging out in its City Marina, right at the base of downtown. There are great views and benches, a chickee hut bar/restaurant, fishing boats and, if you’re lucky, visiting manatees. On our stop, a manatee mom and baby were floating in the marina’s southwestern corner, where a boat captain told us one often sees manatees basking.
Indeed, the Fort Pierce Manatee Observation and Education Center is a one-block stroll from the marina and might appeal to visiting families.
The marina is the place to take boat trips into the lagoon in search of dolphins, manatees and birds. We took the Indian River Lagoon and Swampland Boat Tours (90 minutes; $23 for adults, $15 kids under 15) and were rewarded with many dolphins and informative commentary about the region’s history and the lagoon’s ecology.
Little Jim’s Bridge Bait & Tackle
My favorite place in Fort Pierce, however, is probably a historic fish camp on the North Beach Causeway. It’s the sort of place this Florida Rambler lives to discover.
Little Jim’s dates back to World War II, when thousands of sailors and soldiers were being trained on Hutchinson Island. Only authorized personnel could go to the barrier island and the building that is now the bait shop was the guard shack and checkpoint at the bridge.
Among those men being trained were members of the Navy Combat Demolition Units, later called the Underwater Demolition Teams or frogmen and then, even later, Navy Seals. A fascinating museum about the Navy Seals is on the beach just across this bridge. Here’s a Rambler story: Navy Seal Museum, a long history of heroics.
After the war, the abandoned guard post quickly was opened as a bait shop and it’s been selling cold beer and live bait ever since. Along the way, those WWII vets who came back to visit their training site, often stopped by and Little Jim’s acquired all sorts of Navy Seal signs and memorabilia.
Little Jim’s serves fish and subs in a general-store sort of atmosphere. There’s outdoor seating, a great view of a mangrove-lined bay called Shorty’s Slough and live music on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons. When, a few years ago, the city (which owns the property) looked to replace the bait shop with a business that would bring in more revenue, the locals rallied and the city decided to let Little Jim’s live on.
Little Jim’s is a good place to put in a kayak and explore the wildlife-filled waters and shore of the lagoon. The bay is a quiet spot, with much of the land belonging to Fort Pierce Inlet State Park.
You can rent kayaks for $10 an hour for singles or $15 an hour for doubles from Little Jim’s. Call 561-371-2756 for details.
Here’s one final stop to fill out your Indian River Lagoon exploration: a tiny outpost of the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian Marine Station, is a small aquarium 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.
You can see everything in the museum in about 25 minutes but it’s worth the $4 admission.
Resources to plan your Indian River Lagoon outing
- Savannas Preserve State Park
- Indian River Lagoon and Swampland Boat Tours
- Navy Seal Museum
- Smithsonian Marine Station
- Explore Hutchinson Island and A1A
- Snorkeling: Bathtub Reef Park and more Florida locations
- Archie’s on Hutchinson Island: No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problem
- McKee’s Botanical Garden in Vero Beach