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Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge: Birds and beauty galore

Last updated on March 9th, 2021 at 02:00 pm

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge: Birds flock to wetlands along Blackpoint Wildlife Drive. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge: Birds flock to wetlands along Blackpoint Wildlife Drive. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge east of Titusville is a remarkable preserve that is home to an incredible 357 species of birds and all sorts of other wildlife. But it was created as an afterthought – this land was originally purchased to be part of Kennedy Space Center and was only later designated a refuge.

Thank goodness it was.

The 140,000 acre refuge is one of the best places in Florida to see birds in the winter, plus it offers boating, hiking and much natural beauty.

With seven distinct habitats, 500 species of wildlife and more than 1,000 species of plants, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is an environmental treasure.

Concentrations of waterfowl — ducks, geese, swans, herons, egrets, ibis, roseate spoonbills, white pelicans — often exceed 100,000 birds in the winter months, and many can be found here year round. The American bald eagle is a common sight.

Vista along Blackpoint Wildlife Drive in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Vista along Blackpoint Wildlife Drive in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Visiting Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

Located in the middle of Florida’s Atlantic Coast, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is convenient to millions of residents and visitors. It’s a one-hour drive and an excellent daytrip from Orlando and Daytona Beach. It’s a weekend getaway from Tampa and South Florida, with a two- to three-hour drive.

Birders will love it, but even those with only a casual interest in birds will find much to like. The vast number and array of birds in the wetlands in winter would impress anyone, even if they can’t identify many of them, and alligators are easy to spot. There is also a lovely historic spot, Seminole Rest, on the north end of the refuge.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge also makes a good destination for those who love nature but have limited mobility. The best birding is actually done via car along Blackpoint Wildlife Drive and the prettiest walk in the refuge is a quarter-mile accessible boardwalk behind the visitor center.

The best time to visit is October to March; it’s the peak wildlife season and the best weather. Keep in mind, the body of water bordering Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is named Mosquito Lagoon and, in summer, you’ll find out why.

Eagle in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, one of two we spotted. (Photo: David Blasco)
Eagle in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, one of two we spotted on a January day. (Photo: David Blasco)

Blackpoint Wildlife Drive, the highlight of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

Blackpoint Wildlife Drive is a 7.7 mile long, one-way one-lane dirt road through areas of the refuge where the water level is managed to benefit wildlife.

On winter weekends, it may be full of cars moving slowly and quietly. Cars work like “blinds” allowing visitors to see wildlife up close. When you get out, as people do where there are good views of birds in the wetlands, you are urged to move carefully and quietly without slamming car doors.

Biking and walking the trail is discouraged because of traffic safety concerns.

At the entrance to the drive, be sure to pick up a self-guided tour brochure when you pay your $10 fee (honor system), which also gives you access to other fee areas of the park, such as boat ramps. (If you have a national park pass as a senior citizen or veteran, here’s where you save $10.) The brochure details what to look for at each of a dozen primary stops along the drive.

Best time to venture out is early morning, within an hour or two of sunrise, for the fewest number of people and the most opportunities to view wildlife.

Kingfisher at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: David Blasco)
Kingfisher at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: David Blasco)

Where the birding is good, you’ll see the binoculars, cameras and tripods and long lenses come out. If you can’t identify what you’re seeing, in general, birders are happy to help. Many are so excited about what they’re seeing, they want to share it.

We are not expert birders, so were thrilled to have others point out a few rarer species – the cinnamon teal; a northern pintail duck. For me the exciting sight was the flock of hooded mergansers because of their preposterous Mohawk head feathers and ridiculous hoods.

In the past I have visited Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge when there was a bald eagle nest visible from Blackpoint Wildlife Drive, identified with a sign. On our 2021 visit, we did not see an eagle nest but we did spot bald eagles on two occasions.

You can stop at any point along the trail but there are two larger parking lots and walks.

Stop No. 4 is designated as the “Bird Trail,” where you can perch in a viewing blind overlooking the mud flats and marshes. (We saw a reddish egret.)

At Stop No. 9, you’ll find the trailhead for the Allan D. Cruickshank Trail, a 5-mile loop around Black Point Marsh and a tower for viewing the wetlands. There is also a large parking area and restrooms here. The trail is named after an ornithologist who was instrumental in this land becoming a wildlife refuge.

Scrub jays along the Scrub Ridge Trail in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge were easy to find and photograph. (Photos: Bonnie Gross and David Blasco)

Hiking trails at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

With the exception of the 5-mile Cruickshank Trail, the official trails in the park are short and easy.

We loved the one-mile looping Scrub Ridge Trail because it is home to one of the most charismatic birds you’ll ever meet – the scrub jay, listed as a threatened species because Florida scrub habitat is rare and disappearing.

The scrub jay has a reputation as a friendly bird. We had never seen one, but on our late afternoon walk, on two different occasions, a gorgeous vivid blue bird flew in and landed near us. As we stood quietly to photograph them, they hopped ever closer, unafraid. Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is one of the best places to see scrub jays in Florida.

We were also happy to come across a large gopher tortoise plowing through the grasslands and a snuffling armadillo on this trail.

Viewing area along boardwalk behind Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center. (Photo: David Blasco)
Viewing area along boardwalk behind Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center. (Photo: David Blasco)

The Pine Flatwoods Trail is another one-mile loop that follows fire-break roads into a pine flatwoods ecosystem. This habitat supports a variety of amphibians, reptiles and both small and large mammals, as well as hawks, owls, woodpeckers and migratory songbirds, who occupy layers of branches during spring and fall.  High up on towering pines, you might spot a nest or two harboring bald eagles.

Oak Hammock Trail is an easy three-quarter-mile loop through a thicket of ferns under the shade of large beautiful live oaks.

A lovely quarter-mile-long boardwalk trail is located behind the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center. (The visitor center is closed during the pandemic; when it is open, it offers an educational introduction to the refuge’s eco-system with animated displays and videos.)

The boardwalk is a good place to spot a few alligators and wading birds. Be sure to pause at the bird feeders, which were getting visits from redwing blackbirds and painted buntings on the day we visited.

The boardwalk behind the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center is lovely and handicapped accessible. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The boardwalk behind the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center is lovely and handicapped accessible. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Kayaking, boating and fishing at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

There are numerous sites to launch a boat or kayak, the most popular being the paved ramps at Bairs Cove on the south side of the Haulover Canal, which cuts through the island and connects the Mosquito Lagoon and the Indian River Lagoon.

It’s the place to go with a motorboat; kayakers might prefer other, less visible launch points.

Along State Road 3, the WSEG, Beacon 42 and the Bio Lab ramps are unpaved, sand-bottom launches that require a slow drive down long, narrow hard-sand roads to Mosquito Lagoon, which is one of the most productive fisheries on the Atlantic Coast.

These ramps are used less frequently and are often empty during the week. (Honor pay boxes at each ramp seek your $10 fee to use the ramps.)

While motorboats gravitate to the paved ramps on Haulover Canal, kayakers would be better served on the north side of the canal, which has numerous “beachettes” along a hard pack sand road that extends from State Road 3 to Indian River Lagoon.

On weekends, these small beach alcoves fill up quickly with visitors who put up canopies, break out coolers and play in the water with their kids and kayaks. The canal can also be quite busy, so many paddlers drive to the end of the road, where you can launch directly into the Indian River Lagoon.

Fishing is outstanding no matter where you go, especially around the islands in Mosquito Lagoon where redfish reign. If you’re fishing in any of these waters, Florida fishing regulations apply.

On the east side of State Road 3 at Haulover Canal is a manatee observation platform, where lovable sea cows can be found in summer.  During the cooler winter months, the manatees migrate south to warmer climes or inland to the constant temperatures provided by Florida’s many springs. (The manatee platform is closed during winter 2020-21.)

Seminole Rest, a historic home atop a Timucua Indian midden, in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Seminole Rest, a historic home atop a Timucua Indian midden, in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Seminole Rest: Historic site next to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

Most visitors don’t get here, but there’s a lovely stop just north of the refuge, a historic parcel of land directly on Mosquito Lagoon called Seminole Rest.

To reach Seminole Rest, you drive all way north through the refuge on State Road 3 to the little town of Oak Hill. (You can also reach it along US 1 north from Titusville.)

In Oak Hill, a magnificent yellow house built before the Civil War sits atop a hill. This free site is part of Canaveral National Seashore, but located quite distant (by land) from the rest of the park.

The value of this house to the National Park Service is not in its architecture, but rather in its heritage as a protector of the Indian mound, a shell midden created by the Timucua Indians. When Hatton Turner purchased the house and surrounding property in 1888, he moved this house to the top of the Indian mound for a better view and breeze from the river.

By most accounts, Turner had another motive – to protect the mound from railroad work crews who had torn up similar mounds for the shells they would use for railroad beds. Indeed, there was considerable profit available to those who sold the shell mounds to the railroad.

There is a short trail around the property with interesting information about the Timucua Indians and the mound. Once, the shell-fish-rich Mosquito Lagoon was lined with two dozen tall shell middens from the Timucua. All but three were excavated for road-building materials. The three remaining are in national park land – the Oak Hill mound and two across the leagoon in Canaveral National Seashore (Castle Windy and Turtle Mound, around which you can hike if you visit that nearby national park).

The main house at Seminole Rest is a museum with the history of the Timucua. In January 2021, it was closed because of the pandemic, but the grounds are worth visiting on their own.

Here’s one of the best tips you’ll find in this article: Visit Seminole Rest at lunch time or at the end of your day so you can eat at a classic historic seafood restaurant right on the water, a half mile away. It’s called Goodrich Seafood and we have a more complete story about it and Oak Hill here.

White pelicans, the largest "snowbird" to migrate to Florida, is often seen off the Seminole Rest area in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: David Blasco)
White pelicans, the largest “snowbird” to migrate to Florida, are often seen off the Seminole Rest area in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: David Blasco)

Add a beach to your day – if you have a National Parks pass

The road through Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge goes right to the southern section of Canaveral National Seashore, a spectacular stretch of undeveloped dunes and sand.

In the past, we’d recommend you include a walk on this beach as part of your day. We still do, if you have a National Park pass or are willing to pay the $20 admission. With this higher entrance fee (collected by a ranger, not an honor box), Canaveral National Seashore probably requires a more extended visit than you can make while also touring Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Here’s a comprehensive guide to Canaveral National Seashore.

Links for planning your visit to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

Map of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

Canaveral National Seashore

Map of Merritt National Wildlife Refuge
Map of Merritt National Wildlife Refuge

Related articles on Florida Rambler

Oak Hill: Outpost on mosquito lagoon for seafood, history — Oak Hill is on U.S. 1 at the north end of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, just a mile or so north of the turnoff into the refuge on State Road 3.

White pelicans: Where to see these spectacular birds — Sightings of white pelicans are becoming more common in and around Merritt Island, especially in Mosquito Lagoon.

Apollo Beach at Canaveral National Seashore — Merritt Island offers access to the southern entrance of Canaveral National Seashore, but there’s another way into this 24-mile pristine beach from the north in New Smyrna Beach.

Titusville and nearby Edgewater are both starting points on a terrific bike trail in the vicinity. Here’s a Florida Rambler story on the East Central Regional Rail Trail.

From the Editor:

The information in this article was accurate when published but can change without notice. Please confirm rates and details when planning your trip by following the links in this article.

If you find out-of-date or inaccurate information, we’d love to hear about it so we can update the article. Use the comments section below.

After Hurricane Irma in 2017, Long Key State Park built a picturesque chickee hut overlooking the beach. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
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Krosscourt

Tuesday 9th of March 2021

I have lived here all my life, and this is the best article I have seen. Very informative and factual. Great job!

Peter Van Wart

Tuesday 2nd of March 2021

It's a great place. My only negative is, if you are impatient (like me) avoid the Blackpoint Wildlife Drive at busy times.. Birders do not care if they block the road even when there is nothing to see. There should be more pull-offs.

Eric and Shelley Nilson

Sunday 7th of February 2021

We always head to the Gulf Coast north of Tampa, St. Pete's, but need to try the other side. Merritt Island was a favorite place of a fabulous birder and friend, now passed. Really do enjoy your articles...they are my go to for trip planning. Hopefully we will back down when it is safe to travel again.

Onisha Ellis

Saturday 6th of February 2021

An excellent article. We live nearby and love the refuge in the winter. We often include a visit as a Christmas Day ritual. And you are right, Goodriches is a treasure,

Onisha Ellis

Saturday 6th of February 2021

We LOVE Merritt Island Wildlife Sanctuary.

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