Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
These are real birds, not tweeple, mostly red-winged blackbirds, and they gather by the hundreds around the Visitor Center at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge — a must stop, especially for newbies, on this 140,000-acre preserve at the doorstep of NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center.
This sprawling island may be the most important of its kind in Florida, featuring seven distinct habitats, 500 species of wildlife and more than 1,000 species of plants, co-existing with the technology of tomorrow.
Birds! Fish! Precious sanctuary near the Cape bustles with wildlife
From autumn until spring, it is a bustling transportation center for more than 350 species of migrating birds who fly along the Atlantic Corridor.
Concentrations of waterfowl — ducks, geese, swans, herons, egrets, ibis and even frigate birds — often exceed 100,000 birds in the winter months, and many can be found here year round.
The American bald eagle is a common site, as are ospreys and the bold red-shouldered hawk.
Special treats await those who watch and wait quietly, especially in winter. You might see an American Avocet, more commonly seen in the Plains and Rockies, or the Common Loon, a mainstay of the Maine woods and lakes.
The bays, rivers and lagoons around Merritt Island are among the most productive fisheries in the state, vital nurseries for the shellfish industry as well as commercial and recreational fishing in the Indian River and the Atlantic Ocean.
The Visitor Center offers an educational introduction to the refuge’s eco-system with animated displays, back-country guides you’ll need for your explorations, and a quarter-mile boardwalk where you heard that cacophony of birds. But there is so much more.
Black Point Wildlife Drive
It’s hard to put into words my experience on this one-lane, one-way road that winds seven miles through mud flats, salt and freshwater marshes, grass savannahs and tree hammocks.
Serene is perhaps one to describe it.
The road is designed for an auto tour, albeit slow one, but my druthers would be to take a bicycle when the weather cooperates. There are numerous pull-offs with well-maintained biking and hiking trails that branch off to either side.
The best weather can be expected from October through March, which also happens to be the peak wildlife season.
At the entrance to the drive, be sure to pick up a self-guided tour brochure when you pay your $5 fee (honor system), which also gives you access to other fee areas of the park, such as boat ramps. The brochure details what to look for at each of the nine 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.
Stop No. 4 is designated as the “Bird Trail,” where you can perch in viewing blinds overlooking the mud flats and marshes. (Bring your camera!) And at Stop No. 9, you’ll find the trailhead for the Cruikshank Trail, a 5-mile loop around Black Point Marsh.
There is also a large parking area and restrooms at Stop No. 9.
But anywhere along the drive, you can find a quiet spot to settle into a camping chair, along one of the adjacent trails, and the world will come alive around you.
There are dozens of trails on the island, from short nature walks, created by volunteers and park staff, to meandering paths through woods, wetlands and prairie. It’s not hard to discover trails that are unmapped, although you should keep in mind that large swaths of the island that are off-limits to humans. It is, after all, a wildlife refuge.
If your time is limited, there are three trails that deserve particular attention because they were designed to provide a wilderness experience with large doses of wildlife.
The Allan D. Cruikshank Trail, named after the famous ornithologist, is the most adventurous trail, a five-mile loop that follows a mosquito control dike where water levels are controlled in the Black Point Marsh and adjoining wetlands. During the winter months, water levels are raised to provide a maximum natural habitat for migrating birds.
As a result, the best bird watching can be expected from October through April. The habitats include a saltwater marsh fed by the Indian River Lagoon, a marsh stream and a freshwater impoundment.
The trail begins and ends at Stop No. 9 of Black Point Wildlife Drive. There is a large parking lot and rest rooms, and there are three weather shelters along the trail if you need them. While there is water, water everywhere, there is not a drop to drink, so bring your own.
Allow 2-4 hours for the hike.
There is an observation tower just a few minutes from the entrance to the trail for those who are hesitant to venture into the deep reaches of the marsh.
The Scrub Ridge Trail is a more manageable one-mile loop through a unique scrub habitat that shelters more endangered and threatened species than any other habitat in Florida. The scrub looks lifeless at first glance, but if you slow down and watch carefully, you’ll see a bustling community of wildlife scurrying through the vegetation, from endangered gopher tortoises, deer, feral hogs, even bobcats. The endangered Florida scrub jay loves this place, as do spotted skunks and the rare Florida mouse.
During migrations, a wide variety of northern songbirds can be seen fluttering through the pines.
Allow 40 minutes or so for the hike, more if you plan to stop and observe.
Access this trail along State Road 3, which cuts through the island lengthwise from Oak Hill on the north to the island’s main crossroad at State Road 406 and Kennedy Parkway (which leads to a restricted entrance to the Kennedy Space Center).
The Pine Flatwoods Trail, also on State Road 3, is another one-mile loop that follows fire-break roads into a pine flatwoods ecosystem peppered with several species of scrub oak, saw palmetto and wire grass.
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, and raptors are known to prowl high in the sky for prey below.
Kayaking, boating and fishing
There are numerous sites to launch a boat or kayak on the island, 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 really the place to go with a motorboat, but 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 also happens to be one of the most productive fisheries anywhere on the Atlantic Coast.
These ramps are used less frequently and are even empty during the week. (Honor pay boxes at each ramp seek your $5 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 hardpack 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 the smart 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 is a manatee observation tower, 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.
Playalinda Beach is not technically part of the wildlife refuge, although physically it seems like it should be.
Playalinda is the southern portion of the 24-mile-long Canaveral National Seashore, which is overseen by the National Park Service, while Merritt Island is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Both exist to provide a buffer around the nearby Kennedy Space Center, and both are closed during sensitive launches at the Space Center.
The beach at Playalinda is a magnificent stretch of undisturbed dunes and golden sand sloping casually to the sea. There are six access points, all with adequate parking.
As you drive into the park (there is a fee), you will see several signs warning that it is against the law to swim or sunbathe nude at Playalinda, although technically there are no federal laws against it. These signs are posted by Brevard County to discourage the practice.
Nevertheless, nude sunbathers frequent this beach, gravitating on the north end of Parking Lot 6, which is actually across the county line in Volusia County and out of reach of Brevard authorities.
As you might expect, Parking Lot 6 is always the most crowded lot, so if you’re looking for a more restful day at the beach, avoiding the crowds and naked beachgoers, select a spot in lots 1-5.
Each parking lot has a rest room (but no water) and a boardwalk across the dune to the beach, with ramps for the handicapped.
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.
Kayaking the Indian River Lagoon (Video) — Witness the eco-system of the Indian River Lagoon, beginning your journey near Merritt Island.
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.
Bio-luminescent kayak tours: Eerie glow on night paddles — A special treat awaits visitors to Merritt Island during summer.
Dixie Crossroads: Tourist trap or authentic seafood? — Few visit nearby Titusville without stopping at Dixie Crossroads.