Cape Canaveral’s coastal zones defined in the shady silence of the Castle Windy Trail
The Castle Windy Trail is a shady respite from the often brutal Cape Canaveral National Seashore, a canopied path through coastal zones of saw palmetto, live oak, sable palm and eastern red cedar.
This trail is special because it introduces you to a cross-section of the plant zones in this coastal landscape behind the dunes. I wouldn’t make a special trip to Canaveral to just hike this trail, but as part of an overall day of beaching, fishing and/or paddling, it’s a nice break and an easy stroll.
The Castle Windy Trail is accessible only from the northern entrance to Canaveral National Seashore, beachside on SR A1A from New Smyrna Beach. The trail is 2.9 miles from the park entrance (Parking Area No. 3).
The trail begins at Parking Area No. 3, which is limited to 25 vehicles. No parking is allowed along the park road, so the best time to come is before noon. After noon, you can generally find a space but it can be a crap shoot, especially on weekends.
Directly across the park road from Lot #3, you’ll see the tree-covered tunnel entrance to the Castle Windy Trail.
Very little sun penetrates the vegetation for the entire half-mile length of the trail, which ends at a picnic table, next to an Indian midden and a small beach with a scenic view of Mosquito Lagoon. A midden is a hill of shells where once-resident Timucuan Indians cast their waste into a pile.
Along the trail, there are markers identifying the flora and fauna you are experiencing. (Pick up a trail guide at the Visitor Center for your hike).
As you walk through the plant zones, you’ll see graduated growth as the vegetation benefits from increased protection from the harsh environment from the ocean. The beginning of the trail is thick with saw palmetto and scrub live oak, growth stunted by the winds and salt. This growth, in turn, protects vegetation further inland, allowing for a transition to redbay and nakedwood (trail markers 4 and 5), a tropical species that cannot be found further north than Canaveral because it will not withstand freezing temperatures.
Here the vegetation thickens even more, allowing for more fertile soil and moisture that supports hammocks of live oak (marker 6), sable palm (marker 7) and eastern red cedar (marker 8).
Possibly the coolest spot for me was the “resurrection fern” that grows on the limbs of the live oak (marker 9). The resurrection fern is almost like a moss, but it is not parasitic (doesn’t feed off the tree) but rather it’s an air plant that feeds off the moisture in the air.
Another surprise was the wild coffee, closely related to the cultivated version, and yaupon, which the Indians used to brew a ceremonial tea. (Markers 10 and 11)
As you emerge from the hammocks at Mosquito Lagoon, the midden is on the right, rising from the shore. The lagoon is noted for its oyster beds, a favorite food of the Timucuan Indians dating back to 1000 A.D. They cast their shells and other waste into a pile, which is now covered with plant life. The midden’s name is Castle Windy, hence the name of the trail.
A picnic table next to the small beach at the end of the trail is an ideal spot for enjoying the lagoon over lunch, or a quiet place just to hang out and read a book, and when the sun gets too hot, you can scoot back onto the shady trail for relief.
Bicycles are not allowed on the trail, but you are allowed to bring alcoholic beverages for your picnic. (Bottles are prohibited.)
Bring a fishing rod if you like, and if you wade into the lagoon, wear protective footwear because you’ll be walking on shells.
There are other trails to explore in this section of Canaveral National Seashore, but none give you as good a sample of the diverse plant community. There are opportunities to witness animal wildlife, particularly armadillos and birds.
Birds are abundant in the lagoon. Canaveral is on the Atlantic migratory route, and Mosquito Lagoon is a prime feeding ground. Flocks of birds are often seen along the beach and in the lagoon, especially during spring and fall migration periods. And many stay here, especially shore birds on the beaches and waders who thickly populate the ubiquitous mud flats of the lagoon.
The beach is prime nesting ground for loggerhead turtles, green turtles and leatherbacks. Access the beach from the same parking lot. A handicap-accessible boardwalk takes you to a deck with seating atop the dunes. A ramp goes from there down to the beach. There are also restrooms in the parking area.
Read more about Canaveral National Seashore: Florida’s longest unspoiled beach
Canaveral National Seashore
Visitor Center, Apollo District
7611 S. Atlantic Ave, New Smyrna Beach, FL 32169. Phone: (386) 428-3384. www.nps.gov/cana
Entrance fees: $15 per carload (2019), valid for 7 days. Motorcycles are $10. Annual and Senior National Park passes are also available at the entrance gate.
Park Hours: Winter, 6:00 am to 6:00 pm; Summer, 6:00 am to 8:00 pm
Directions: Take State Road 44 east from I-95, through New Smyrna Beach and over the Intracoastal Waterway, where it becomes State Road A1A. Follow A1A south about 8 miles to the entrance of Canaveral National Seashore. The Castle Windy Trail is 2.9 miles from the entrance, at Parking Area No. 3.