The Hillsboro/Parkland entrance to the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge is an engaging introduction to the Everglades ecosystem.
There are thousands alligators and more than 250 species of birds to discover on endless trails atop levees taking you deep into this slow-flowing River of Grass.
The endless levees are open to the public for hikers, horses and bicycles, accessible from U.S. 441 at the Broward-Palm Beach county line.
In the evening, spectacular sunsets play out across sawgrass prairies. Linger a while and the wildlife comes alive, eerie sounds rising from the stillness, twinkling stars piercing the dark night.
The Hillsboro Area is open 24 hours, 7 days a week. The refuge’s main entrance and visitor center is 18 miles north off U.S. 441 and open only from 9 am until 4 pm. Read more about the visitor center: Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge is for the birds
There is a $10 per vehicle fee to enter the refuge, payable to a ranger at the Hillsboro/Parkland entrance. Annual refuge passes ($25) can be purchased online at recreation.gov. National Parks passes are accepted for entry.
The levee trails
The levee trails are unpaved, a mix of hard-packed sand and shell rock in most areas, soft sand and gravel in other areas. Bicycles with thin tires may have a difficult time. Hybrid sport tires and off-road tires are best for the terrain.
The westbound (L-39) levee goes straight west from the entrance, buffering the refuge from Water Conservation Area 2A. You can hike or ride 10 miles and turn around, or you can exit onto Browns Ferry Road and continue through farmlands another 20 miles to Belle Glade.
The northbound (L-40) levee along the refuge’s eastern rim is a beautiful ride for 12.5 miles to the refuge main entrance on Lee Road west of Boynton Beach, a scenic route through mostly natural landscapes.
The southbound levee runs atop the east rim of Conservation Area 2A for 18 miles to Markham Park in Sunrise. This levee is not as picturesque. For the first few miles, you’ll see encroaching development, then you’ll parallel the busy Sawgrass Expressway all the way to Markham Park.
Are E-bikes are allowed? Yes. E-bikes are permitted on any refuge road or trail where traditional bicycle use is allowed.
Once out on the westbound L-39 levee, the silence closes in around you. Airboats in the Water Conservation Area fade away, and all you hear or see are the birds and the rustling of sawgrass. Airboats are not allowed in the wildlife refuge.
The trail is desolate, a road to nowhere disappearing over the horizon.
Stop, look and listen. Bring your camera.
There is no shade or shelter of any kind on the levee trails. Wear a hat, sunscreen and bring plenty of water.
You may encounter an occasional alligator sunning on the levee trail. Wait patiently for them to move on. They’ll eventually sense your presence and slip away into the water.
About those alligators
Approximately 36 miles of the refuge’s perimeter levees is open to horseback riding, but you’ll rarely see them. I never have, and when I talked to a ranger, she said it’s extremely rare.
Boating and fishing
Airboats are allowed in Water Conservation Area 2A but not in the Loxahatchee Wildlife refuges. They are most noticeable on weekends. The launch area for airboats and small boats is a muddy “beach” on a sandy road in the Conservation Area, south of the refuge entrance.
Guided airboat tours are offered in the conservation area by Swamp Monster Airboat Tours, seven days a week from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. Each ride is 90 minutes, and you’ll likely get a glimpse of one of a few remaining hunting camps as you learn about the ecosystem.
Airboat capacity is seven people and tickets are sold individually or groups. There is no longer a ticket office near the refuge entrance, so book your tour in advance online or by calling 561-247-0393.
Kayak, canoe and small boats
Kayaks, canoes and motorized bass boats are permitted in both the wildlife refuge and Conservation Area 2A, but the refuge holds the most promise for paddlers. The vegetation is not as thick in the refuge, and the lack of airboats makes it safer for small boats.
The refuge has four easy boat ramps with plenty of parking.
Bass boat anglers favor the deep rim canal along the L-39 levee. Kayaks and canoes gravitate towards shallow open bays and grassy interior near the boat ramps.
There are no marked channels or trails here, and it is easy to get lost in the grass if you venture too far from the rim canals, so it’s a good idea to bring a basic GPS tracking device.
For landmarks, there are two, tall transmission (cellular) towers at the refuge entrance. Be aware, though, those towers disappear from sight when you are in the grass. Been there, done that, much to the anxiety of the passengers in my canoe.
Boaters venturing into the interior of either the refuge or conservation area should also have an orange flag on a 10-foot whip so you can be seen by other boaters.
If you are more comfortable on a marked trail, there’s a 5.5-mile trail from the Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge main entrance west of Boynton Beach, 18 miles north by car via U.S. 441 or 12 miles by bike along the levee. Read more: Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge
Rentals: Kayaks, canoes, jon boats and bicycles are available from 8 a.m. until noon for jon boats, 9 a.m. until 3 pm. for canoes and bicycles at the Hillsboro/Parkland entrance. The rental outpost is manned most days during the winter season, but not always. Check rates at Loxahatchee Adventures or call 855-916-5692 for more information.
The Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge is a highly productive fishery where an endless sea of sawgrass supports natural breeding of popular freshwater species, especially largemouth bass, bluegills and panfish.
You can fish from a boat or any shoreline along the levees, but the best fishing may be at the locks that control water flow out of the refuge, the currents carrying gamefish.
You will likely find alligators lying in wait there for their next meal, a good sign. I once caught an Everglades gar from a bridge over one such lock on the L-39 levee. An alligator sped from the grass and snatched it from my line. That’s OK. I would have thrown it back anyway.
My sweetest catch was a largemouth bass on a popper, gently cast into an open bay from a fly rod.
Another prime fishing hole is below the massive locks that release water into the Hillsboro Canal, next to the refuge entrance. On any given day, you’ll see anglers casting into the spillway or along the canal banks.
A Florida freshwater fishing license is required in all areas.
Directions: From U.S. 441 at the Broward-Palm Beach County line, drive west six miles on Loxahatchee Road to the refuge.
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You can purchase a handheld Garmin eTrex GPS device at most sporting goods store, or buy it through our affiliate link on Amazon for $102.
Also on Amazon: The Everglades: River of Grass by Marjorie Stoneman Douglas.
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Bob Rountree is a beach bum, angler and camper who has explored Florida for decades. No adventure is complete without a scenic paddle trail or unpaved road to nowhere. Bob co-founded FloridaRambler.com with fellow journalist Bonnie Gross 14 years ago.