It’s remarkable this wild and wet prairie has survived the crunch of civilization.
More than 10 contiguous miles long and a mile across at its widest point, the Savannas Preserve is the largest remnant of freshwater coastal marshes on Florida’s east coast.
All told, this basin of freshwater marshes occupies more than 6,000 acres, buffering the suburban creep in Martin and St. Lucie counties from the sand-dune ridge along the Indian River Lagoon, its preservation assured by a county recreation area and its sister state park.
This is what all of South Florida’s coast looked like before canals were dredged and marshes drained, at first for growing winter vegetables and entertaining tourists, later supplanted by more aggressive development of downtown areas and housing subdivisions.
Get your bearings
We wanted the campground at Savannas Recreation Area (a county park), but my GPS took us to the Jensen Beach Boulevard entrance for Savannas Preserve State Park, about 13 miles away. Use the above map above or follow the links below to pinpoint your destination.
Savannas Recreation Area, 1400 E. Midway Road, Fort Pierce (campground, trails)
Savannas Preserve State Park, 2541 SE Walton Road, Port St. Lucie (main entrance, education center, equestrian area, trails, kayak/canoe launch)
Savannas Preserve State Park, 700 Jensen Beach Boulevard, Jensen Beach (picnic area, trails, parking)
Hawk’s Bluff Trail, 4698 Savannah Road, Jensen Beach (dunes trail to marsh lake)
The Savannas Preserve is a 12-mile strip of freshwater wetland prairie and marshes supporting a string of marsh lakes.
The amazing thing is this wildlife oasis has survived the suburban crush that surrounds it.
Developers didn’t move fast enough to dig their drainage canals, allowing St. Lucie County and the city of Fort Pierce to preserve a strip of paradise for sandhill cranes, hawks, osprey, even bobcats, otters and the rare snail kite.
That was way back in 1963.
The stunning reality is that to get here, you drive through miles of suburban sprawl from Jensen Beach to Fort Pierce.
The Environmental Education Center at Savannas Preserve State Park closed for renovations in October 2021. For updates, go to Savannas Preserve State Park web site.
You can reserve a campsite at this county park, but you can’t choose one. The ranger assigns a site when you arrive for the number of days you booked.
When we made our reservations over the phone — no online booking — we were told waterfront sites were not available and we would be assigned a site when we arrived. Nevertheless, upon arrival, we were given a waterfront site without requesting it.
Most campsites have full hookups — water, sewer and electric. Shade is sparse so expect to make your own with your RV awning or a pop-up shelter. There are a few live oaks sheltering some interior sites, but don’t count on it.
None of the sites were particularly spacious, nor were they particularly well-groomed, but we found them clean and acceptable, especially for the price.
The prime-time winter rate — November 1 through April 30 — was $26 plus tax for an RV site with full hookups and $18 plus tax for tents. Off-season rates for RVs, May 1-October 30, was only slightly less $23. There is no additional charge for utilities, as there are in state parks.
It is notable that our waterfront campsites had sewer hookups, which is not the case at most public campgrounds in Florida we have visited, and all sites had fire rings and picnic tables.
When we tested our cell phones, my iPhone recognized 5G service from AT&T, although data speeds were not impressive. My 4G LTE Android phone with T-Mobile service registered a faster data-transfer rate.
Editor’s Note: We pay full price for campsites and do not identify ourselves or seek special treatment. We attempt to replicate the same experience as the average Joe in our reporting.
Kayak and Canoe
We rarely travel without our kayaks, but this trip was an exception. Had we brought them, we could have launched from behind our campsite. Kayak and canoe rentals are available at the campground office, where there is also a launch area for day visitors.
The paddle trails were limited to a dredged canal that snaked deeper into the savanna to a marsh lake, and it was clear that the best kayaking and canoeing would be in the neighboring Savannas Preserve State Park.
From the main entrance at Savannas Preserve State Park on Walton Road, drive about 3/4’s of a mile on an unimproved road to the kayak dock.
This is also the road where equestrians unload their horse trailers for trail-riding, but you drive past them to the cul de sac at the docks.
Two friends who found solace in the preserve for painting were relaxing on the dock when we arrived.
Sam Hsu, who grew up nearby, said he has paddled his kayak here often and, depending rainfall and retention, says the marsh lakes are a great place to explore, whether fishing or just observing wildlife and fish.
The distance you paddle into the marshes depends on water levels, which change with the weather.
Also to consider, after a heavy rain that may fill the marsh lakes, flooding may close the access road to the launch dock. The smart thing to do would to call the park and ask about water conditions before traveling long distances.
Although outside the savannas, the state park maintains another boat launch at Evans Creek on U.S. 1 providing access to the North Fork of the St. Lucie River, which flows through 11 county-owned preserves along the paddle trail. Here’s a map.
Read more: Three favorite paddle trails on the St. Lucie River by Bonnie Gross
Guided Tours: Rangers and volunteers lead canoe/kayak tours every Friday and Saturday at 8:30 a.m. Sunday tours are offered seasonally during the winter and spring months. For more information, call 772-398-2779.
Sandhill cranes like it here. They were everywhere we looked, strolling in pairs, some with youngsters in tow, throughout the campgrounds or alongside the park roads and scattered about in the open savanna.
The savannas are recharged by rainwater; water levels fluctuate and provide refuge for Sandhill Cranes, Wood Storks, Roseate Spoonbills and migratory ducks. Herons, egrets and other waders nest throughout the wetlands. Florida Scrub-Jays are resident at the park.
Hawk’s Bluff Nature Trail, a 1-mile wilderness loop trail located off County Line Road, is a must visit to see Purple Gallinules and assorted wading birds. This trail runs to Lake Eden and includes Atlantic Ridge scrub and maritime hammock.
Savannas Preserve State Park is home to an estimated 22 Florida Scrub Jays. They live in primarily oak dominated scrub and within well-defined territories.
The Florida Scrub Jays’ territories at Savannas Preserve State Park are not accessible to the general public in order to keep their populations protected. In an effort to restore Scrub Jay habitat damaged by early 20th century agricultural practices, a volunteer project is underway to re-plant oaks in affected areas.
The Education Center at the state park is temporarily closed for renovations. To speak with a staff member for park-related questions, please call (772) 398-2779.
Savannas Preserve State Park offers more than 15 miles of multi-use trails for hikers, off-road bicycles and equestrians, while the county Savannas Recreation Area has a short hiking/biking trail from the campground that runs out to an observation tower overlooking the Savannas wetland prairie.
There are several trails, including a short nature trail with signage describing marsh vegetation, at the Education Center on Walton Road. This is the main entrance to the park as well as the access road to the kayak launch and equestrian area, where riders can enjoy 8.5 miles trails shared with hikers and off-road bicyclists.
The trailhead at the Jensen Beach Boulevard parking area is a 1.5 mil hike through a pine flatwoods and grass prairie. There is a small parking area, a picnic pavilion and restroom located here.
The Hawk’s Bluff Trail on Savannah Road is very popular but has limited parking alongside the Savanna Road, a half-mile north of its intersection with Jensen Beach Boulevard.
Hawk’s Bluff Trail (abpve) is accessible from NE Savannah Road in Jensen Beach
Note that all of the trails are open to bicyclists and hikers, but equestrians can only share the multi-use trails at the Walton Road entrance. Bicyclists and hikers in this area should expect soft sand and challenging terrain churned by horses, especially after a rain.
Check out this aerial video created for Friends of the Savannas Preserve State Park
Notes from the editor:
The information in this article was accurate when published but may change without notice. Confirm details when planning a trip, especially to areas hard hit by hurricanes.
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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 12 years ago.