In the far reaches of Palm Beach County, the J.W. Corbett and Dupuis wildlife management areas are flush with birds, scenic wetlands, cypress forests and pinewoods prairies.
Camp if you have the will, but a day trip into these wetlands and forests for paddling, fishing, hiking, off-road bicycling or a casual 25-mile drive through the refuge can be equally rewarding.
There’s no better time than right now. The gun hunters are gone until the Spring Turkey Hunt (March 7 to April 12), and South Florida’s weather is at its finest.
Combined, these two wildlife areas are 128 square miles, J.W. Corbett being the larger of the two at 60,000 acres, almost twice the size of Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park.
Be sure to get an early start because it’s slow going on unpaved roads once you get there. Picnickers won’t find picnic tables, but they can find some stunning scenery for an afternoon of solitude.
Bring your own everything, and leave nothing behind.
J.W. Corbett Wildlife Management Area
Camping in Corbett
I recommend a scouting visit before committing. See what you’re getting into.
While its sister refuge, Dupuis, is more appealing to campers, adventurers who like it rough may gravitate to Corbett.
From the north entrance (North Grade Road off Beeline Highway), there are five miles of a narrow paved road that serves the first six camping areas. The last of the six, Camping Area F, is most appealing.
From there, the road continues another 20 miles unpaved.
Camping Area G, another mile after the pavement ends, is the most scenic. But it’s a challenge to get in there, especially if you’re towing a trailer.
This beautiful camping area is set back from the road about a quarter-mile, and it’s rugged. I got in there with a two-wheel-drive pickup without a problem, but I wouldn’t try it after a rain or a vehicle with a low chassis.
The first six camping areas (A through F) on the paved section are more accessible for travel trailers, even lighter motorhomes, but be prepared for a few soggy areas, especially after a rain.
I wouldn’t consider the South Entrance on Pratt-Whitney Road for a camping trip, but it’s a good place to start a day trip.
On the boardwalk: Birds and wildlife
For day-trippers looking for birds and wildlife, consider the south entrance on Seminole-Pratt Whitney Road, at the far west end of Northlake Boulevard.
Upon entering the refuge, follow the signs to the Hungryland Boardwalk, a 1.2-mile nature trail through cypress domes, pine flatwoods and sawgrass wetlands representative of the landscape of the entire refuge..
Throughout Corbett, wildlife thrives. Herons and egrets populate the marshes, woodpeckers, owls, bobwhites, bluebirds and sparrows in the pinewoods. The endangered snail kite also has a home here.
Corbett and Dupuis are winter refuge for sandhill cranes, sandpipers, hummingbirds and even Whip-poor-wills.
In all, 168 species of birds have been cited in both refuges, according to eBird.org, which compiles data from spotters.
You can download the official bird list from the Florida Wildlife Commission at myfwc.com/viewing/publications/
To get to Corbett’s South Entrance, take Northlake Boulevard to its western end and turn right on Seminole-Pratt Whitney Road.
Hiking, bicycling and horseback riding
Corbett has dozens of off-road trails where bicycles and horses are welcome, while hikers may prefer the Hungryland Boardwalk and the Ocean-To-Lake Hiking Trail, where bicycles, horses and swamp buggies are prohibited.
Swamp buggies are everywhere in hunting season, less so in the off-season, but you’ll still see plenty.
The Ocean-To-Lake Trail, maintained by the Loxahatchee Chapter of the Florida Trail Association, runs 63 miles from Hobe Sound to Lake Okeechobee, where it links up to the 1,100 mile Florida Scenic Trail. It’s varied habitats are remarkable.
The trailhead in Corbett is near the Hungryland Boardwalk, cutting 11-mile path through Corbett and another 5 miles through the Dupuis Management Area. Two remote campsites are available on the trail for backpackers.
Day hikers pay the $6 entrance fee at the refuge gate. Hikers passing through the refuge are not charged.
Trail technicals available from the Hiking Project.
Fishing, Kayaking and Canoeing
You can fish or launch kayaks and canoes anywhere you see an opportunity, and you’ll find access from the side of the road and at many of the campgrounds. Some bodies of water are more attractive than others.
Several of the camping areas boast fishing docks.
Bass is the primary catch in the ponds and marshes, and the refuge’s Ready, Set, Go Guide suggests ponds at camping areas A, B, G, H, I and K are good for bluegill, bass, catfish, sunfish and warmouth.
On the day of my visit, I saw several families fishing at Camping Area F, before the pavement ends.
Camping Area F would also be a good place to camp in an RV when the ground isn’t soggy.
Dupuis Management Area
Camping in the Dupuis Management Area is far more desirable than Corbett.
Tent campers and tent trailers are allowed in the Family Campground, while RV’s and motorhomes are restricted to the Equestrian Campground.
Camping is free in both campgrounds, but you will need a special-use permit, which can be obtained online at sfwmd.gov/community-residents/recreation/sul
The campgrounds no longer close during hunting season, according to refuge manager Kim Willis, and the refuge is open all year, 24/7.
Family Campground for tents at Dupuis
The Family Campground is a bucolic oasis one mile deep into the refuge, away from the rumbling farm trucks along the Kanner Highway.
I loved this campground for its scenic beauty and access to trails, both for hiking and bicycling. For kayaking and canoeing, though, you’ll have to drive six miles deeper into the preserve, 13 miles for more satisfying paddling experience.
Only tents and tent trailers are allowed on the 16 spacious sites, which form a ring around a quiet, scenic pond. Many of the sites are shaded, some are waterfront. Each site has a picnic table and a fire ring, and there are two composting outhouses available to campers.
No other amenities. No hookups, no showers, although there is a single spigot with drinkable water near the campground host. Generators are not permitted.
Access to the family campground is through Gate 1 off the Kanner Highway. A combination to the gate will be provide when you apply for the special-use permit.
RV Campground is also free
Travel trailers and motorhomes are welcome in Equestrian Campground, which was recently divided into two sections, one for horse owners and the other for everybody else.
The Equestrian section is still dispersed (open-field) camping, but the non-Equestrian section has been improved with picnic tables and fire rings, and each site is marked. There are no hookups in either sections. Spigots with potable water are shared.
The campground has a rest room with showers, a stable and a dump station. Generators are permitted but hours are restricted.
Like the Family Campground, you’ll need to obtain a special-use permit at sfwmd.gov to gain access through the campground gate at Gate 3 off the Kanner Highway. There is no fee for camping.
Hiking and Biking
There is a designated parking area for hikers and bicyclists inside Gate 2, but you are welcome to enter the refuge any time, day or night, to explore the refuge on well-maintained shell-rock roads and the 22 miles of trails maintained by the Florida Trail Association.
There are four loop trails that range from 5 miles to nearly 16 miles.
For a shorter hike, park at Gate 2 and hike one-mile round trip to the old “Governor’s House,” a small structure former owners of the refuge used as a camping cabin. There are picnic tables adjacent to the house. You can also drive to the house on Jim Lake Grade from Gate 1.
All of the marked roads are open to bicycles, but bicycles are not welcome on loop trails, horse trails or the Dupuis section of the Ocean-to-Lake Trail.
A Trail Guide is available for download at sfwmd.gov
Kayaks and canoes in Dupuis
Opportunities for kayaking and canoeing are limited and hard to reach.
From Gate 1, take the Jim Lakes Grade to the Dupuis Grade, and follow the shell-rock road for 7.5 miles to the fishing pier, where there is a small open water area bound by marsh. There is not much area to paddle, but it’s excellent for fishing. No motors are allowed.
A better launch is 13 miles south of Gate 1 on the Powerline Grade (turn left inside the refuge at Gate 1). The open-water marsh offers freedom to roam.
Park manager Willis says the marsh is not difficult, fairly easy to find your way back to the launch point, but she says it wouldn’t hurt to bring a GPS. Motors are OK here, and you may encounter a few jon boats.
The alligator population is thick, so exercise caution. Like other wildlife in the refuge, alligators are unlikely to bother you unless you bother them.
Birds and Wildlife
A notable stop on the Great Florida Birding Trail, the Dupuis refuge features mesic oak hammocks, cypress domes, pine flatwoods and wetlands that harbor almost 160 species of birds, from anhingas and warblers to falcons, eagles and owls.
From the main entrance at Gate 1, which is open 24/7, turn left (south) for the 7.5 mile drive to the fishing pier. Along the way, check wetlands for Eastern Phoebes and pines for Wild Turkeys. From the roadside, you may spot Red-cockaded Woodpeckers.
Songbirds are common throughout the refuge.
The refuge’s Visitor Center is no longer open, and the refuge’s office is off limits to visitors, but you can call manager Kim Willis at (561) 924-5310, Ext. 3333, Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. until 4 p.m.
A place to stay and a nice drive nearby
Seminole Inn, Indiantown — Full of charm with a broad porch with inviting rocking chairs, a lobby with a handsome fireplace and a dining room with hardwood floors, a 12-foot pecky cypress ceiling and large arched windows. Each of the inn’s 22 rooms is decorated differently with Old Florida decor. Prices ranging from $85 to $145, and they are well known for their $16.95 Sunday brunch (9 am to 2 pm). For more information, go to seminoleinn.com or call 772-597-3777.
Notes from the editor:
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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.