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Kayaking the Indian River Lagoon: Island hopping to picnic, even camp

Folks who dream of picnicking or even camping on their own little island can make that dream come true — and pretty easily – by kayaking the Indian River Lagoon.  

Within sight of many boat ramps, the Indian River Lagoon is studded with attractive little islands that will fulfill your fantasy of having an island to yourself.   

Kayak a mile from the boat dock across only small stretches of open water and you can reach a spoil island where you can stop, explore and camp with plenty of shade and a small sandy beach.  

Kayaking the Indian River Lagoon: The spoil island, SL 14, felt like our own private island, a 1.3 mile paddle off the North Causeway Bridge. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Kayaking the Indian River Lagoon: This spoil island felt like our own private island, a short paddle off the North Causeway Bridge. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

You’ll feel like you left the urban world behind.

Of course, you are also leaving behind such conveniences as running water and sanitation. To picnic or camp here, you must bring everything, and that includes your own “toilet,” the contents of which you have to pack out. No digging a hole for it; everything you bring has to leave with you.  

Kayaking the Indian River Lagoon spoil islands  

The Indian River Lagoon is 156 miles long with more than 150 spoil islands.  

We explored a few from a base in Fort Pierce, paddling from two launch sites. Our goal was an island-hopping day trip, not camping.  

Kayaking the Indian River Lagoon spoil island 13 beach DB Kayaking the Indian River Lagoon: Island hopping to picnic, even camp
Kayaking the Indian River Lagoon: Here’s the island called SL 14 with its pretty shoreline. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Most of the spoil islands were created in the 1950s during the dredging of the Intracoastal Waterway. Over the years, mangroves have grown and many of these man-made islands are now nesting locations for birds and are off limits as conservation land.  

Others have been designated for recreational use, with a fire ring and a picnic table, a sandy beach landing location and enough space to set up a tent, but little else. You are welcome to land on these islands, hang out and even camp, and there is no fee or reservation system. Just don’t abuse them. The islands are owned by the State of Florida.  

Here’s  information on the spoil islands from the Spoil Island Project and the Friends of the Spoil Islands, a volunteer group devoted to maintaining and preserving them.  

Kayaking the Indian River Lagoon from Fort Pierce  

For our first day of paddling, we put in at the North Causeway Bridge Park boat ramp, 500 North Causeway Drive, Fort Pierce. We had our own canoe, but you can rent kayaks and stand up paddle boards from Lisa’s Kayaks at this location. (Note they are closed Tuesday to Thursday.) Rates are reasonable and Lisa provides a map for an appealing two-hour kayak trail from the location.  

ayaking the Indian River Lagoon to Spoil Island SL 13, about a mile north of the North Causeway in Fort Pierce. Here we are, in screenshot from my phone.
Kayaking the Indian River Lagoon to Spoil Island SL 13, about a mile north of the North Causeway in Fort Pierce. Here we are, in screenshot from my phone.

You can put your kayak in at the boat ramps at North Causeway Park, but they are busy with power boats. We preferred the small kayak launch locations near Lisa’s Kayaks at the east end of the island.  

North Causeway Park is a good place to launch because it is close to the spoil islands plus it has restrooms and a picnic table.   From this park, island hopping requires paddling over only short stretches of open water. (Always watch the weather and be careful of windy or choppy days.)  

Before we even left the boat dock, a dolphin swam directly across our path. The first island we reached had dozens of brown pelicans roosting in the mangroves. Ospreys squealed overhead; kingfishers darted here and there. The scenery was wonderful.  

Our first stop was SL 14, which is designated a conservation island, so we limited ourselves to its pretty sandy beach and a well-worn trail. (We did note, however, tents and a campsite set up on the east side of the island. Camping is discouraged here. Enforcement is by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, but it’s obvious that it is difficult to enforce the rules.)  

Kayaking the Indian River Lagoon: A rope swing on SL 13, a spoil island where camping in permitted in the Indian River Lagoon. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Kayaking the Indian River Lagoon: A rope swing on SL 13, a spoil island where camping in permitted in the Indian River Lagoon. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

A short paddle north was our real destination, SL 13, the closest designated recreation island. To reach it, you must paddle 1.3 miles from the causeway, past nine islands. If you paddle another 1.6 miles, you reach the next recreation island, SL 8. North of that island there are a half dozen more recreation islands fairly close together.  

We found SL 13 to be an ideal private island still unclaimed for that Thursday night. The island has a sandy beach protected by a small mangrove island nearby, which created a little private cove. On one side a rope swing hung; someone even built a wooden platform where you could stand before swinging off and dropping into the water. (The worn rope and shallow water suggested caution. )

Kayaking the Indian River Lagoon spoil island 14 beach island Kayaking the Indian River Lagoon: Island hopping to picnic, even camp
Kayaking the Indian River Lagoon: This island, SL 13, has a smaller island nearby that creates a protected cove. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The island was equipped with a fire ring and picnic table (missing one of its benches). Off in the woods was toilet seat attached to a box, definitely not an approved installation. Despite the appearance that this could be used as a latrine, you still need to use plastic bag inside it so that you remove all your waste. (The lagoon has a pollution problem; please don’t contribute to it. If you are considering a trip, look into Wag bags, specially designed bags for just this purpose, or an inexpensive portable toilet like this.)

The fire ring was well used; I’m sure this island is popular with the many power boats on the lagoon; it was visited by three guys on jet skis while we were there.  

Kayaking the Indian River Lagoon: Here's the campsite on SL 13, a 1.3 mile paddle from Fort Pierce's North Causeway. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Kayaking the Indian River Lagoon: Here’s the campsite on SL 13, a 1.3 mile paddle from Fort Pierce’s North Causeway. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Here’s a detailed guide to primitive camping on the Indian River Lagoon spoil islands by my colleague Bob Rountree. It includes maps and tips.  

From Fort Pierce, there is another very accessible spoil island only a third of a mile off shore where you can visit, picnic and camp. Wesley Island, or SL 17, is located between the two causeways east of Harbour Pointe Park, 1 Avenue M Extension, Fort Pierce, and directly west of the inlet. From the satellite view, you can see the island is encircled by a sandy shoreline; it looks pretty enticing.  

There are two special spoil islands highlighted to me by John Bacon, president of the Friends of the Spoil Islands. IR 25, north Vero Beach, has a dock and trails. SL 3, across from the FAU Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce, is ADA accessible with wheelchair mats and amenities to help those with limited mobility to enjoy the islands.  Details are here.

Kayaking the Indian River Lagoon: A little blue heron on our canoe at Little Jim Marina. (Photo: David Blasco)
Kayaking the Indian River Lagoon: A little blue heron on our canoe at Little Jim Marina. (Photo: David Blasco)

Little Jim Marina: Good place for kayaking Indian River Lagoon off Fort Pierce  

On our second day of paddling, we put in at Little Jim Bait and Tackle, 601 North Causeway, Fort Pierce, a fun and funky waterside restaurant with an interesting history. (It was a guard shack for Navy operations here during World War II.) Little Jim has a kayak rental operation, a public restroom and they let visitors launch their own kayaks at no cost.  

We dropped off our canoe and parked our car, returning to find a little blue heron perched on our boat – a good omen, we thought. Like the day before, we were immediately delighted to have dolphins swim by.  

Kayaking the Indian River Lagoon mangrove kayaking trail Kayaking the Indian River Lagoon: Island hopping to picnic, even camp
Kayaking the Indian River Lagoon from Little Jim Marina. Here we are, exploring the waterways through mangrove islands, shown in a screen shot from my phone.

This time we stayed south of the North Causeway Bridge and explored the waterways separating undeveloped mangrove islands in the area between the two causeways. (Next time, we’ll paddle the area north of the causeway around the shoreline of Fort Pierce Inlet State Park.)  

Using Google maps satellite view, we wound our way through shallow unmarked channels within these undeveloped mangrove islands, all within a mile of Little Jim Marina. There is no signage, but using our phones we always knew where we were and enjoyed creating our own trail in an area where power boats don’t go.

Kayaking the Indian River Lagoon: A mangrove tunnel near Little Jim Marina. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Kayaking the Indian River Lagoon: A mangrove tunnel near Little Jim Marina. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

After a 90-minute meander, we returned to Little Jim for yummy sandwiches at a table overlooking the water. (Try the mojo pork sandwich!)  

An alternative spot to launch your kayak is across the water from Little Jim at Stan Blum Boat Ramp, 613 North Causeway, Fort Pierce. It too has restrooms and picnic tables and what is perhaps an easier-to-access launch.  

Both our days on the Indian River Lagoon were terrific, full of birds and splendid scenery. Too bad the Indian River Lagoon is so sick.  

Kayaking the Indian River Lagoon: Looking from spoil island off to the next several. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Kayaking the Indian River Lagoon: Looking from one spoil island off to the next several. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

What’s wrong with the Indian River Lagoon?  

While it is still beautiful and full of wildlife, the Indian River is not healthy.  

The lagoon’s problems are many. Polluted freshwater discharged into the lagoon from Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie River basin has created toxic algae blooms in recent years. Leaking septic systems add to the pollution. As a result, large quantities of seagrass have died in the lagoon. Without this critical food, hundreds of manatees have starved to death in the last year, fishing is declining and the whole lagoon is considered in critical condition.  

On our paddle, we saw nothing that looked like healthy sea grass and did not spot manatees.  

Reviving the Indian River Lagoon is a popular cause, and measures are being taken at various levels of government. But estimates are that it will cost billions of dollars.    

Kayaking the Indian River Lagoon: Launching at Little Jim Marina. (Photo: David Blasco)
Kayaking the Indian River Lagoon: Launching at Little Jim Marina. (Photo: David Blasco)

Facts about the Indian River Lagoon 

  • There are 353 surface miles of water.
  • The lagoon is bordered by six counties.
  • There are five inlets to the Atlantic Ocean.
  • The Indian River Lagoon is not actually a river; it’s an estuary, where fresh and salt water mix.
  • The average depth is four feet.
  • The width varies from a half mile to five miles.
  • The Indian River Lagoon is 156 miles long, stretching from Ponce de León Inlet in New Smyrna Beach to the Jupiter Inlet, and there are innumerable places to launch a kayak.
  • There is a huge variety of wildlife – 29 mammal species, including manatees and dolphins; 685 types of fish; 370 species of birds; 2,200 animal species — the most of any North American estuary.
  • Source: Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program

Fort Pierce Jetty Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Fort Pierce Jetty Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Visiting Fort Pierce  

If you visited Fort Pierce even a few years ago, you might be surprised by some of the attractions that have sprung up.   

We were delighted to explore the historic downtown and beautiful Jetty Park while visiting to paddle the lagoon. With lots of restaurants and interesting museums, Fort Pierce is a very good destination for a getaway weekend or more.  

Here’s a comprehensive guide to things to do in Fort Pierce from Florida Rambler.

Plan your visit to the Indian River Lagoon with these stories from Florida Rambler:

A note from the editor:

The information in this article was accurate when published but may change without notice. Confirm details when planning your trip.

This page may include affiliate links from which we may earn a modest commission if a purchase is made. More often, we include free courtesy links to small businesses, such as kayak outfitters, from whom we receive no compensation.

This article is the property of FloridaRambler.com and is protected by U.S. Copyright Law. Re-publication without written permission is against the law.


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John

Sunday 6th of March 2022

As always, a great article, Bonnie! Thanks so much! I love visiting the islands with my wife and three kiddos: easy to access, great scenery, and can't lose track of my kids on the small islands :)

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