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.
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.
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.
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.)
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. )
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Plan your visit to the Indian River Lagoon with these stories from Florida Rambler:
- Navy Seal Museum
- Explore Hutchinson Island and A1A
- Snorkeling: Bathtub Reef Park and more Florida locations
- Archie’s on Hutchinson Island: No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problem
- McKee’s Botanical Garden in Vero Beach
- Beach horseback riding: Check these off your bucket list
- Kayaking St. Lucie River waterways: Many kayak trails to explore
- Elliott Museum, a fascinating collection of old cars, antiques and local history in a spiffy setting.
- Gilbert’s Bar House of Refuge, the last house of refuge of 10 originally built along Florida’s coast to aid shipwreck victims.
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.