Overwhelmed by the hoards, high rises and roaring Harleys in Daytona Beach, I was happy to discover the relative calm of Ponce Inlet, just 10 miles south.
This small oasis is mostly single-family homes on relatively large lots. But it welcomes visitors with free parking, lots of outdoor activities, water sports, the historic Ponce Inlet Lighthouse and good fresh seafood for fishermen and diners alike.
But that’s not all.
The town is perfectly situated with the Atlantic Ocean to its east, the Intracoastal Waterway to its west and the Ponce de Leon Inlet on its southern end.
This helps keep traffic in town to a minimum because the inlet is a natural barricade preventing cars from travelling south on the barrier islands. Meanwhile, the cut provides boaters access to the ocean as well as Intracoastal cruising and marinas.
Even race fans will find something of interest in Ponce Inlet.
The town’s beach is where, between 1948 and 1958, motorcycle races as well as some of the first NASCAR stock car races were held just after the association’s organization in 1947.
A half-dozen things to do in Ponce Inlet
Ponce Preserve Park
Even if you aren’t a midden fan, this park has lots to offer including beach and Intracoastal access for small boats plus dunes, maritime hammock and wetlands.
You can wander sand paths through the maritime hammock with mature live oaks intertwining their branches overhead to create a fanciful canopy. There are many designated trees with one dating back at least 350 years.
Sadly, tourists have left their mark on this senior tree by carving their initials into its limbs. But there are plenty of unspoiled specimens to enjoy.
On the east side of the preserve, a boardwalk leads to the beach.
Then, on the western side of the preserve, a well-maintained boardwalk leads through wetlands to the Halifax River/Intracoastal Waterway. Ramps down to floating docks allow for kayak/canoe launching at two places along the walkway.
When you reach the river, a dock welcomes you to view birds and scenery or fish in the river. While I was there, a gentleman was netting mullet to use as bait.
- Ponce Preserve Park main entrance and parking area are at 4401 S. Peninsula Drive, Ponce Inlet
- Hours: Sunrise to sunset
- Parking and admission: Free
- Parking lots: The larger lot is at the preserve’s main entrance where you have easy access to the maritime hammock and its paths as well as many of the park’s amenities including kayak/canoe put ins. It’s also a relatively short walk to the beach from here.
- There’s also the Ponce Preserve East Lot at 4280 S. Atlantic Ave., where there are only five parking spaces (one is handicapped). This is a popular (read that “busy”) lot for those visiting the park and the beach as it’s just a short boardwalk over the dunes to the sand.
Amenities: Nature-themed playgrounds, restrooms, a picnic pavilion, picnic tables and wildlife viewing tower as well as an exercise circuit along the preserve’s sandy paths.
Rambler tip: Kayakers/canoers may need wheels to transport your boats from the parking lot to the put ins as there is some distance involved.
Ponce Inlet Lighthouse and Museum
I admit that when I’m on vacation, I prefer to spend time with nature than in museums. But the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse and Museum is well worth a visit
It provides entry to the 175-foot-tall Ponce Inlet Lighthouse built from bricks in the late 1800s. It’s the tallest lighthouse in Florida and one of the tallest in the nation, according to a museum brochure. And its light still serves as a private aid to navigation.
Besides the lighthouse, the museum compound includes the original out buildings such as the keepers’ homes, a pump house and an oil storage facility.
Other original buildings contain exhibits that successfully portray what life was like for those living at the lighthouse and in the surrounding area.
Climb the 203 steps to the upper deck of the lighthouse and besides crowds and wind you’ll have a 360-degree view of the barrier island.
Back downstairs and outside, there’s a display of Cuban rafts that have washed ashore in Volusia County.
Newer buildings house the gift shop and an impressive collection of navigational equipment including Fresnel lenses restored by a team of museum staff and volunteers.
Rambler Tip: When the stairs to the top of the lighthouse get crowded, it’s difficult passing others going both up and down. But there are regular landings where you can let others pass and take a bit of a rest. Or try visiting early before the museum gets too crowded and making the tower your first stop.
- Ponce Inlet Lighthouse and Museum, 4931 Peninsula Drive
- Admission: Adults (age 12+) $6.95; Children (ages 3-11) $1.95; Infants (age 0-2) free.
- Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. until May 29, 2022 (last admission sold at 5 p.m.); 10 a.m., to 9 p.m. May 30 through Sept. 5, 2022, 10 a.m.- 9 p.m. (last admission sold at 8 p.m.). Hours change with the seasons; check for updates.
- Parking: Convenient free parking in lot out front.
Did you know? In 1887, the lighthouse helped save the life of Stephen Crane, author of the Red Badge of Courage, who was shipwrecked off shore on his way to Cuba. The light helped him and the others find their way to shore. It’s an exciting story of survival.
Timucuan Oaks Garden
These eight acres of mostly “Old Florida” landscape are named for the native American tribe that lived in the area starting in 3000 BC.
The garden is a little more manicured at the entrance where a rose garden and fountain draw your attention.
But head west and you’ll find a path leading through a maritime hammock and past, yes, a midden before reaching a boardwalk that provides a close-up view of the marsh “wilderness.”
This ends at a dock on Daggett Creek where you can fish or launch a kayak/canoe if you can get your boat out there.
Locals seem to use this walkway for morning exercise.
- Timucuan Oaks Garden, 4550 S. Peninsula Drive, Ponce Inlet
- Hours: Sunrise to sunset
- Parking: Street parking; free
- Amenities: Restrooms
Ponce Lighthouse Park on the Ponce de Leon Inlet
Be forewarned, there is no lighthouse in this popular 52-acre park. But there are stunning views of both the Ponce de Leon Lighthouse in the distance and the Ponce de Leon Inlet with the Smyrna Dunes Park just across the cut.
There’s also a 1000-foot paved jetty you can walk and fish from, a beach with vehicular traffic, an observation tower and a boardwalk that takes you over the dunes to the ocean. With views to the west, it’s a place great to watch sunsets.
- Ponce Lighthouse Park, 5000 S. Atlantic Ave.
- Admission: $10 per vehicle for daily admission and paved parking; $20 annual parks pass.
- Hours: Open daily 6 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Feb.10 through Daylight savings time start; 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Daylight savings time start through Sept. 30; 6 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Oct.1 through Nov. 30; 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Dec. 1 through Feb. 9.
- Amenities: Restrooms, picnic tables, dog beach.
Rambler Tip: Arrive after 5 p.m., when the gatehouse is closed, you can drive in for free. It’s the perfect time to enjoy the sunset and the evening breezes. Lots of people do.
Winter Haven Park
The best thing about this park is that it offers 82 parking spaces convenient to an area of beach with no vehicular traffic.
I went early one morning so I could park and take a stroll on the beach. That’s when I saw a family with their coolers, umbrellas and chairs staking out a good parking space and then heading to the sand. My guess is they were there for the day. The lot is popular and gets crowded.
- Winter Haven Park, 589 S. Atlantic Ave.
- Hours: Open daily 5 a.m. to 11 p.m.
- Admission: Free.
- Amenities: Restrooms, showers, picnic pavilions and tables.
Rambler Tip: There’s also free parking in town along some side streets that dead end at the beach. I found the small free lot at 4801 S. Atlantic Ave. useful.
Drive on the beach in Ponce Inlet
Take yourself back to the days when NASCAR racing on the beach was popular by driving on the sand. If you participate, there’s a 10-mph speed limit. While driving, it’s recommended that you keep your windows open and headlights on. And please don’t text and drive.
- Where: Beach entry is available from the Beach Street Access Point at the stop sign at Beach Street on South Atlantic Avenue in Ponce Inlet.
- Hours: 8 a.m. until sunset or 7 p.m. (whichever comes first) from May 1 through Oct. 31 and from sunrise to sunset from Nov. 1 to April 30, tides permitting.
- Admission: $20 per day that includes one same-day re-entry. Annual beach passes $25 for Volusia County residents; $100 for non-residents.
Rambler Tip: If you are used to driving on northern beaches such as those in Cape Cod, Mass., you may think you need to deflate your tires to prevent your car from getting stuck in the sand. But here the sand is packed and stable enough that you shouldn’t have a problem. Just be sure to watch the tide charts.
Plan Your Ponce Inlet Visit
Navigating Ponce Inlet
When you can’t drive on the beach, it’s relatively easy to find your way on land. The town has the ocean on the east and Intracoastal Waterway on the west. But I admit that, at first, the lack of tall landmarks such as high rises along the ocean left me, after a few turns, trying to figure out if I was headed north or south.
It helps to know there are two main north/south arteries with South Atlantic Avenue running along the ocean and South Peninsula Drive following the Intracoastal. Many short side streets run east/west between the two.
That makes it easy and enjoyable to turn off your GPS and just explore.
Rambler Tip: After all the traffic in Daytona Beach, you’ll find it less hectic in Ponce Inlet. But that comes with a caveat.
You may want to avoid these times for a more relaxed stay.
Ponce Inlet restaurants
The majority of restaurants are either on the beach or in marinas. And these tend to be very busy on weekends with waits of an hour or more for outdoor dining. But the views are lovely, the crowds festive and the food, while often mass produced, tends to emphasize fresh seafood.
Rambler Tip: I found that first-come-first-served seating at inside bars was a boon. I could see the water through windows while getting served more quickly even on weekends. And honestly, I was happy for a little less of the noise and crowds that come with the live entertainment outdoors. Weekdays tend to be a little less hectic.
Boon Docks Restaurant and Tiki Bar This open-air restaurant on the Halifax River is actually in Wilbur-by-the-Sea, an area owned by Volusia County between Daytona Beach Shores and Ponce Inlet.
Crabby Joe’s Deck & Grill Ok, it’s just north of Ponce Inlet in Daytona Beach Shores. But it’s situated on a pier that makes it special. Serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Hidden Treasure Rum Bar & Grille Pet friendly with even a Paw’s Menu.
Jerry’s Pizzeria Tiki Bar & Grill Although it’s in a strip mall, it still has outdoor seating.
Off the Hook at Inlet Harbor Lunch here was crowded so I ate at the bar in a room with large windows to the marina outside. Grilled mahi proved they know how to handle fresh seafood.
Racing’s North Turn Beach Bar & Grille A historic spot situated at the north turn of what was the early NASCAR race track. I walked in to look around but didn’t stay for a meal as it was very crowded. There’s so much racing memorabilia it’s virtually a museum.
Places to stay near Ponce Inlet
There are no hotels or motels in Ponce Inlet. And because they are well regulated, vacation rentals on websites such as VRBO have limited inventory.
But don’t worry. There’s a wide selection of all of these in nearby Daytona Beach Shores.
In fact, I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express about four miles north of Ponce Inlet and was very pleased with the location, accommodations and my ocean-view balcony.
A half dozen more things to do in Ponce Inlet
- Go fishing from a dock or take a shared fishing excursion on a boat such as the Sea Spirit. There also are plenty of charter boats available. Fishing licenses are required.
- Take a scenic cruise on a boat like the Manatee. You’ll see protected wetlands along the shores of the Intracoastal Waterway as well as waterfront homes and the Ponce de Leon Lighthouse. You may even see manatees and dolphins in season.
- Visit the Marine Science Center to discover life under the area’s waters or observe nature from a boardwalk. You can even pet a stingray.
- Open only 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, the small Ponce Inlet Historical Museum can be viewed through the windows if the doors are locked. There’s a small graveyard with picket fence across the street.
- Give your dog a break at the ¼-acre fenced and shaded Happy Tails Dog Park where dogs can run free. There’s also a dog-friendly swimming beach along the inlet shoreline at the Ponce Lighthouse Park.
- Watch the sunset. You can see it from just about any place in town if you look west. If you are looking for a special spot to view it, visit the Ponce Lighthouse Park and just face west.
Things to do in Daytona Beach and environs
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Deborah Hartz-Seeley is a certified Master Gardener whose yard is certified as Florida Friendly. With a master’s degree in agricultural journalism, she’s written for the Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald, The Coastal Star, Cook’s Magazine, Florida Food & Farm and Florida Design. If she’s not out back growing things, you’ll find her wandering a garden path or hiking a nature trail.