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Ponce Inlet: A delightful outdoor oasis near Daytona Beach

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.

Ponce Inlet (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)
Ponce Inlet (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)

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.

The Ponce Inlet Lighthouse is a popular attraction. One of the tallest in Florida and the country, it’s visible from much of Ponce Inlet. (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)
The Ponce Inlet Lighthouse is a popular attraction. One of the tallest in Florida and the country, it’s visible from much of Ponce Inlet. (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)

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

Ponce Inlet ponce preserve 2168 Ponce Inlet: A delightful outdoor oasis near Daytona Beach
The Ponce Preserve Park runs from the ocean to the Intracoastal Waterway offering lots of ‘Old Florida” landscape to enjoy. (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)

I discovered this 41-acre park when I went in search of a midden called the Green Mound. It took some looking to find it because the locals I asked for directions hadn’t even heard of it.

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.

It’s cool under the live oak canopy in Ponce Preserve Park. Also a little spooky. (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)
It’s cool under the live oak canopy in Ponce Preserve Park. Also a little spooky. (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)

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.

Without vehicular traffic or high rises along it, the beach in the Ponce Preserve Park is a great place to walk or sit on the sand. (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)
Without vehicular traffic or high rises along it, the beach in the Ponce Preserve Park is a great place to walk or sit on the sand. (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)

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.

he boardwalk in Ponce Preserve Park is a great place to see how red, black and white mangroves thrive in the brackish water of the wetland. (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)
The boardwalk in Ponce Preserve Park is a great place to see how red, black and white mangroves thrive in the brackish water of the wetland. (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)

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.
There’s lots to see and do in Ponce Preserve Park. (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)
There’s lots to see and do in Ponce Preserve Park. (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)

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.

You can see where the kayak/canoe put-ins are (No. 2 and 3) in relation to the parking lot (1). (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)
Ponce Preserve map: You can see where the kayak/canoe put-ins are (No. 2 and 3) in relation to the parking lot (1). (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)

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.

Ramps and floating docks make it easy to get your boat in the water. (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)
Ramps and floating docks make it easy to get your boat in the water. (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)

Ponce Inlet Lighthouse and Museum

Ponce Inlet Ponce lighthouse Ponce Inlet: A delightful outdoor oasis near Daytona Beach
The Ponce Inlet Lighthouse and Museum does an excellent job of portraying the lives of those who worked at the lighthouse and lived nearby. Today, the museum includes activities for kids if only to run up the tower’s stairs. (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)

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.

You can peak through the windows of the Assistant Keeper’s House to see how it might have been furnished in the 1890s. Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley
You can peak through the windows of the Assistant Keeper’s House to see how it might have been furnished in the 1890s. (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)

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.

The view of Ponce Inlet from the top of the lighthouse is worth the climb. (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)
The view of Ponce Inlet from the top of the lighthouse is worth the climb. (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)

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.

This Cuban raft was found in 1989. The life vest was left behind to show that people in the raft had been rescued. (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)
This Cuban raft was found in 1989. The life vest was left behind to show that people in the raft had been rescued. (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)

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.

The circular staircase spirals through the center of the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse. Traffic is two ways.
The circular staircase spirals through the center of the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse. Traffic is two ways. (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)
  • 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

The entrance to Timucuan Oaks Park in Ponce Inlet. (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)
The entrance to Timucuan Oaks Park in Ponce Inlet. (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)

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.

Feel free to catch dinner from the jetty in Ponce Lighthouse Park. (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)
Feel free to catch dinner from the jetty in Ponce Lighthouse Park. (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)

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

Some areas of the beach do not welcome automobiles. (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)
Some areas of the beach do not welcome automobiles. (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)

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.

The entire barrier island has crazy traffic when there are NASCAR races at the Daytona International Speedway or biker events such as Annual Bike Week on the calendar.

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.

It’s hard to miss the brightly painted Crabby Joe’s in its unique location. (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)
It’s hard to miss the brightly painted Crabby Joe’s in its unique location. (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)

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.

Down the Hatch Seafood Co. I ate dinner in the bar here and enjoyed the bartender’s recommendation of the really fresh triggerfish catch of the day.

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.

Ponce Inlet Ponce off the hook 2074E Ponce Inlet: A delightful outdoor oasis near Daytona Beach
Off the Hook overlooks Inlet Harbor. Feel free to come by boat. (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)

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.

A marker in the Racing’s North Turn parking lot commemorates the importance of NASCAR to Ponce Inlet. (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)
A marker in the Racing’s North Turn parking lot commemorates the importance of NASCAR to Ponce Inlet. (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)

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.

The view from my hotel balcony in the early morning. (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)
The view from my hotel balcony in the early morning. (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)

A half dozen more things to do in Ponce Inlet

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
This sunset was captured from a small parking area with free parking and beach access (at 4801 S, Atlantic Ave.) in Ponce Inlet.  (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)
This sunset was captured from a small parking area with free parking and beach access (at 4801 S, Atlantic Ave.) in Ponce Inlet.  (Photo by Deborah Hartz-Seeley)

Things to do in Daytona Beach and environs

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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Florida Fam

Sunday 31st of July 2022

And this is how locals lose the very few spots left to get away from the crowds. Can't you enjoy without spoiling for us? Trying to make a buck off the beauty. Stick to daytona and cocoa everyone, please.

Cinnamon Girl

Friday 25th of March 2022

Thank you for a great article. Cannot wait to visit Ponce Inlet!

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