This Old Florida scenic road is separated from the beach by the Indian River Lagoon
The long, wide Indian River Lagoon leaves a sliver of land for hundreds of miles along Florida’s Atlantic Coast. Naturally, we are drawn to the beach and scenic A1A.
But the other side of the Indian River Lagoon is worth exploring too. And because the lagoon is wide enough to discourage the building of lots of bridges, the western shore is a different world from the beach communities. You’ll find an Old Florida scenic driver here on the 20 miles between Stuart and Fort Pierce.
Both Jensen Beach and Fort Pierce have enough interesting places to explore to make this region a worthwhile daytrip or weekend destination.
The Old Florida scenic drive along the Indian River Lagoon
Starting at the south, you will want to leave Stuart via Sewall’s Point, a lovely residential island only a few blocks wide with the Indian River Lagoon to its east. The lavishly landscaped mansions are fun to gape at, and as you head north, the road begins to hug the shore of the lagoon, which it does for the next 20 miles. The views of the lagoon with palm trees along the shore and long docks stretching into the water, are the stuff of postcards.
As you approach Jensen Beach, you pass through a few blocks of picturesque cottages, many painted tropical colors and looking like a scene from Florida in the 1950s.
Downtown Jensen Beach
The historic riverfront downtown in Jensen Beach starts at the corner of Northeast Jensen Beach Boulevard with Mulligans Beach House cafe, which sets the tone with its outdoor seating along the sidewalk. There are two or three blocks of shops, galleries and restaurants, wrapping around onto Maple Avenue, where more Old Florida cottages house commercial establishments. The downtown is cute, but not extensive.
A few blocks north of downtown along the lagoon is a classic stop: Conchy Joe’s Seafood. Conchy Joe’s, with its big chickee roof, spectacular lagoon views, local seafood and reggae music, looks like it has been here forever. It hasn’t: It opened in 1983 and has been a favorite ever since. Yelp reviewers give it 3 ½ stars: Some folks recommend the chowders, burgers and seafood; others say the food is less special than the atmosphere and setting.
The scenic road between Jensen Beach and Fort Pierce
This 15 mile stretch is pure Old Florida, with great views the whole way. Take your time: The speed limit is 35 miles per hour. You’ll see a mix of cottages and mansions, but no condos or highrises. In the distance, you’ll see the two towers of the FPL St. Lucie Nuclear Power Plant across the lagoon.
If you’re looking for a spot to stretch your legs, take a hike and have a picnic, look for the Walton Road and head west. There is no sign for the park and the low-lying two lane road (which can be underwater after heavy rain) looks like it’s going nowhere, but just two miles west of the lagoon is Savannas Preserve State Park.
The savannas are extensive fresh water marshes. The park preserves a 10-mile section of these marshes, which once stretched all along Florida’s southeast coast. Savannas Preserve is the biggest piece that has been saved.
The park has an extensive trail system. Floridahikes.com recommends the one-mile looping Hawks Bluff Trail, one of the rare places in South Florida where you can experience five habitats in a one-mile hike. We tried the Yellow and White trails starting at the canoe launch. We don’t recommend them highly: They were shadeless roads, rutted with vehicle tracks and wild-hog wallows and at times turning into muddy puddles.
The nature center is worth a quick visit for its well-executed display about Jensen Beach’s heyday as “Pineapple Capital of the World.” In 1895, pineapple plantations covered the coastal ridge from Stuart to Vero Beach, with more than 1 million crates shipped a year. Freezes, fires and financial calamities killed the pineapple business and the land was planted with citrus. (And that’s why we’ve all head of Indian River citrus and not Indian River pineapples!)
Savannas Preserve State Park has some attractive picnic spots, including waterfront tables near the canoe launch, which is three-quarters of a mile up a dirt road from the visitor center.
Once you’re back on Indian River Drive, watch for lovely little Old Fort Park. The park was the site of the original fort of Fort Pierce during the Second Seminole War. It also holds a burial mound built by the Ais Indians, who inhabited this coastal area until they were wiped out in the 1700s.
Exploring Fort Pierce along Indian River Lagoon
Fort Pierce has made the most of its location on the Indian River Lagoon. It’s easy to spend time hanging out in its City Marina, right at the base of downtown. There are great views and benches, a chickee hut bar/restaurant, fishing boats and, if you’re lucky, visiting manatees. On our stop, a manatee mom and baby were floating in the marina’s southwestern corner, where a boat captain told us one often sees manatees basking.
Indeed, the Fort Pierce Manatee Observation and Education Center is a one-block stroll from the marina and might appeal to visiting families.
The marina is the place to take boat trips into the lagoon in search of dolphins, manatees and birds. We took the Indian River Lagoon and Swampland Boat Tours (90 minutes; $23 for adults, $15 kids under 15) and were rewarded with many dolphins and informative commentary about the region’s history and the lagoon’s ecology.
Little Jim’s Bridge Bait & Tackle
My favorite place in Fort Pierce, however, is a historic fish camp on the North Beach Causeway. It’s the sort of place this Florida Rambler lives to discover.
Little Jim’s dates back to World War II, when thousands of sailors and soldiers were being trained on Hutchinson Island. Only authorized personnel could go to the barrier island and the building that is now the bait shop was the guard shack and checkpoint at the bridge.
Among those men being trained were members of the Navy Combat Demolition Units, later called the Underwater Demolition Teams or frogmen and then, even later, Navy Seals. A fascinating museum about the Navy Seals is on the beach just across this bridge. Here’s a Rambler story: Navy Seal Museum, a long history of heroics.
After the war, the abandoned guard post quickly was opened as a bait shop and it’s been selling cold beer and live bait ever since. Along the way, those WWII vets who came back to visit their training site, often stopped by and Little Jim’s acquired all sorts of Navy Seal signs and memorabilia.
Little Jim’s serves fish and subs in a general-store sort of atmosphere. There’s outdoor seating, a great view of a mangrove-lined bay called Shorty’s Slough and live music some afternoons. When, a few years ago, the city (which owns the property) looked to replace the bait shop with a business that would bring in more revenue, the locals rallied and the city decided to let Little Jim’s live on.
Little Jim’s is a good place to put in a kayak and explore the wildlife-filled waters and shore of the lagoon. The bay is a quiet spot, with much of the land belonging to Fort Pierce Inlet State Park.
You can rent kayaks from Little Jim’s. Call 561-371-2756 for details or visit Little Jim’s website.
Smithsonian Marine Station
Here’s one final stop to fill out your Indian River Lagoon exploration: a tiny outpost of the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian Marine Station, is a small aquarium located on the South Causeway Bridge very close to downtown Fort Pierce. There’s a large living reef exhibit and a variety of smaller tanks and exhibits. That large tank was originally in the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C., where it was one of the first living reefs ever on display. Today, while aquariums have gotten more sophisticated and tanks larger and larger, this, one of the originals, is still a dazzling display.
The museum attracts great volunteers, who answer questions and make sure the touch tanks are engaging and interactive.
You can see everything in the museum in about 25 minutes but it’s worth the $3.25 admission. Aquarium is closed on Mondays from April to December.
Plan your Old Florida scenic drive along the Indian River Lagoon with these stories from Florida Rambler:
- Kayaking to spoil islands in the Indian River Lagoon
- 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.
Notes from the editor:
The information in this article was accurate when published but may change without notice. Confirm details when planning visits.
This page may include affiliate links from which we earn modest commissions if a purchase is made.
This article is property of FloridaRambler.com, protected by U.S. Copyright Law. Re-publication without written permission is against the law.
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.
Monday 21st of February 2022
Lovely article about the drive along the lagoon, but the timing couldn’t be worse. Indian River Dr. is one of the detours Brightline mapped during their closing of the railroad crossing at Jensen Beach Blvd. it’s constant traffic both north and south now, especially on weekends. Also, access to that scenic block of Jensen beach is compromised by these detours, and parking to enjoy restaurants and shops there is extremely difficult.
Monday 21st of February 2022
Thank you for letting our readers know that this is not the best time for this scenic drive.
Friday 21st of May 2021
We live on the “Drive”. Seen it all. Heard it all; including the pathetic, indeed, inexcusable-excuses tendered by our locally elected officials (leaders?), collectively dodging [a] meaningful solution(s) to the ongoing peril, of Indian River Drive, a.k.a. “Suicide Drive”. Demonstrated behaviors and disingenuous interest (as in: “Hey, I don’t live there; it’s not my problem”) quickly become self-evident at the “Dog & Pony Show” meetings local politicians arranged as a mirage-like panacea, clearly designed to placate those most affected, hoping they can “kick-the-can-down-the-road”, term after term, until it truly is, “Not their problem, anymore.” Folks, elections have consequences. It’s (beyond) time to STOP electing, “big-mouth bass”, over and over, due to, “name recognition”. That’s BS. “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.” As another contributor to this forum remarked, the Indian River Drive has the distinction of being, “..one of the most dangerous highways”, in the state. Time for this to stop. Now. There IS a solution. But it isn’t “popular” with cowardly politicians. St. Lucie County IS the “highest-taxed” county, in the state of Florida, at over 22-mils, per thousand. The local county commissioners cry, “budgetary constraints”, as they simultaneously are scanning the room for a place to hide. Or, surreptitiously attempt to change the course of the conversation, as the “light of accountability”, begins to burn their skin. IMHO, if they cannot, or will not, do their jobs, including the necessarily difficult or unpopular, they campaigned to do, then, simply, they should NOT be in those jobs. How MANY MORE people need to DIE on IRD? At least, SL County Commissioners, since you won’t do anything else genuinely EFFECTIVE, SUBSTANTIAL and meaningful, give us an answer to that question, so we can, respectfully, albeit morbidly, begin a grim countdown. IRD SOLUTION: Toll road OR, speed-arresting “humps”, strategically placed to effect an achievable speed not-greater-than 35mph OR, extend the Green River Parkway, simultaneously sectioning “close-offs” of IRD, allowing residential access AND, truly casual (read : safe & slow) scenic-observation drivers, while effectively and completely STOPPING wannabe “race track” drivers. That’s it SL County Commisioners. There’s your choices. Plain & simple. Now, what are you going to do? In the unfortunate event you believe this was offered by some anonymous “blowhard” complainer, hiding behind his keyboard; you have my contact information, AND, I have offered up to 10-feet (linear-continuous), of my >200’ of frontage property on IRD, FREE-OF-CHARGE or ANY COSTS to the county. By any measure of value, dollar or property, I’d say that’s a REAL commitment, to the problem. Your turn.
Tuesday 20th of April 2021
Just factually one of the deadliest roads in all of Florida. Looking at an accident as I write this. 2 fatalities since February. My advice stay of the Drive and do yourself a favor.
Sunday 18th of April 2021
There have been multiple fatalities in the last year north of Midway Rd. & currently stop signs are being placed at the intersections of IRD & Midway & Savannah Roads, creating 3 way stops at all 3 intersections in St. Lucie County. Also General Store in the PP Cobb building has been replaced recently by the Old Florida Coffee Co.
Monday 19th of April 2021
Thank you for that additional information, Sue.
Friday 16th of April 2021
Indian River Drive is scenic and relaxing. I travel it often from Stuart to Fort Pierce. If someone is speeding, I allow them to pass. I love the Treasure Coast.