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John D. MacArthur Beach Park: Perfect blend of kayaking, snorkeling, beach

John D. MacArthur Beach State Park in North Palm Beach is a perfect blend of Florida pleasures — walking a natural beach where you can find a secluded spot; snorkeling from shore on a rocky reef, birding from a scenic boardwalk over a saltwater lagoon, and kayaking to an island with mangrove channels and a fascinating history.

There’s enough here for a full day, and it’s so beautiful you’ll want to come back.

Rock at the beach at MacArthur Beach State Park. The coquina rocks off shore form a reef that is good for snorkeling. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Rock at the beach at MacArthur Beach State Park at low tide. The coquina rocks off shore form a reef that is good for snorkeling. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Even those from northern and central Florida will want to come here in the winter, when the southern part of the Florida peninsula is 10 or 15 degrees warmer.

Visiting on a winter weekday, this felt like a hidden gem that I discovered. But I know on summer weekends, the beach fills up with swimmers.

Kayakers relaxing at John D. MacArthur Beach State Park on the saltwater lagoon the separates the entrance and picnic area from the beach. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Kayakers relaxing at John D. MacArthur Beach State Park on the saltwater lagoon the separates the entrance and picnic area from the beach. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The beach and snorkeling at John D. MacArthur Beach State Park

John D. MacArthur Beach State Park has almost two miles of beach, lined with sand dunes covered with native vegetation. There aren’t many beaches in southeast Florida that rival the length and beauty.

While there are high-rises in the distance, it’s easy to feel far from urban development on this beach, where you hear only the waves and are surrounded only by nature. (It’s secluded enough that many remember the days when it was the local nude beach.)

Wildlife likes the beach too. In 2023, 2,025 green sea turtles, 2,153 loggerhead sea turtles and 56 leatherback sea turtles nested here! (It’s a good place to reserve a spot on a summer nighttime sea-turtle walk.) There are also more seashells than on many Atlantic beaches.

To reach the beach you cross a 1,600-foot boardwalk over a saltwater cove that separates the parking lot and nature center from the beach. A tram runs regularly; a help for folks with lots of beach gear.

Another thing that is special about this park is you can snorkel on a reef you can reach from shore. The reef at MacArthur Beach is made of Anastasia limestone rock, which has outcroppings in spots along the Atlantic Coast from St. Augustine to Palm Beach County. Also called coquina, it is composed of shell and coral fragments, fossils and sand.

MacArthur Beach also has reefs created by the “honeycomb worm” (Sabellaria alveolata), which build reefs out of coarse sand or ground shells that it cements together.

Deserted section of the beach at John D. MacArthur Beach State Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Deserted section of the beach at John D. MacArthur Beach State Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The reefs are host to a variety of sea life, such as sergeant majors, yellow chub, snappers grunts, ballyhoo, crabs, shrimp and urchins. There are also sightings of squid, scorpion fish, barracuda, damsel fish and green moray eel.

To learn the locations of snorkeling spots, ask at the ranger station or gift shop. Always use a dive flags, available for rent at the gift shop, because boats also approach the reef.

The boarwalk across the estuary at John D. MacArthur State Park is a short and beautiful walk, but you can also catch at free tram. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The boardwalk across the cove at John D. MacArthur State Park is a beautiful walk, but you can also catch a free tram. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

John D. MacArthur Beach State Park on foot

Before heading to the beach, explore the area near the parking lots. It is a shaded area where seagrape trees and strangler figs create a jungly canopy.

Picnic tables and a playground are at the north end of the park. Two picnic pavilions are available for rent.

Near the picnic area, we enjoyed the short (one third mile) hike on the Satinleaf Nature Trail. If you don’t know the satinleaf tree, it’s worth taking the walk to admire its bronze-satin leaves.

There is also a small nature center that is pretty wonderful, with a sea turtle tank, a mangrove aquarium and several other exhibits. A gift shop and kayak rental is located here.

Launch site for the kayak rentals at MacArthur Beach State Park. A similar launch site for kayaks belonging to visitors is located near the parking lot. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Launch site for the kayak rentals at MacArthur Beach State Park. A similar launch site for kayaks visitors bring is located near the parking lot. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

When you head for the beach on that beautiful boardwalk, you’re crossing a rich, shallow estuary full of creatures, including oyster beds and wading birds. You’ll hear the high-pitched keer-keer-keer of ever-present ospreys.

In winter, you might be rewarded with a glimpse of the Barbie-pink roseate spoonbill or even a manatee.

Kayaking at John D. MacArthur Beach State Park

The waterways at MacArthur Beach State Park are good for kayaking at high tide, and the park rents kayaks at reasonable rates. (Stand up paddleboards are also available for rent south of the main park entrance on A1A.)

For information on kayak rentals, visit the website or call the gift store at 561-776-7449, ext. 101. As of December 2023, kayaks start at $12 hourly for single; $30 for a day day; $50 for a full day. Kayak rental hours are 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily (whether permitting). Kayaks must be returned by 4 p.m.

Added to the activities available MacArthur Beach State Park is stand up paddleboard rentals. SUPs rent for $20 for the first hour or $30 for two hours from High Point Paddle Adventures. Details on SUP rentals are here.

A separate sandy launch adjacent to the northern parking lot serves those who bring their own kayaks.

The park offers one of my favorite kinds of kayak trails – a trip to an island reachable only by boat. Even better, it’s an historic island with an interesting story.

Kayaking under the boardwalk on a mangrove channel in the heart of Munyon Island at MacArthur Beach State Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Kayaking under the boardwalk on a mangrove channel in the heart of Munyon Island at MacArthur Beach State Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Kayaking to Munyon Island in MacArthur Beach State Park

Munyon Island is located on the west side of A1A. To get there, you launch from the area of the park where you park and paddle west under the A1A bridge into a sheltered area of mangrove islands.

The islands all look the same, like undeveloped wild watery spots. But one of these islands, Munyon Island, was once a health-oriented resort hotel with a five-story hotel!

From 1903 to 1917, when it burned down, the then-famous Dr. James Munyon, made his popular “Dr. Munyon’s Paw-Paw Elixer” here and ailing northerners flocked here to “restore their vitality.”

john d. macarthur beach state park munyon island postcard florida memory John D. MacArthur Beach Park: Perfect blend of kayaking, snorkeling, beach
A postcard from the Hotel Hygiea, a five-story hotel that operated on Munyon Island from 1903 to 1917, when it burned down. (Courtesy Florida Memory)

Munyon bought the island in 1901 and decided its proximity to nearby Palm Beach made this a perfect location for a resort. By 1903 he had built the Hotel Hygiea, named after the Greek goddess of health.

The elixir was reported to be made from allspice, angelica, anise, bitter orange, cane sugar, elderflower, orange, gentian, ginger, hibiscus, orange blossom, papaya, passion fruit and pink grapefruit. The real secret? It was fermented, so like a lot of patent medicines of its days, it had a strong alcoholic kick.

As we paddled the mangrove channels inside Munyon Island, we came across several black crowned night herons. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
As we paddled the mangrove channels inside Munyon Island at John D. MacArthur State Park, we came across several black crowned night herons. Look closely! (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Kayakers can spend a couple hours kayaking around and in Munyon Island. You enter the island from the northern end to explore a half mile on mangrove channels and then paddle back out.

On the western side of the island, there is a large dock for power boats and a sandy beach where kayaks can land. The dock leads you to two picnic shelters and a boardwalk but, alas, no restrooms.

In the past, a sign explained the history of Munyon Island, but a storm destroyed that, as it did half of the island boardwalk, much of which is now closed.

john d. macarthur beach state park Macarthur beach munyon hotel ruins John D. MacArthur Beach Park: Perfect blend of kayaking, snorkeling, beach
Remnants of the long-gone Hotel Hygiea along the southwest part of Munyon Island. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The big thrill for me was paddling toward the southeast end of the island and realizing there are still visible ruins of Dr. Munyon’s Hotel Hygiea.

We hadn’t seen them on a previous visit, but comparing historic photos with the visible submerged old rock wall and tower, we were convinced these are remnants of the historic hotel. They’re largely underwater at high tide now. (Thank you, global warming.)

Here’s our trip report with more details on the kayak trail to Munyon Island.

A beautiful little beach on the east side of Munyon Island where you can land your kayak and walk around the island or picnic. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
A beautiful little beach on the east side of Munyon Island where you can land your kayak and walk around the island or picnic. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Who was John D. MacArthur?

John Donald MacArthur (1897–1978) was an American insurance tycoon, real estate investor and philanthropist. Not only did he donate the 438 acres for the state park, but he also established the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which makes many philanthropic donations, including the MacArthur “genius grants” each year.

Raised in poverty by an itinerant preacher and his wife, MacArthur made his fortune in mail-order insurance.

Map of John D. MacArthur State Park
Map of John D. MacArthur State Park

Planning a visit to John D. MacArthur Beach State Park

  • Website for park
  • Admission: $5 per vehicle, up to eight people. $4 single occupant or motorcycle.
  • Parking: Ample and no extra charge beyond park admission
  • Alcohol: Not allowed. (Not even Dr. Munyon’s Paw-Paw Elixer.)
  • Pets: On leashes, but not at beach.
  • Hours: 8 a.m. to sunset.
  • Location: 10900 Jack Nicklaus Drive, North Palm Beach.
  • Contact: 561-624-6950
  • There is no camping at MacArthur Beach State Park.
  • Website for Friends of John D. MacArthur Beach State Park
Boardwalk through the jungle on Munyon Island, a part of John D. MacArthur Beach State Park. (Photo: David Blasco.)
Boardwalk through the jungle on Munyon Island, a part of John D. MacArthur Beach State Park. (Photo: David Blasco.)

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