Bring a new twist to a traditional family getaway with trail adventures
MARTIN COUNTY, FLORIDA – NOVEMBER 2015 – You’ve heard of surfing the waves and building sand castles, but what about beach hiking? This fall and winter, Martin County’s climate beckons visitors outdoors to explore various hiking trails which offer everything from rare wildlife to unique ecosystems. The easy-to-get-to-area encompasses the communities of Port Salerno, Stuart, Palm City, Jensen Beach, Indiantown, Jupiter Island, Hobe Sound and Hutchinson Island, offering beautiful beaches and 75+ parks – not to mention the most bio-diverse lagoon ecosystem in the Northern Hemisphere, the St. Lucie Inlet, all within two hours or less driving time of four international airports: Palm Beach, Ft. Lauderdale, Miami and Orlando. Here, building restrictions have limited structures to four stories, preserving breathtaking views throughout the county, yielding Old Florida charm accented with Key West style.
Stuart, the county seat of Martin County, was ranked #3 in the 2015 Annual Best Small Towns to Visit Guide by Smithsonian Magazine, Only in Your State ranked Stuart as one of the 8 Most Beautiful, Charming Small Towns In Florida and the area was also ranked #9 by House Beautiful in The 50 Most Beautiful Small Towns in America.
An eco-tourism haven, over 93, 000 acres of conservation land and parks are housed within the various communities that make up Martin County. Some trails, like ones at Jonathan Dickinson Park, shelter endangered species like the Florida scrubjay and gopher tortoise, while housing more common wildlife like bald eagles, deer and turtles. Martin County also has great birding, especially during the winter migration. The St. Lucie Inlet ecosystem provides habitat for over 4,300 species of plants and animals, including more than 30 threatened and endangered species such as manatees, wood storks, sand hill cranes and peregrine falcons.
“It’s an opportunity to explore our unique wildlife, and, every time you go out, it’s like a mini biology lesson,” said Deborah Drum, Martin County’s ecosystem restoration and management manager.
Drum said the sand trail at Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge is amazing. It is family friendly with a hilly, scrub brush environment that goes out to the Indian River Lagoon. One of Drum’s favorite memories happened at the refuge.
“I was with my family on the sand trail,” she said. “We had binoculars and we looked up at an osprey nest. A great horned owl with two baby owlets had taken residence. Sharing something like that with my kids was very powerful.”
Running through Jonathan Dickinson State Park is the Loxahatchee River, one of Florida’s two National Wild and Scenic Rivers. Mark Nelson, Jonathan Dickinson State Park manager, says he also enjoys instilling young people with the love of nature, especially since his love of the outdoors was cemented at an early age.
“All I ever wanted to be from a young age was a park ranger,” Nelson said. “When a kid comes out and I can show them an animal for the first time. To see the lights go on in their eyes after seeing that is really rewarding.”
“We don’t have the big, grand vistas,” Drum said. “The beauty we do have is a bit more subtle. As you get out there, you get more of a hiker’s eye.”
One of the benefits of hitting the trail and appreciating nature is becoming more environmentally conscious. Drum said her family has gotten into the habit of picking up trash every time they go on a hike.
“It’s about being a steward of the areas you enjoy,” she said. “If you enjoy it, you should protect it. Leave the trail better than it was when you got there. You leave that much more satisfied because you were able to give back.”
Take it to two wheels
“Biking is a good way to explore different parts of the County,” said Kevin Abbate, a competitive cyclist and Parks and Recreation director. “Walking is too slow, driving is too impersonal.”
Abbate said one of his favorite places to cycle is Indian River Drive and A1A near Sewall’s Point. He said those are some of the best roads because every 15 minutes or so you get an elevation change going up or down the bridges. Also, if you continue off A1A to MacArthur Boulevard, you can enjoy Bathtub Beach and the House of Refuge.
Jupiter Island is an easy ride with coastal scenery. Because only a few call the island home, including Tiger Woods and Celine Dion, traffic in the area is scarce. There are also some great places to visit, including Blowing Rocks Preserve, and miles of natural beach at the National Wildlife Preserve on the left side of the island.
Out west there are additional natural, scenic options. The Martin Grade, recently recognized as Florida’s 25th Scenic Highway, is a tree-covered ride which leads to the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail (LOST). According to VisitFlorida.com, LOST is situated high above the lake on the Herbert Hoover Dike, which provides a sweeping view of the lake and surrounding area. Since only some of the paths are paved, you will want to be riding a hybrid or mountain bike, and parts of the trail are closed at certain times for dike maintenance. You never know what you’ll see on a nature ride.
“At the Lake Okeechobee dike, gators were a big thing; probably the coolest thing I’ve seen is a panther,” Abbate said.
You can also mountain bike in Jonathan Dickinson State Park. Nelson said the park contains a unique resource, the ancient sand dune system called the Atlantic Coastal Ridge which contains the highest natural point south of the Lake Wales Ridge. Nelson said despite Florida not being known for mountains, you’re still in for elevation changes.
While in Martin County, check out these other points of interest:
Allapattah Flats: This is a vast area of marshes and flatwoods that provides recreational opportunities while protecting habitat for rare animals, particularly sandhill cranes, wood storks, and crested caracaras, and game animals such as white tailed deer and wild turkey. Enjoy a hike or bike ride on the five mile long trail system. Please keep in mind that season hunting is allowed and refer to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulations for hunt dates and area rules.
Blowing Rocks Preserve: Visitors can get a glimpse of one of Florida’s rarest surviving landscapes – an intact Florida dune habitat with beach sunflower, bay cedar, sea grape and sea oats. Three hiking trails and boardwalks, each up to 1/3 mile long, feature interpretative signs all along the paths. A photo-worthy sea grape path winds from hardwood hammock, through coastal strands, and into the beach dune before arriving at the “Blowing Rocks.” Swimming, snorkeling and scuba diving are allowed from the beach during listed hours. The Hawley Education Center provides tourists and the local community an opportunity to learn about efforts to protect native habitats, plants and animals in Florida and around the world.
The DuPuis Management Area: A 21,875-acre multi-use natural area located in southwestern Martin County, this property is interspersed with numerous ponds, wet prairies, cypress domes, pine flatwoods and remnant Everglades marsh. The area provides miles of hiking and horseback trails, an equestrian center, graded vehicle roads, backpack and group campsites and seasonal hunting. DuPuis is far from urban areas and its dark night sky lends itself to excellent stargazing. At this site you can explore the visitors’ center with interpretive displays, walk the nature trail and butterfly garden, fish from the partially covered pier, take a 15-mile, self-guided auto tour, picnic or enjoy primitive group and family camping. There are 22 miles of hiking trails, including a segment of the Ocean to Lake Trail (part of the Florida National Scenic Trail) and an equestrian campground with 40 miles of horseback riding trails. Special Saturday events or water resource programs are offered. Learn about these by calling (561) 924-5310.
Halpatiokee Park: The largest park in Martin County with 65 acres of active park land surrounded by 470 acres of wetland preserves. Many sport activities occur here on the soccer/football fields, tennis courts, softball/baseball fields and an open air roller-hockey rink. Bring your camera to catch wildlife along the many walking/hiking trails and 7.5 miles of mountain biking trails. You can bring your own kayak or canoe and explore the South Fork of the St. Lucie River (you may also rent them here). Halpatiokee is the Seminole Indian word meaning “Alligator Water.”
Hawks Hammock: This 432 acre natural area is a favorite for horseback riding, hiking and wildlife viewing. There are 4.5 miles of trails for horseback riding. As you enjoy the trail, look for the scenic marsh and wet prairie vistas and hawks perching on pine trees along the trail loops.
Indian RiverSide Park: Indian RiverSide Park (IRSP) is the premier family destination park in Martin County. Located in Jensen Beach, IRSP sits beach side on the Indian River Lagoon, with a walking path, fishing pier, interactive play fountain, beach, pavilions, banquet space and much more. Call to check availability of tours of the Mansion at Tuckahoe or Captain Henry Sewall’s Home. IRSP is also home to the U.S. Sailing Center of Martin County and The Children’s Museum of the Treasure Coast.
Jonathan Dickinson Park: Three scenic nature trails wind through the park, allowing visitors to explore the park’s various habitats. The Kitching Creek-Wilson Creek Trails start in the picnic area parking lot and lead the visitor through pine flatwoods and along the creeks. The Kitching Creek portion is a self-guiding trail with a brochure available. The Hobe Mountain Trail is a short, beautiful boardwalk that climbs up through the sand pine scrub to the observation tower, from which commanding views of the entire park and surrounding area may be had. The Camp Murphy Off-road Bicycle Trail System is a nine-mile network of mountain bike trails with loops rated for beginners all the way to “black diamond, experts only.” Bicycles may be rented at the River Store.
Kiplinger Nature Preserve: The 150 acre Kiplinger Nature Preserve is located off of Kanner Hwy, just south of SE Indian St. There is a trail and boardwalk system that leads you to an overlook at the South Fork of the St. Lucie River. Here you may see manatees, wading birds, osprey and bald eagles. This is a great spot for bird watching.
Maggy’s Hammock Park: Formerly named “Rocky Point Hammock Park,” Maggy’s Hammock has been called “an oasis of tropical hammock in a sea of suburbia.” Take a hike along the mile-long nature trail to view the different plants and wildlife. The trails are a part of the Great Florida Birding & Wildlife Trail.
Peck Lake Park: You can have a BBQ with family and friends at the pavilions in the front of the park or you can take a stroll on the 1/2-mile boardwalk that leads you to the edge of the Indian River and Peck Lake. A large pavilion will greet you on the deck overlooking the water where you can enjoy panoramas or hide from the sun while fishing or spotting wildlife. Wildlife you may see at the park includes many species of birds, bobcats, snakes, rabbits, manatee and dolphins.
Phipps Park: Relax and get away from it all at Phipps Park. Located along the Okeechobee Waterway, this 55-acre conservation park is easily accessible from the Florida Turnpike and Interstate 95 and offers fishing, nature trails, a boat ramp and camping. There are campsites that offer “hook-ups” for RVs and for those who like to rough it a little more there are primitive sites for tents. Visitors have spotted rare wildlife including burrowing owls, coyotes, otters and bobcats among other interesting flora and fauna. For camping reservations and more information call 772-287-6565.
Rio Nature Park: In the community of Rio, pull off to the side of the road on NW Alice St and park in front of the Rio Nature Park sign. Take a stroll through the two-acre natural area and discover a picnic area on the banks of the St. Lucie River. You will be able to see the city of Stuart on the other side of the river.
Timer Powers Park: Beautiful Timer Powers Park is located in Western Martin County on Citrus Boulevard in Indiantown and boasts 37 acres, with the scenic Okeechobee waterway bordering its east side. The park has many large oak trees and is listed as part of the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail. There are many pavilions and a Community Center available for event rental. The park also has a state-of-the-art covered equestrian arena that is the only public equestrian arena in Martin County. It is available to the public for general usage and organized horse shows. Timer Powers Park is the location of the annual Indiantown Rodeo which is one of the nation’s most prominent rodeos and dates back to 1947.
Zeus Park: Located in the heart of Hobe Sound, Zeus Park offers residents of the Zeus Park Community a place to bring family and friends. There is a playground for children, a picnic area and bike trails. There is also a large grass field for everyone to exercise, play games or just layout and enjoy a beautiful day.