Florida's natural beauty is a constant state of wonder. From Fort Caroline in Jacksonville in the northern part of the state, to the Dry Tortugas in the tropics, the national park units are as diverse as the state itself and provide a much more fascinating look at the state than the "other Florida."
In central Florida, Indian River is best known for its citrus fruit. It's also the home of hammock forests, estuaries, and Canaveral National Seashore. Located at the end of New Smyrna Beach, 15 miles south of Daytona Beach, you can reach it by getting off I-95 and driving through a residential area for about 13 miles.
How did this stretch of land resist development and how did the National Park Service get this jewel?
For that, we can thank the space program. In the 1950s, NASA bought land to “buffer their activities.” In other words, they didn’t want a housing development next to their launch pads. In 1963, they turned over some of the land to Merritt Island National Refuge. Other parcels became Canaveral National Seashore in 1975.
Both agencies manage the land according to their mission, but most visitors would have a hard time figuring out where the park ends and the refuge begins. Yet, if you think "preservation," you'll see that human artifacts are under the auspices of the National Park Service and wildlife-viewing areas are in the refuge.
Protecting Historic Artifacts
At Apollo Beach, the northern most entrance into the national seashore, the first stop should be the visitor center where you can pick up a Birds of the Seashore pamphlet with sketches and descriptions of the most popular birds in the area. Continuing on A1A, you'll see most of the human artifacts remaining from when this area was inhabited.
At 35 feet above sea level, Turtle Mound boasts the tallest shell mound in Florida. It's a midden, or a refuse pile of oyster shells left by Timucuan Indians. Archaeologists see this mound as a way of learning about the Timucuan people; not much else is left of their civilization. Most other oyster mounds were used for roadfill. The Park Service has built an elaborate boardwalk so visitors can “climb” the mound and not disturb it.
European settlers moved in the 1870s, attracted by the climate. Eldora was an example of a small community served by steamboats. For a while, Eldora was a prosperous place with a school and post office. Farmers grew pineapple, citrus fruit, and olives, which were shipped up north. By the turn of the 20th Century, the population may have been as high as 200. Once the railroad arrived on the mainland in the 1890s, dependence on steamboats became obsolete. Two years of killing frost that wiped out the orange crop was enough to get most homesteaders to move on.
The area turned to gentlemen farming and winter visitors. Only Eldora State House remains today, a fine example of a house built by one of the early landowners in 1913. The two-story residence was abandoned for 30 years, but has been renovated by Friends of Canaveral; the group offers regular interpretive tours.
Behind Eldora house is Castle Windy, another shell mound that looks like a garbage dump. A half-mile Castle Windy Trail goes from the road to the shores of Mosquito Lagoon. Pick up a trail guide at the visitor center. You'll see saw palmetto with thick roots and fronds. Majestic live oak form the overhead canopy. Yaupon, a plant related to the American holly and which was used to brew a black tea, grows here, too.
Heading south on Kennedy Parkway, the next stop should be Seminole Rest, a large mound of shells, dating back to 2000 BC. Unlike most of the shell mounds, the modern-day owners of this property refused to sell the shells for road building. Instead, they built two houses on the mound, one for themselves, and one for a caretaker. Today, you can take a short walk to the Intercoastal Waterway and around to see the two historic houses saved by the Park Service.
Continuing into Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge, you shouldn't miss the manatee observation deck on the northeast side of Haulover Canal. The manatees, attracted by warm water, look like they're lounging in the lagoon. They come to the surface just long enough to take their next breath, but don't show much of their bodies.
The other major attraction in the refuge is the Black Point Wildlife Drive, a 7-mile drive through an amazing wildlife viewing area of the wildlife refuge. The entrance fee is $5, but free with the America the Beautiful pass (Senior, Access, or Annual). Pick up a booklet, which details every spot around the wetlands.
This is one of best places to see many Florida birds, from sparrows to roseate spoonbills. The latter are large shore birds, with pink punky stripes on their white bodies. The water level are managed to encourage waterfowl and wading birds. The refuge raises and lowers the water in the impoundments to lure the right birds at the right time.
The one-way road attracts serious birders with large scopes on tripods. We have good binoculars, but they just can't compete with the professional equipment. Even so, we identified over 30 bird species--the area boasts over 300 species. You need to take the drive slowly and stop often, so often that it might be easier just to walk the seven flat miles.
Merritt Island Refuge volunteers offer beginning bird tours Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 9 am. For $3 ($3 - this is not a typo), you get a three-hour tour in a van with an experienced and enthusiastic birder. Call the refuge for reservations.
It's always a dilemma to decide on how much time to leave for such a visit. We spent a full afternoon at Cape Canaveral concentrating on human history and several hours the next day for birds and manatees, but it was not enough time. And if you want to swim and boat as well, you could make this area the anchor for a good vacation.